Unions Take Immigration Debate to the Car Wash

It could be an important chance to speak up -- and stay relevant.

By Jamilah King Sep 07, 2010

Are labor unions still relevant? That seems to be the prevalent question on the minds of both workers and employers these days, especially when it comes to the pitched battle over education reform and the dismal outlooks for blue collar and low wage workers.

But the New York Times is reporting on labor’s new strategy to tap into a long overlooked sector of the country’s workers. And where’s it happening? At the car wash:

As organized labor’s ranks continue to decline, unions are looking increasingly to low-wage service workers as a source of growth, convinced that these workers — car washers, janitors, nursing home aides, security guards and pharmacy clerks — will be eager to join. In some ways, union leaders say, this campaign parallels previous ones in which unions organized thousands of immigrant janitors in Houston and Los Angeles and substantially lifted their wages.


The leaders of the unionization drive acknowledge that success will be difficult. "These immigrant workers are being beaten down by the system," said Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers. "They deserve a chance of having a voice at work, and we are good at helping people do that."

The news comes just as the Los Angeles Times is reporting that California’s losing its union jobs faster than any other state. Of course, the unions’ success will hinge in large part on their ability to reconcile the longstanding racial tensions between labor and immigration. The US labor movement has had a long, fraught history of overlooking struggles faced by workers of color, and the anti-immigrant fervor that’s sweeping the moment could force them to make a very declarative stance.