Latino workers in t-shirts and casual long-sleeve shirts wear cloth masks and neon green baseball caps as they walk through a food store
KING CITY, CA - APRIL 27: Migrant farm laborers from Fresh Harvest working with an H-2A visa shop in town on April 27, 2020, in King City, California. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images)

According to news reports, a new labor movement is unfolding across the U.S.—fueled in part by anti-racist organizing, the pandemic, and the “Great Resignation.” Workers at high-profile companies like Trader Joe’s and Chipotle have recently voted to unionize, and coverage of union efforts at Amazon and Starbucks regularly dominates headlines. A recent poll found that 71% of Americans approve of labor unions, the highest Gallup has recorded on this measure since 1965. But something is missing from national conversations about America’s reckoning with labor: migrant workers.

Across labor-intensive industries pivotal to the nation’s growth and survival—hospitality, food service, agriculture, construction, manufacturing, meat and poultry processing, domestic service—migrant workers make up a bulk of the workforce and receive poverty wages, experience unsafe conditions, and face immigration-related retaliation. Undocumented workers in outdoor industries are also at the mercy of climate change and extreme heat, subjecting them to deadly working conditions where the ability to access water, shade, and rest breaks are still being legislated. If migrant workers are the bedrock of the American workforce, why aren’t they at the center of all labor organizing efforts? 

The reasons are complicated, according to Oscar Londoño, the co-executive director of WeCount!, a membership-led organization of low-wage immigrant workers and families in South Florida. 

“Every worker, regardless of industry or immigration status, should have the right to have what a union offers, which is guaranteed contractual rights that improve their wages, benefits, working conditions, and most importantly, gives them a voice in the workplace,” Londoño said. “But because of how our federal labor law has been structured and enforced—like the historical exclusion of agricultural workers from the right to organize under the National Labor Relations Act—we have seen this segmentation of labor organizing. There are workers who have the right to organize and pursue elections under the National Labor Relations Act, and there are workers who are excluded and are figuring out how to organize outside of our current laws.”

For decades now, migrant workers have created innovative labor organizing models outside of federal labor law, successfully increasing wages, benefits, and working conditions for segments of the working class that Londoño said have historically been deemed “unorganizable.” Worker centers, community unions, the Fair Food Program, the Milk with Dignity program, and the new Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC) on Protections for Immigrant Workers are in many ways migrant-led responses to one horrifying fact succinctly stated in a BRC report: “Many workers on the frontline of every major industry in this country are effectively exempt from any labor protections.”

There is no building worker power or reinventing and reimagining the labor movement without centering migrant workers, said Londoño, whose organization’s board of directors is composed of members who are democratically elected from WeCount!’s worker membership base and include farmworkers, day laborers, and domestic workers.

“If we can lift the floor and increase protections for these workers, it will improve the power of the working class across the board,” the co-executive director said. “Employers will only continue to find creative ways to union-bust or misclassify employees, which means we’re going to have to learn to do the kind of creative organizing that immigrant workers have been doing in some of the hardest-to-organize sectors. Immigrant workers are a model for organizing strategy across the labor movement, and it’s really time that people paid attention to their work as part of this re-emerging labor movement.” 

Turning the tide on workplace retaliation 

Earlier this summer, the Department of Labor (DOL) announced a new workers’ rights policy that not only proved to be a major victory for migrant workers, but one that was a direct result of their organizing for better workplace protections. 

The agency’s new policy is directed at immigrant workers involved in worksite labor disputes, providing guidance on how to seek DOL’s support to receive immigration-related prosecutorial discretion from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Effectively, this should mean that workers will no longer be targeted by immigration enforcement for coming forward with a labor complaint. 

Employers use the threat of detention and deportation to keep migrant workers from pursuing cases related to unsafe work conditions, wage theft, and a host of other abuses. Historically, employers have used DHS against migrant workers who speak out. Take, for example, the 2019 Mississippi poultry plant raids, one of the largest workplace enforcement actions in U.S. history. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained nearly 700 migrant workers across seven Koch Foods poultry plants in Morton. Advocates allege it’s not a coincidence ICE targeted these workers with immigration enforcement. 

In 2018, Koch Foods settled a $3.75 million lawsuit for racial discrimination, national origin discrimination, and sexual harassment against Latinx workers in one of the very same Morton facilities. According to the lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), supervisors “touched and/or made sexually suggestive comments to female Hispanic employees, hit Hispanic employees, and charged many of them money for normal everyday work activities.” Some undocumented workers at the Mississippi plant alleged in court documents that “supervisors threatened to turn them in to authorities if they spoke out about their concerns,” Reuters reported. August marked the three-year anniversary of the raids, and some families remain separated by the enforcement operation.

Under the Biden administration, DHS announced it would no longer conduct mass worksite raids. As part of his memo ending the practice, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas acknowledged immigration enforcement is often used to undermine workers’ rights. This was the development that triggered the convening of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Protections for Immigrant Workers, which led to multiple assemblies, public hearings, and demonstrations highlighting the extent of workplace abuse, wage theft, and violations of health and safety standards experienced by migrant workers in factories, warehouses, restaurants, and fields. 

On Dec. 8, 2021, the Blue Ribbon Commission hosted a public hearing in Washington, D.C., where workers from across the country spoke in front of over a dozen DHS officials and issued a report with a series of recommendations. On the ground, workers who confronted labor violations have tested the Biden administration’s new policies by submitting requests for deferred action, which protects workers from deportation for a limited time. 

In Texas, workers tasked with remodeling work on a large commercial apartment complex were robbed of a week’s worth of wages by their employer LM Carpet Cleaning Resurfacing & Power Washing. Their boss dodged the workers’ calls and other efforts to obtain payment. Eventually, the workers went to their employer’s home to demand their wages. While he wasn’t present, the employer threatened in a phone call to break his own car windows and tell the police the workers did it. According to Sean Goldhammer, the director of employment and legal services at the Workers Defense Project, this threat was not made in isolation.

“There were other times when the employer used his knowledge of workers’ immigration status to keep them silent and threaten them with calling ICE if they didn’t do what he wanted them to do,” Goldhammer said. “This is obviously a clear threat. These workers could experience immigration consequences for simply pursuing their right to be paid. Unfortunately, this is a pretty typical set of facts for undocumented workers in Texas’ construction industry.” 

Goldhammer said the Workers Defense Project, a community organization for low-wage, immigrant workers in the Texas construction industry, initially thought this was “another typical wage theft case.” But as information about the retaliation and immigration-based threats emerged, it was clear the workers could build on the organizing efforts of worker leaders nationwide and pursue other avenues under the Biden administration. 

“Under Texas state law, we don’t generally have protections against retaliation for workers, but because we are tapped into the efforts of worker advocates nationwide, we decided to give it a shot and actually request deferred action and work authorization from the National Labor Relations Board and get their support to pressure DHS to provide these protections,” Goldhammer explained. 

In May, Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, issued a letter about the case to DHS, seeking expedited immigration relief for the workers in the form of deferred action and employment authorization. 

“Workers’ labor rights should not be chilled by the fear of employer retaliation, including through attempts to trigger immigration or other law enforcement actions against workers asserting their labor rights,” Abruzzo wrote. “Employers evading labor laws regularly weaponize immigration to silence and intimidate their employees by retaliating against them through the possibility of immigration or other law enforcement actions. In workplaces similar to LM Carpet, fear of retaliation and immigration enforcement commonly impedes the NLRB’s ability to adequately prosecute labor violations committed by employers.”

Migrant workers have filed similar cases in other states, and while the workers in Texas are still awaiting a response from DHS, Goldhammer said, if successful, this could lead to a monumental shift for migrant workers who have been forced to stay silent about workplace abuse out of fear of retaliation. 

“The avenues for protection through the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Act are available to everybody, but they’re not extremely effective for undocumented workers in low-wage industries where employers take advantage of their immigration status to further push down the standards around workplace safety and pay and threaten to call ICE if workers assert their rights,” Goldhammer said. “But we are finally getting to a point where DHS may not just take a step back, but actually help affirmatively protect workers who are defending their labor rights. Any shift we see is thanks to immigrant workers who have fought for these protections for years.” 

Salvador G. Sarmiento is the national campaign director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), a pivotal organization that has spent two decades fighting for the rights of day laborers, migrants, and low-wage workers. Sarmiento told Prism that policies from federal agencies have been in conflict for too long, and it’s migrant workers who’ve been caught in the middle. 

“If we really want to reconcile the federal government’s policies on workers rights and on immigration, we can’t let immigration enforcement continue to undermine workplace rights,” Sarmiento said. “That has been our clear demand to the Biden administration—to make sure that DHS no longer undermines the mission of the U.S. Department of Labor.” 

One specific way to do that is to protect workers who denounce workplace abuses. When the worker in question is undocumented, this is where the missions of DOL and DHS come into conflict. 

“Basically the conversation these two agencies have is, ‘Do we protect this person and their workplace rights, or do we deport this worker?’ For 20 years, they’ve prioritized deportation over protecting workers’ rights and creating safer workplaces. But finally we’re taking a step in the right direction,” Sarmiento said. 

Farmworkers fight back 

Some of the most innovative labor organizing in the nation has been happening in the agricultural industry. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization, pioneered the design and development of the worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) paradigm, a worker-led, market-enforced approach to the protection of human rights in corporate supply chains. 

WSR takes shape in the form of the Fair Food Program, which ensures that migrant workers are directly involved in enforcing, monitoring, and designing workplace programs that provide protections through legally binding contracts among workers, tomato growers, and retail buyers that, if violated, can result in the program suspending growers and thus denying access to buyers. This can translate to the loss of millions of dollars in business. The Fair Food Program has successfully raised wages and improved workplace standards for thousands of farmworkers. The power of the program isn’t just that it creates a workplace monitoring program beyond anything that DOL is capable of doing, but also that it pushes corporations to assume responsibility for abuses against migrant farmworkers employed along their supply chains. Major corporations like McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Walmart participate in the Fair Food Program. 

Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a key leader in CIW who worked in the fields since the age of 11, said in an interview with Prism last year that changing the conditions of workers requires real commitments in the form of legally binding agreements—and consequences for corporations that don’t adhere to standards. 

“There is a lot of conversation around social responsibility, but not a lot of change,” Reyes Chavez said. “Agriculture is a place where we see conditions of modern-day slavery. This program is something that is working very effectively, and by that, I mean it is changing the reality and the material conditions of workers.” 

Magaly Licolli, an immigrant leader in the workers’ center movement since the 1970s, co-founded Venceremos, an organization rooted in the South that serves poultry workers and belongs to the Food Chain Workers Alliance, a coalition of over 30 worker-based organizations representing some 375,000 food workers across the U.S. and Canada. Venceremos adopted the WSR model pioneered by CIW that has since also expanded to Vermont’s dairy industry as part of Migrant Justice’s Milk with Dignity program. 

As reporter Olivia Paschal wrote, Licolli has “been denounced by Tyson Foods as a ‘radical union organizer,’ but Magaly Licolli doesn’t organize unions—she organizes workers.” In an interview with Prism last year, the organizer said that Venceremos was built by and continues to be led by immigrant women in the poultry industry. Strategies usually used by labor unions “don’t work in this context,” Licolli said. Targeting the supply chain pushes corporations into legally binding agreements requiring their adherence to a worker-created code of conduct that mandates standards for pay and workplace protections. While this model has existed for decades, Licolli said that many still fail to see the strategy as the future of labor organizing. 

“You can mobilize workers and organize strikes to demand companies change their behavior, but none of that ensures permanent changes—permanent change doesn’t happen unless you secure legal agreements that outline the consequences a company will face for treating workers poorly,” Licolli said. 

Right now, it’s too easy for companies to wiggle out of accountability—even when workers die on the job. Earlier this year, The Oregonian reported that two Oregon businesses whose outdoor workers died as a result of last year’s heat wave have appealed the fines imposed by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division. One company is placing blame on the worker for his own death. 

Workers like Rosa say they are invested in “real change” because there are too many loopholes that allow employers to remain unaccountable for unsafe work conditions. Rosa, who is using a pseudonym, is a worker leader in Migrant Justice and a member of the Milk With Dignity program’s coordinating committee. She spoke with Prism last year after a long work day on a dairy farm in Vermont, where she has lived since migrating to the U.S. from Chiapas, Mexico, over 10 years ago. 

Before members of Migrant Justice did outreach on Rosa’s farm, she said she largely felt powerless in her workplace, but through political education and leadership development, she’s become a fierce defender of workers’ rights. 

“I’ll be honest, when I first worked on the farm, I had no idea what our rights were—and immigrant workers experience so much discrimination,” Rosa said. “You feel like you have to stay silent and just accept the conditions. Looking back on it, I saw and experienced abuse. I saw others mistreated. It takes time to learn your rights and to learn how to defend your rights when you are not from this country, but now that I know, things are different. I guess you can say that me and my compas are now leaders in this organization.” 

As of 2019, the Milk with Dignity program is fully operational in Ben & Jerry’s northeast dairy supply chain, covering 100% of the company’s dairy volume—not to mention 64 dairy farms in Vermont and New York. Rosa said these wins empower other migrant workers to join the workers’ rights movement.

“Many people are afraid to speak out because of retaliation or they are afraid to lose their jobs, but I tell these people silence isn’t an option because the powerful already want to pretend we don’t exist. They don’t want to recognize that our community is here, and we deserve respect and dignity for doing this hard work. I had to learn to lose my fear, and that’s really what I help people in my community do. I help them lose their fear and get the information and education I’ve had so that we can all speak up and be stronger together,” Rosa said. 

“They become their own movements” 

Building the leadership of migrant workers most impacted by workplace problems has been a key strategy for WeCount!. This is why farmworkers, plant nursery workers, day laborers, and construction workers are leading ¡Qué Calor!, a campaign fighting for life-saving protections for farmworkers and other outdoor workers who are on the frontlines of climate change in South Florida. There are no federal heat standards, and heat stroke is a real risk for outdoor workers. 

“A lot of what we call ‘organizing’ over the last couple of decades isn’t in fact organizing; it’s advocacy and mobilization,” Londoño said. “There are not enough organizations actually dedicated to building a base—and by that I mean building organizations where working-class people take on actual roles in the organization, grow their leadership capacities, and collaborate with other workers to identify the problems in their industries and develop and fight for the solutions. I think nationally, that’s where our movements are still weak because without this kind of base building, we can’t increase living and working standards for all workers.” 

Alexis Pérez Nava has spent years organizing with migrant restaurant workers in Southern California, a region of the country with laws protecting workers that other states don’t have. But depending on where migrant workers are based, they may or may not have the support they need to fight unjust—and often illegal—workplace practices. For example, Los Angeles has over 20 worker centers, Pérez Nava said. Orange County has zero.

As a former restaurant worker, Pérez Nava said that his organizing work in the restaurant industry allowed him to make a “transformative shift” in terms of how he thinks about labor organizing. 

“If we want to transform exploitative industries like the restaurant industry into living-wage industries that offer dignity and respect to workers, we have to support the leadership of immigrant workers,” Pérez Nava said. “These workers experience the most exploitation, but I’ve seen the ripple effects it creates when their confidence is built and they learn their rights. They become their own movements. It’s really powerful to see.”

This is also one of the many benefits of worker centers—they’re not just focused on labor contracts or getting a union. They help workers organize in a way that develops their leadership. 

“That’s really critical because at the end of the day, they’re at the job, and they really have to depend on each other not just to create power, but to be able to improve working conditions,” Pérez Nava said. 

Maria, who is using a pseudonym, is a longtime restaurant worker who learned about workers’ rights from Pérez Nava. At the time, she was deeply unhappy with an unjust situation unfolding at the Oaxacan restaurant in Orange County where she worked, but she had no idea that the wage theft she and her co-workers experienced was actually illegal. Armed with new knowledge about her rights, Maria eventually filed a claim and successfully got back wages for herself and three co-workers. The win solidified her commitment to workers’ rights. She now educates other workers on their legal protections, recruits them to file investigations, and she even started her own worker co-op.

The organizations and efforts outlined here are just a glimpse into the migrant-led labor organizing happening across the country—truly innovative work that even encompasses community strategies to help workers access health care. Undocumented labor organizing is community care, mutual aid, and workers’ rights all wrapped into one. According to Maria, organizing undocumented workers comes with many challenges—challenges that only other undocumented workers understand and can help overcome. 

“Of course we are afraid of retaliation, and of course we are afraid to lose our jobs—finding a job that pays a livable wage is very hard when you are undocumented,” Maria said. “I think a lot of organizations don’t offer [undocumented workers] support because these challenges are too hard. But that’s why we have to learn about workers’ rights. Knowing our rights helps us get past the fear, and then we don’t have to wait for help. We can fight for ourselves.”

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.