Bounded Mobilizations (2016)



Sébastien Chauvin (2016)

Bounded Mobilizations:
Informal Unionism and Secondary Shaming Amongst Immigrant Temp Workers in Chicago.

Pp. 72-95 in Neoliberal Capitalism and Precarious Work, edited by Rob Lambert and Andy Herod. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2016.

This work examines the challenges of labor organizing without union rights in the United States. Through a unique account of a tense labor negotiation between a factory and a labor organization over the working conditions of undocumented migrant workers, overwhelmingly women, employed through a contested temp agency, it sheds light on the inner workings of corporate accountability campaigns in the case of precarious workers characterized by bounded rights that constrain their legal access to employment.

The worker center struggled to have itself recognized as a legitimate labor interlocutor in a regulatory context that practically barred temp workers from formal workplace representation. It was thus led to act as an “informal union”, using community pressure – such as bad publicity, media coverage and letters from local civil society – to support its actions and campaigns. The organization deployed a strategy of “secondary shaming”: pressuring the client company to “fire” its abusive agency and transfer its entire temp workforce to what was expected to be a more “ethical” establishment, because it had signed the center’s code of conduct and promised to offer more benefits. Nevertheless, a sizeable minority of workers proved reluctant to transfer. Some feared that the informal favors that they had secured with dispatchers at the “bad” agency and their supervisor at the client company would disappear, even though the new agency offered a fairer reward system as a whole. Some were also concerned that a more “ethical” agency would be more zealous at checking papers.

The discursive tropes of accountability and respectability mobilized by the worker center proved especially tricky. Whereas they carried a clear potential of civic empowerment, the demand for legality and transparency shone the spotlight on business relations that could only maintain themselves whilst in the darkness. In so doing, they tended to harden boundaries and statuses whose previous blurriness sometimes “benefitted” undocumented workers. If ‘the shared stigma and the related experience of racialization reinforce the collectivist worldview as well as the social networks that link immigrant workers together” (Milkman 2011: 365), this study confirms that “notions of immigrants’ militancy and collectivist orientations that lead to their ‘extraorganizeability’ [are] context-specific and conditional on the nature of social networks and employment structures of the immigrant workers targeted by campaigns” (Camou 2009: 61).