Immigrant Women Organizing: Avenues for Collective Advancements
Thursday, June 26, 2003

Dorothy Sue Cobble (Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Professor of Labor Studies, History, and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University) and Nancy Hewitt (Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University) co-convened an afternoon symposium on the history, prospects and strategies describing immigrant women's collective organizing efforts. Rutgers faculty and invited participants met at the IRW library.

In a dynamic conversation, Sue Cobble and Nancy Hewitt set out the themes established for the day, including the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the immigration of women workers from all parts of the world, noting historical parallels among these areas in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. They discussed the possibilities for a new unionism by new immigrants, women’s role at the heart of this new unionism, and the tensions within immigrant communities within cross-class, cross-cultural, and cross-gendered groups. Finally, the conveners proposed discussion involving truly international organizing and coordinating labor and organizing efforts internationally.


Ruth Milkman (Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at UCLA), Jennifer Gordon (Associate Professor at Fordham Law School), and Nahar Alam (Director of Andolan Organizing South Asian Workers) each gave brief papers to ground the balance of the discussion in the historical and contemporary experiences of immigrant women. 


Ruth Milkman situated the history of labor organizing in terms of the history of immigrant organizing and argued that the idea of immigrant workers as unorganizable is not empirically sustainable. She further noted that:

Generally, organizing is more successful today among low-wage workers, women, and workers of color than other groups of workers, especially when the group is homogenous (e.g., all women rather than men and women together). Indeed, new organizing within the low-wage labor circuit is often led by immigrant women, and immigrant workers are twice as likely to join unions as are men and women born in the United States. 

Immigrant networks, to which women are central, become the backbones of organizing networks in terms of referral hiring. Furthermore, immigrant groups often have a higher level of class-consciousness than do native-born workers. This class consciousness, together with the stigma of being a person of color from another country, contributes to a sense of non-belonging for immigrant workers, thereby creating a sense of solidarity and making them more open to the idea of unionization. 

In many cases, gender equality is an explicit goal of the new immigrants’ labor movement. The intersection of gender and immigration is at the forefront in the future of organized labor and its possibilities. 


Jennifer Gordon described three sets of tensions within workers centers regarding class, rights, and voice. 


  • Immigrants come from varied class groups even when they are of the same ethnicity. Class for immigrants has more to do with the class they had in their former countries than the class they have in the US. This complicates class identities and leaves immigrant workers to look for other essential bonds of identification, such as gender, language, race, and even marital status. However, identification with other workers often works back to the idea of class and a new class identity. 
  • Rights also become an identity at worker centers, especially for undocumented immigrants whose status seems to equal "no rights." Fighting for rights then becomes an identity that is organized around action.
  • Voice comes into the dynamic in that it is tied to power. Though immigrants may be “undocumented,” voice offers immigrant workers a new concept of citizenship as something claimed by contribution to the community rather than granted by the state. They are able to claim citizenship for themselves, and voice enables this. There is a tension between voice and power, however, since in the workplace voice does not equal power for low-wage immigrant workers. It is so hard to build power in workplaces that voice is too often a goal of its own. It is important to couple voice and power.

Nahar Alam is an immigrant worker and directs Andolan Organizing South Asian Workers. Her talk touched on the various reasons that women immigrate and their experiences in the United States. She noted the success of Andolan in creating "ripple effects" of immigrant women spontaneously helping one another out of exploitive employment situations.


  • When arriving on foreign soil, immigrants face language barriers. For immigrant domestic workers, there are also class issues between the worker and the domestic employer. Furthermore, the worker's native culture often attaches a stigma to working as a domestic servant.
  • Hence, there are cultural limitations not only in the work South Asian immigrants do, but also in the work of organizing to improve conditions for these very workers. Empowerment comes from workers sharing their experiences and organizing via bonds of culture and gender.
  • Andolan is involved in campaigns to expose the misuse of diplomatic immunity to protect diplomats who exploit their domestic workers, and is exploring ways to make the United Nations accountable for this situation.

Maria Ontiveros (Professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law) and Seung-kyung Kim (Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland) provided brief responses.


  • Maria Ontiveros picked up on the theme of the “beginning of new movements.” She considered whether we are at the beginning of a new civil rights movement. Citing the need to respond to immigrants at the bottom of the ladder, she proposed developing ways to imbue immigrant women workers with a sense of agency. 
  • Seung-kyung Kim spoke of the heterogeneity and class differences within groups of immigrants from the same nation, relying in particular on the experiences of Asian women. Though the most difficult barrier for organizing is often a result of language problems, there is still heterogeneity among immigrants who speak the same language. Intellectuals involved in labor organization--including middle-class intellectuals who were involved in South Korean labor movements--often ignore this nuance. Although laborers appreciate the involvement of intellectuals, it can detract from the success of the movement which can only be accomplished by the workers themselves. 


The afternoon concluded with a roundtable discussion among all the participants addressing a variety of themes, including the women’s movement and transnational activism, historical perspectives on immigrant women within the labor movement, ideas of individual versus collective rights and advancement, immigration policy, and questions of mobility and heterogeneity among immigrant workers. 

Please see the links to research by and about the panelists.

The Institute gratefully acknowledges the financial support of the Rockefeller Foundation for the June 26, 2003 symposium "Immigrant Women Organizing: Avenues for Collective Advancement" and for the larger project "Gender, Race, Ethnicity: Rearticulating the Local and the Global." 

Strategies for Gender Parity and Greater Democracy in the Labor Movement in US and Europe

By Claudia Fezzardi, IRW Graduate Editorial Assistant

On June 18, 2003, the IRW hosted a roundtable with twenty-five Danish trade union women on the topics of gender parity and democracy within the labor movement (see Agenda). The roundtable was aimed at comparing perspectives from Europe and the US, highlighting proposals and sharing ongoing projects from both areas. Participants came from various union organizations in Denmark, among them the Danish Federation of Trade Unions (LO), the Women Workers’ Union in Denmark (KAD), and the Danish Union of Public Employees

After some initial remarks, Dorothy Sue Cobble (Director, IRW) invited all participants to introduce themselves and their organizations.

The first panel, chaired by Adrienne Eaton (Director, Labor Education Center, Rutgers University), focused on the progress and challenges of gender politics within the trade unions. Nina Roth, a consultant for the Ligestillingssekretarietat, discussed the use of gender mainstreaming in Denmark as a new form of union education. The goal is to encourage shop stewards and union members to define what gender equality means and what steps can be taken at their workplace to reduce gender discrimination. Discussing gender in small groups at multiple workshops also may reduce the gap between the large number of women union members and their relatively limited presence in union governing bodies. The second panelist, Jette Likke (LO), described three networking projects-–called Starlet, Victoria and FL--implemented by LO in Denmark, which are aimed at improving women’s involvement in union leadership. These projects address different target groups of women in terms of age and professional advancement, but they all focus on concrete projects--work, personal development and the production of printed material illustrating the projects, which gives participants an opportunity for further evaluation and reflection. A discussion session following these presentations focused on the role played by class in women’s attainment of power positions and on the myths of “classlessness” which challenge women both in Denmark and the US.

After a short break, the second panel was introduced by Dorothy Sue Cobble, who described the process known as “feminization of unions” in the US. She pointed out a discrepancy between the increase in women’s membership within the unions and the persisting need for a corresponding change in the institutions and culture of trade unions. Cobble discussed the current crisis of labor unionization in the US-–less than 15% of the labor force is presently unionized, compared to 85% in Denmark--and highlighted its potential for growth, rooted in women’s ever-increasing presence and participation. The next presenter, Tamara Østergård (KAD), described her experience as a shop steward for the Women Workers’ Union in the cleaning services sector and her interest in ethnic women’s participation and protection. She highlighted the special problems faced by ethnic women workers in view of a marked policy of assimilation implemented by the current Danish government. After discussion of the panel presentations, the participants were invited to a tour of the Labor Center at Rutgers University, where Debra Lancaster (Director, Occupational Safety and Health Program) gave a presentation about the Center’s most recent projects. 

During the day, I took the opportunity to interview some of the participants, asking them about their union work and, more generally, about labor relations and unionization in Denmark. Both Jette Likke and Tamara Østergårdhighlighted the crucial role of women in Danish trade unions and Danish unionism’s choice of a less confrontational, more cooperative relationship with public officials, which enhances the unions’ chances of success in collective bargaining. Jette Likke discussed recent trends in Danish politics, focusing on the growing autonomy of the Danish Federation of Trade Unions from the Social Democratic Party. She also remarked that the concept of class in Denmark is much less clear-cut than in the US, due to a very limited salary gap and to the absence of obvious class markers and extreme class polarizations. On the other hand, Tamara Østergård signaled a large presence of non–Danish immigrant women at lower social and professional levels and emphasized the importance of unionization for these women. Jane Egholm (KAD) illustrated some of the criteria for KAD’s projects in developing countries, such as those in Ghana, Nepal and the Philippines. She explained that often projects start with an expression of interest by a representative of a certain developing country or geographical area –for example, during an international conference- and project implementation is based on previous contacts between the area itself and union organizations in Denmark. The main challenge faced by such projects is the need to educate and organize women whose efforts are at times discouraged by their own communities and families. 

Some of the topics discussed throughout the day were further explored in more informal conversations during the buffet dinner which concluded the event. The roundtable constituted a valuable opportunity to identify points of contact and contrast between unionization in Europe and the US. Differences include the disparity in unionization rate, the amount of state-funded support offered to workers, and what can be obtained through union bargaining. On the other hand, women’s constant and growing interest and participation in union work may certainly be counted among the points of contact between the two geographical and cultural areas. 

For more on Danish unions and women: 

Website of the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO):

Information on LO leadership programs for women in unions:

Website of the Women Workers’ Union in Denmark (KAD):

For more on US unions and women: 

Cobble, Dorothy Sue and Monica Bielski Michal. "‘On the Edge of Equality?': Working Women and the US Labour Movement.” In Gender, Diversity and Trade Unions: International Perspectives, ed. Fiona Colgan and Sue Ledwith. London: Routledge, 2002, 232-256. Available in PDF format at:

Negotiating Basics for Academic Women

Wednesday, October 27, 2010
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building
Sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and RU-FAIR/Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics


This workshop seeks to demystify the negotiation process for women in the academic job market, informing participants about the kinds of resources and perks that can be asked for and describing how these vary by discipline.


Panelists include:


Nina H. Fefferman (Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources; Co-Director, Tufts University Inititative for the Forecast and Modeling of Infectious Disease)
Lisa Klein (Professor II, Materials Science and Engineering; Former President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT)
Mary Rigdon (Assistant Research Professor, Department of Psychology and Department of Economics, Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science)
Allan Punzalan Isaac (Associate Professor of American Studies & English)


African Women and HIV/AIDS: Gendered Experiences in Senegal, South Africa, and Immigrant African Communities in Philadelphia

Wednesday, March 24, 2004
11:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.
Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building

Get a PDF version of the flyer.

A seed grant from the Rutgers Research Council jointly awarded to the Department of Women's and Gender Studies and the Institute for Research on Women spurred a consideration of African women's experiences with HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence.  The organizers gratefully acknowledge support from the Rutgers Research Council and the Office of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Rutgers and from the co-sponsoring entities: the Departments of Africana Studies and Anthropology, the Center for African Studies, and the Center for Women's Global Leadership.

Featured Speakers

Bernedette Muthien, Founder and Executive Director, Engender, South Africa
Muthien is the author of "Strategic Interventions: Intersections between Gender-Based Violence and HIV/AIDS" and "When Rights are Wronged: Gender-Based Violence and Human Rights in Africa." A participant in the 1999 Women's Global Leadership Institute hosted by the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers, Muthien's professional life has echoed the belief that the personal is political, and the global local, and hence her work has consistently centered on the issues of gender, human rights, and peace. Engender, a South African NGO, provides research and capacity building on genders and sexualities, human rights, justice, and peace to promote equity and social change.

Ellen E. Foley, Health and Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania
Foley is the author of "No Money, No Care: Women and Health Care Reform in Senegal" (Urban Anthropology, Studies of Cultural Systems & World Economic Development, 30:1, 2001) and an article in progress entitled "Negotiating Fertility and Reproduction: Women at the Crossroads of Islam, Development, and Wolof Culture in Senegal." Her dissertation, "In Sickness and in Health: Responding to Disease and Promoting Health in Senegal," addresses the impact of privatization and decentralization of the public health sector on rural and urban women's health with a particular focus on women's health knowledge as shaped by biomedicine, Islam, and local knowledge traditions. In addition to gender, power, and health issues in Senegal, her work focuses on health and social issues of African immigrant women in Philadelphia.

Julie Livingston, History, Rutgers University, moderator
Livingston is the author of "Pregnant Children and Half-Dead Adults: Modern Living and the Quickening Life-Cycle in Botswana" (Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 77:1, 2003) and "Reconfiguring Old Age: Elderly Women and Concerns Over Care in Southeastern Botswana" (Medical Anthropology, 22:2, 2003). Her work focuses on issues of health, healing, and the human body, while exploring questions about disability and able-bodiedness, gender and aging, the history of international health and development, and African medicine and nursing care.

The colloquium was planned in conjunction with Douglass College's conference Women in the Era of Globalization: Power and Gender on March 25, 2004, which includes the L'Hommedieu lecture by Mary Robinson (Director, Ethical Globalization Institute; former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1997-2002), and a panel moderated by Joanna Regulska and featuring Bernedette Muthien with other guests.


Negotiating Basics for Academic Women

Friday, November 30, 2012
11:30 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Ruth Dill Johnson Crockett Building
Sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and the Office for the Promotion of Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics

This workshop seeks to demystify the negotiation process for women on the academic job market, informing participants about the kinds of resources and perks that can be asked for and describing how these vary by discipline.

Panelists include:

Nina H. Fefferman (Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Natural Resources; Co-Director, Tufts University Inititative for the Forecast and Modeling of Infectious Disease)
Jeannette Haviland-Jones (Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Human Emotions Lab)
Helen Buettner (Associate Dean of Graduate Education & Research; Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering)
Cynthia Daniels (Professor, Department of Political Science; Associate Douglass Campus Dean)
Yolanda Martínez-San Miguel (Professor, Latino Studies and Comparative Literature; Director IRW)

Contact Us

IRW building

Institute for Research on Women

160 Ryders Lane
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

P   848-932-9072
F   732-932-0861
E   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.