[Excerpt] Federal labor standards, ranging from wage and overtime guarantees to workplace safety, generally are meant to protect all workers in the United States, regardless of immigrant status. States can enact statutes that improve upon these standards, but must at least enforce these basic protections. Such provisions take on an added importance in the context of declining unionization rates. Foreign-born workers are less likely than native-born to be represented by a union, and, overall, Latinos have the lowest levels of unionization. Given increasing levels of Latino migration, how do low-wage Latino workers, especially those who are undocumented immigrants, ensure and advocate for their labor rights both individually and collectively? When do local governments get involved in advocating for migrant rights, and what forms do these coalitions take?
In this chapter, I explore the impact that differing state labor policy contexts have on strategies for protecting the rights of low-wage workers, particularly Latino immigrants. I focus on two cities with distinct state labor policies: Houston, Texas, and San Jose, California. Texas labor policy generally only replicates federal minimum standards, it is a Right to Work state with one of the lowest rates of union representation, and it is the only state in the nation that does not require employers to provide workers' compensation insurance. By contrast, California has a strong history with robust labor standards.
I draw on interviews conducted in San Jose and Houston with key immigrant labor unions, community organizations, and labor standards enforcement agencies. Interviews with Latino immigrant workers in each city also inform the analysis. I find that the policy context in each state, and local institutions in each city, shape the opportunities local governments and civil society organizations have to intervene on behalf of workers, in surprising ways. Despite the more favorable state opportunity structures in California, organization around basic Latino immigrant labor rights is greater in Houston. Here I explore the dynamics of this paradox, and the process by which community coalition members have garnered political presence and political weight in each city.