Skip to Main Content

The Rediscovery of Working-Class Americans (April 2021): Immigrant Workers

By David Cullen

Immigrant Workers

Although whiteness studies linked the second with the third generation of labor historians, what separated the two groups of scholars is the multiplicity of topics previously ignored or underexamined by those interested in working-class issues. For example, the number of books devoted to immigrant workers increased over the last two decades. Gunther Peck’s Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880–1930; Wendy Gordon’s Mill Girls and Strangers: Single Women’s Independent Migration in England, Scotland, and the United States, 1850–1881; Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America; Ruth Milkman’s L.A. Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the U.S. Labor Movement; Cindy Hahamovitch’s No Man’s Land: Jamaican Guestworkers in America and the Global History of Deportable Labor; and Jennifer Guglielmo’s Living the Revolution: Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City, 1880–1945, all provide much-needed profiles of workers long ignored by historians—the poor who immigrated to the US in search of work.

Focusing on the largest group of immigrant workers in the US, five important books reexamine the career of labor leader Cesar Chavez and the story of Mexican American workers: Zaragosa Vargas’s Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America; Randy Shaw’s Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, The UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century; Emilio Zamora’s Claiming Rights and Righting Wrongs in Texas: Mexican Workers and Job Politics during World War II; Frank Bardacke’s Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers; and Matt Garcia’s From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. These works capture the complexity of organizing migrant farm workers and Chavez’s difficult personality as it related to the goals of the movement. Notably, they also highlight women activists and the movement’s relationship to the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s, figures and events that had been overshadowed in previous biographies of Chavez.