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“Immigrant Worker Narratives and the Disciplines of Liberal Legalism.”

by Paul Apostilidis


My paper is entitled “Immigrant Worker Narratives and the Disciplines of Liberal Legalism.” It is part of a larger book project that attempts to uncover new prospects for shifts toward radical-democratic activism in the U.S. labor movement, due to the rapidly growing population of immigrant workers in the United States.


I focus particularly on the limitations and opportunities that the legal environment has posed for recent, radical-democratic activism among immigrant workers in the U.S. meatpacking industry.


This paper deals with a local union, Teamsters Local 556, which until recently represented about 1,700 workers at a major beef-processing plant in the Pacific Northwest owned by Tyson Foods. In 1999, when another giant meatpacking firm, Iowa Beef Producers, or IBP, owned the plant, over three-quarters of these mostly Mexican immigrant workers staged an illegal wildcat strike. Long-simmering anger over appallingly high rates of job-related injuries at the plant combined with more immediate outrage over the company’s insistence on eliminating workers’ pensions in the contract negotiations that were in progress at the time. And this ignited widespread enthusiasm for the protest action, which lasted six weeks.


After the strike, the focus shifted toward legally sanctioned avenues of struggle. The strike leaders won election to the local union’s principal offices, ousting an “old guard” Anglo leadership. They then instituted a new regime of local union democracy that included participatory and bilingual meetings and vastly expanded members’ voting rights. They also established new ties with progressive groups from the local to the transnational levels, and began challenging in earnest the company’s mistreatment of workers. In a short period of time, this local union and in particular its principal officer, processing worker Maria Martinez, became the leading voices nationally for immigrants in Teamsters for a Democratic Union or TDU, the longest running rank and file democracy organization within U.S. organized labor today. But in the midst of contract negotiations, courtroom battles, and federally mandated union “de-certification” elections several years later, the union fell apart. Earlier this year, Local 556 was abolished by a vote of its own members.


In the aftermath of the Local’s destruction, it is tempting to ague that the union failed because of its growing preoccupation with legalist activism, after the initial flowering of extra-legal mobilization. This is precisely the inference we would draw in light of recent, influential arguments by Wendy Brown and other political theorists in the United States who criticize how legalism on the left has fostered what Brown terms, drawing on Nietzsche, “the politics of ressentiment.” Such politics, according to Brown, “fixes the identities of the injured and the injuring as social positions.” It further “powerfully legitimizes law and the state as appropriate protectors against injury and casts individuals as needing such protection by such protectors. Finally,” she writes, “this project seeks not power or emancipation for the injured or the subordinated, but the revenge of punishment.” In the process, such politics precludes “freedom of the kind that seeks to set the terms of social existence”; freedom that refuses to meekly conform to the normative political identities prescribed by the law; freedom that instead strives to create identities and social processes anew. Such freedom, moreover, would both depend on and invigorate deliberative, and collectively and individually self-generative, political engagement.


Brown’s pessimism about activism oriented toward legal struggle contrasts markedly with Local 556’s and TDU’s steadfast belief through the very end that legalist forms of activism were in no necessary sense self-defeating. Rather, these workers strategized that taking on legalist endeavors like contract negotiations, contract-based grievance processes, and lawsuits could not only secure concrete benefits for injured individuals but also build participatory spirit for a grassroots movement. Little by little, the theory went, workers who began to understand that they had legal rights would start standing up for themselves. Then they would assist other workers in doing likewise, both as individuals and eventually as part of a burgeoning solidaristic, responsible, rank-and-file force.


But did the hegemonic dynamics of these workers’ terrain of struggle perhaps foster a “politics of ressentiment” that undercut this project of democratization? Or did the disciplines of legalist contestation instead support this endeavor in certain ways? Here, I want to argue that the picture is more complicated than both Brown and the union’s leaders would have us suspect. For the potential of legalist activism to incite or foreclose radical-democratic politics does not only depend on the institutionalized features of this landscape of conflict and their regulative effects on political identity. Rather, the character of the workers’ struggle in legalist avenues of action is over-determined by narrative forces that construct identity not only with reference to the subject-positions associated with specific legal rights but also in relation to the wider ambit of workers’ experiences – especially those concerning immigration. Thus both hegemony and the potential for counter-hegemonic initiatives arise out of a dialectic between the cultural “common sense” of social agents and groups and the institutional spheres where that common sense may acquire truth-value by gaining expression in everyday activity.


To preview the argument, then: by examining this interaction between narrative and institutional field, I identify operations of hegemony under the former collective bargaining arrangement that elicited workers’ consent to the relations of production and the political-legal order legitimating those relations. And these means of consent did in many ways stimulate and depend on the politics of ressentiment that Brown laments. They did so, however, in ways mediated by broader narratives shared by the workers about their struggles as immigrant workers and union activists. This same mediation, in turn, enabled the workers to formulate real if limited challenges to this hegemonic order through their legalist engagements. At the same time, as I will show, this convergence of cultural narrative and legalist environment not only yielded very weak support for such challenges – it also made the workers gravitate toward a defense of the individualizing, normalizing aspects of the contractual arrangement, and then finally toward a posture of effective consent to the self-annihilation of this legalist regime through the legal dismemberment of the union.


Nevertheless, there are subordinate – or insubordinate, as it were – elements of the workers’ narratives, pieces that never did fit too well within the established scheme of hegemony and that come into sharper relief with the passing of this regime. The wide-ranging biographical and transnational scope of these narratives gives leaders the chance, now, even without the union, to encourage a cooperative process of memory re-formation among these workers. Such radical memory work would involve exposing these insubordinate strands of narrative and designing new modes of practical activity capable of dialectically reinforcing them and being strengthened by them. This effort to redeem the past through its political invigoration of the present, however, should probably avoid an exclusive dependence on legalism.





Let me now briefly describe the two main narrative patterns I encountered when my assistant and I interviewed thirty-nine immigrant meatpackers in 2002-2003 about their experiences as immigrants, workers, and unionists. The men we spoke to consistently described immigration as a proving ground for their capacity to be sturdily self-reliant – to take care of themselves, and to protect themselves against those who sought to harm or take advantage of them. This same determination to be self-sufficient guided their approach to the work they did in the slaughterhouse as well as their actions challenging corporate authority with the union. So somewhat counter-intuitively, their ardent commitment to self-defense ended up infusing rather than defusing their passionate dedication to collective action with other workers to advance, safeguard, and enforce their rights.


It also became clear that a certain structurally unstable but practically functional, racial-nationalist identity enabled this process of translation to happen. For these workers, immigration involved performing an economic self-reliance that these men associated with being an authentic “American,” “Mexican,” or “Latino” – the labels and referents are multiple but overlapping, and they differentiate the men from groups of “Others” whom they define as Anglo, black, or European. A classic example of this comes from the comments of one leader named Lucio Moreno. Moreno repeatedly emphasizes his personal work ethic, saying: “I don’t live for free – I pay with my sweat, to eat, to live. If I want to live well, I have to work harder. No one is giving me anything. I’m the one who’s earning it.” And when racist whites in a convenience store insult him by calling him a “wetback,” a term denigrating immigrants who cross into the United States illegally by fording the Rio Grande, he responds by saying: “Now, I’m not a very refined person, but I’m not lazy. So I told him, ‘If I go back to Mexico, why don’t you go back to Europe? I’m more American than you, because I’m actually from this continent. You all are laying the blame on us Latinos. We were here already. You’re the ones who are the wetbacks! – and when you got here, other people cared for you – the Indians who were natives of this place.’”


On the one hand, precisely by joining self-reliance to racial nationalism, this narrative encourages a kind of cultural solidarity that bears political fruit in terms of participatory, militant, deliberative, and individually and collectively self-generative action – actions like waging the strike or participating in union political education projects, in which Lucio Moreno consistently played a leading role. On the other hand, because of this racial-nationalist undercurrent, these very activities end up circumscribing radical-democratic possibilities in several ways. They promote a racially and nationally exclusivist sense of who the collective agent of struggle is. They intensify workers’ investments in bourgeois, economistic goals such as earning “fair wages” for hard work, since such individual success is essential to proving one’s racial authenticity. And they also imagine a role for the ideal protagonist in immigrant worker struggles that is defined in masculinist terms.


The women among the activist corps in Local 556, in turn, primarily talk about their experiences with migration, work, and union involvement as allowing them to demonstrate their devotion to their families. And once again, racial-nationalist sentiments furnish the narrative lynchpin that allows one’s efforts to prove oneself as a responsible family member to enliven rather than to foreclose militant, participatory activism. For these women, certifying racial-nationalist identity usually depends on performing a script of self-abnegation and suffering for the good of others, especially children.


María Chávez, for instance, is a processing worker and union activist who describes herself as “one hundred percent Mexican” even though she is now a U.S. citizen. She emphasizes the deep connection she still feels to Mexico in terms of the “sentimientos” or moral and religious sensibilities she tried to teach her children while they were growing up north of the border. Maternal self-“sacrifice,” too, is clearly a vital element of how she conceives of herself as an immigrant parent and an immigrant worker. Now that her sons have finished college and are working in banking and insurance offices, she says that their achievements are “the reward for all that we have suffered” – from the dangers and miseries of her border crossing to low wages, injury, and humiliation in her twenty years at Tyson. Women’s self-denying devotion to their families has been associated with the assertion of racial pride in Mexico for centuries. It is reflected in the potent yet hybrid symbolism of La Virgen de Guadalupe, which celebrates the faith of the colonizers even as it re-composes it by adorning the mother of Jesus with images from traditional indigenous religion. María Chávez’s vision of Mexican motherhood contains similar racial tensions and ambivalences. Her references to sentimientos, for example, evoke the “articulation of race, social status, and religiously grounded beliefs of family honor and respect” that historically has buttressed the “pigmentocracy” in Mexican culture.


The narrated desires of women like Chávez to ensure the wellbeing of their families, and in the process re-certify the authenticity of their “Mexican” identities, have motivated them to make their private struggles public – for example, to lead fellow workers in filing joint lawsuits against the company for violating wage and hour laws and in insisting on better medical care for their injuries, as Chávez herself as done. But at the same time, these maternalist desires constrain their willingness to challenge patriarchal ideologies of domesticity. They also supplement the presuppositions of racial-nationalist uniformity in the union culture that the men’s narrative of self-reliant individualism promotes. Finally, they sanctify what I would call an intergenerational exchange relation, in which parental self-sacrifice for wages in the present allows the children’s upward class mobility in the future. And this blunts the radical edge of the political-economic demands their union can lodge against Tyson.


Altruistic self-denial, however, is not the only basis of Chávez’s determination to fight for better working conditions at Tyson. In addition, she occasionally voices a passionate and dissonant hope for a more fulfilling work life for herself and her co-workers, in the here and now. She says: ““To work in a clean, healthy environment…that’s a thing I’d like to see all workers striving for…. How beautiful it would be to work in a nice place where one didn’t have to say: ‘I have to stay on here because I need to keep bringing home a paycheck.’ No – to feel satisfied.” As I listen to Chávez, I hear her evoking a notion of labor that resembles a Marxian notion of self-activity, a vision of the family that foregoes maternal self-abnegation for a more mutualist ethic, and a conception of politics that is solidaristic rather than individualist, and creative rather than reactive, disengaging from the politics of ressentiment. This moment of inconsistency illustrates the general tendency in the interviews for the women’s narratives of struggle to offer a more explicit basis, in comparison to the men’s, for contesting the racialized, gendered, and class-based components of hegemony that the narrative itself in other respects reinforces.





Now, as I have argued, the political consequences of these narratives depend on the ways that institutional spheres enable the narratives to supply a functional common sense orienting workers’ everyday lives – or prevent them from doing so. A great many of these institutional components do indeed help provide a practical basis for the lived truth-value of the narratives. So, for example, the workers’ 1999 contract provided a panoply of seniority-based rights related to guaranteed work hours, vacations, layoffs, and medical benefits. It also institutionalized a system of applying for what were called “bid jobs” through the company’s internal labor market. In the 2004 contract negotiations, the union sought to strengthen these rights in a variety of ways. My point is that the worker has the opportunity to experience himself as a self-reliant individual, or as a mother who can provide for the economic needs of her family, by self-consciously applying for bid jobs or exercising the privileges of seniority as rights that are grounded in a legitimate system of plant governance.


Both self-reliance and parental devotion, in turn, can be reinforced when workers act on their rights to defend themselves and their jobs in the face of injury or mistreatment. Here again, the legal apparatus of the plant helps to verify the plausibility of the narratives, especially through the contract’s elaborate procedures for workers to file individual grievances and discrimination claims against the company. Again, in 2004 the union tried to expand these rights, for instance by proposing the expedited handling of grievances for sexual or racial harassment and the addition of disability, sexual orientation, and union activity to the list of unacceptable reasons for discrimination.


This practical validation of the narrative in the institutional field thus enabled workers’ political subjectivity to take shape pretty much according to the terms laid out by the ideals of self-reliant individualism and family devotion. And as I have suggested, this subjective orientation was not confined to the mode of the politics of ressentiment, although it displayed many characteristics of the latter. So for example, the union’s main leaders devoted a great deal of effort to encouraging workers to file grievances when supervisors verbally abused them. They trained workers in utilizing their legal rights to get a second medical opinion, when company doctors provided superficial treatment to their injuries. And they intensified workers’ investments in these rights, and in the subject-positions mapped out by the exercise of such rights, when the union fought to elaborate them further in the 2004 contract negotiations. When they did these things, the Local’s leaders were prompting workers to understand themselves, the company, and the state in terms of the identities prescribed by what Brown calls “the economy of perpetrator and victim.”


However, these leaders also consistently viewed these conflicts as opportunities to fuel the growth of a democratic, rank-and-file movement by enabling individuals to take the first “baby steps” toward self-defense, hoping that ultimately they would collaborate in a collective effort to change their working conditions. And they did have some success doing this. Lucio Moreno, for example, confirmed that the numbers of worker-leaders began to swell as workers began exercising their contractual right to have union representatives accompany them when they filed grievances, and then learned how to do the same thing for other workers. Probably the most dramatic push to make legalist activism fuel the movement for rank and file democracy, however, was the “contract campaign” the union waged in 2004. Instead of reserving the tasks of determining priorities and conducting negotiations for attorneys and officers, Martinez and the other leaders strove to get as many members involved as possible. They conducted open mass meetings, facilitated public deliberation over contract goals, and had the rank and file nominate and elect the bargaining committee members from among the rank and file itself.


On the first day of negotiations, this committee, which included a number of individuals who spoke no English, startled the Tyson representatives by placing on the table a detailed, precise, 75-page document containing the union’s proposals. In a situation where silence and deference were expected of them, they instead declared themselves to be confident and capable of coming up with their own vision for how their workplace ought to be governed. In that moment, and in the preceding campaign, the workers were thus performing a kind of political subjectivity that Brown finds inconsistent with legalist strategies. It is quite consistent indeed, however, with the workers’ narratives of their struggles as immigrants whose dedication to self-reliance and motherly responsibility leads them to form common cause with one another. Hence, the confluence of narrative and institutional sphere not only reinforced but also undermined the ordinary operations of hegemony.


At the same time, however, the limitations of this disturbance of the hegemonic field were readily apparent in the 2004 contract campaign and negotiations. First, virtually all the activists who participated in the campaign as well as all the bargaining committee members were Mexicans. So the nearly twenty percent of the unionized workers at the plant made up of immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia, and other countries, as well as African Americans, were essentially not part of the effort.


Second, when the company responded to the workers’ bold initiatives with hostility, contempt, and a hardened resolve to break the union, workers retreated to a defense of those contract proposals most conducive to the de-politicizing dynamics Brown criticizes. Instead of pursuing their visionary proposal for worker participation and leadership in redesigning a safe and healthful workplace through a plant ergonomics committee, for example, the union narrowed its focus to preventing health benefit cuts and increasing guaranteed work hours. Fighting for these provisions certainly was consistent with the workers’ narratives of individual self-sufficiency and family devotion, but in a way that reflected the tendency of the racial nationalist elements of these narratives to circumscribe the radical character of the workers’ struggle.


Nevertheless, in other vital ways the unfolding of the collective bargaining process actually stymied rather than reaffirmed the practical validation of these immigrant narratives in the legalist institutional sphere. Tyson pursued the union’s decertification with the full support of the law, which allowed it to conduct a full-scale anti-union campaign, furnished no credible deterrent to their capricious conduct in bargaining, and permitted them to intimidate workers by threatening that the plant would close if workers pressed their contract demands or voted to retain the union. In short, Tyson systematically denied recognition to the workers of their status as the bearers of rights under a regime of supposedly impartial law, in the process exposing that legal apparatus as very partial indeed. Whether these workers were more intent on proving themselves as self-reliant individuals or dedicated mothers, this denial of recognition can only have undermined their constitution as subjects through the vindication of those rights claims.


In other words, workers’ participation in this scheme of hegemony ironically undermined this arrangement itself, along with the identities contingent upon its reproduction. Instead of either hegemony or counter-hegemony, that is, legalist activism ended up yielding something more akin to what Michael Burawoy evocatively terms “hegemonic despotism.” The more strenuously the union joined the battle on legalist terrain, the more it became entangled in a struggle neither to achieve any widening of social and political democracy, nor even to reaffirm the individualist and de-politicized status quo, but rather to minimize the damage done to it through that very process and to ensure its own bare survival. By continuing to participate in the process, the workers effectively expressed consent to this self-cancellation of the former hegemonic order. Doing so, however, has left them bereft of a crucial institutional basis for practically verifying the narratives that render interpretable their years of struggle as immigrant workers.





I view this moment as one neither entirely of promise, nor wholly of peril, for these workers. As I have shown, it would be misguided to applaud the loss of the union and the shutting down of legalist routes of activism as a positive development, given the humble but tangible openings toward radical democracy that these forms of struggle, refracted by the narratives, made possible. At the same time, the current institutional vacuum for worker protest might enable the secondary themes in stories like that of María Chávez to stand out more clearly. It might also provide more expansive latitude to experiments in validating them as “common sense” through practical activity. To be sure, legalist struggle provided the grounds in everyday experience not only for Chávez’s maternalism but also her destabilizing of its racial-nationalist, bourgeois-capitalist, and patriarchal implications through her conception of fulfilling work disengaged from the reifications of wage labor. Given the turn toward “hegemonic despotism,” however, gearing future efforts solely toward reestablishing the union and re-engaging struggles over legally ordained rights would likely prove self-defeating. Doing this while also organizing outside established channels, however, could sustain the insubordinate elements of Chávez’s narrative in alternative ways, and vice-versa – for instance, by regenerating the kinds of informal cooperative networks along the production lines, in public parks, and in leaders’ basements that made the strike possible in the first place.


The fact that these immigrant narratives concern lifelong struggles makes them able to serve as a crucial resource to leaders in the aftermath of the union’s demise. The opportunity exists now for leaders to facilitate reflection by the rank and file on which aspects of their narratives may have fit too comfortably with both the dominant dynamics of hegemony and the self-extinguishing of this system of consent. In a sense, they face a task of collective memory re-making, the political purchase of which depends on formulating new practical contexts where the continuing truth-value of the disobedient components of the narratives can show itself.