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." 

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