Come Together

Published in the Winter 2012 issue of SSA Magazine

How one union organized to unite African-American and immigrant workers

Conventional wisdom says that there is inevitable tension between working-class African- American and immigrant workers because they’re in direct competition in the labor market. But that’s not necessarily so, according to SSA Associate Professor Virginia Parks, who points to success by a Chicago union in bridging the divide.

“When you look at the wage rates, the percentage of the population living in poverty, the types of jobs they do, there’s actually a wider gap between native-born Latinos and immigrants than there is between immigrants and African- Americans,” says Parks, who has recently finished a manuscript, “Contesting the Racial Division of Labor: Representation and Union Organizing Among African- American and Immigrant Workers,” with Dorian T. Warren, an assistant professor at Columbia University.

Parks and Warren’s research focused on organizing activities of Chicago’s hotel union, UNITE HERE Local 1. Immigrants represented 41 percent of workers in the hospitality industry in Chicago in 2000, and African Americans 23 percent. In addition to ensuring that union leadership reflected the ethnic and racial breakdown of the workforce of each site, UNITE worked to find common cause between the two groups, including activities that emphasized the common history of migration. The union also looked for opportunities to balance its support of each group’s goals. Because its immigrant members were passionate about immigration reform, UNITE organized and advocated on behalf of the issue at the federal level, for example. For African Americans, who were understandably less concerned about immigration rules, the union pushed in contract negotiations in 2006 for hiring practices that would add more African Americans to the workforce through outreach to the community, training programs and more.

“Job displacement has been an issue for African-American workers in this sector, so getting provisions in the contract was a very important step,” Parks says. “We know from research that anything that formalizes hiring practices helps African Americans because these practices guard against discrimination.”

After similar contract negotiations in Boston and Las Vegas, partnerships with the local government has helped those cities move further toward enacting the provisions than in Chicago, at least so far. “But from my experience watching the union, it’s clear that the efforts have had an effect. Both groups understand each other better, and they turn out to support each other’s interests,” Parks says. “It takes a lot of effort, a lot of organizing to make it happen, but it can happen.”

— Carl Vogel