Transnational Labor Citizenship
86 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2006
In a year in which the United States has been both riveted and riven by the debate over immigration policy, this Article offers a radical new proposal for how to structure cross-border migration. Over a million new immigrants arrive in the United States each year. The majority are undocumented, a fact brought home by the massive numbers of migrants who took to the streets to protest proposed changes in U.S. immigration policy this spring. It is in the workplace that the impact of large numbers of newcomers is most keenly felt. But the labor movement, the civil society institution charged with addressing the degradation of low-wage work, has been deeply conflicted over how to respond. On the one hand, with undocumented immigrants representing up to half the workforce in some industries, unions recognize that they must organize the undocumented in order to enforce basic workplace standards for all workers. On the other, unions fear being plowed under by the competition that those "outsiders" represent, and they continually (but futilely) seek to restrict the future flow. In a world of porous borders, the fortress model of labor citizenship divides workers against each other, with devastating results for American workers and migrants alike.
This Article proposes a way out of the dilemma. In it, I develop the idea of transnational labor citizenship, a new approach to structuring cross-border labor migration that draws on, but goes beyond, current theories of transnational political citizenship. Transnational labor citizenship would open the fortress of labor and of the nation-state to a constant flow of new migrants, through a model that links permission to enter the country to membership in a network of cross-border worker organizations rather than to employment by a particular enterprise. In exchange for authorization to work, migrant worker members would commit to the core value of labor citizenship: solidarity with other workers in the United States, expressed as a commitment to refuse work under conditions that violate the law or labor agreements. Inspired by experiments already underway in the United States, Mexico, and Canada, the transnational labor citizenship proposal would create structures that respond at once to the desires of migrants for jobs and to the democratic aspiration of preserving decent work in this country.
Keywords: immigration, labor, union, organizing, transnational
JEL Classification: K31
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation