Tech workers, warehouse employees, and baristas have notched many victories in recent months at major U.S. companies long deemed long shots for unions, including Apple, Amazon, and Starbucks.
To me, these recent union wins recall another pivotal period in the U.S. labor movement several decades ago. But that one was led by migrants from Central America.
I’ve been researching human rights and immigration from Central America since the 1980s. In today’s polarized debates over immigration, the substantial contributions that Central American immigrants have made to U.S. society over the past 30 years rarely come up. One contribution in particular is how Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants helped expand the U.S. labor movement in the 1980s, organizing far-reaching workers’ rights campaigns in immigrant-dominated industries that mainstream unions had thought to be untouchable.
Migrants and unions
More than 1 million Salvadorans and Guatemalans came to the United States from 1981 to 1990, fleeing army massacres, political persecution, and civil war.
Since the 1980s, I have researched, taught, and written about this wave of migrants. Back then, President Ronald Reagan warned apocryphally that Central America was a threat to the United States, telling Congress in 1983 that “El Salvador is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts.”
Just 2% of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who applied received asylum in the 1980s—so few that a 1990 class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination compelled the U.S. government to reopen tens of thousands of cases. In recent years, about 10% to 25% of their asylum petitions were granted.
Then, as now, many undocumented immigrants in the U.S. worked in agriculture or service industries, often under exploitative conditions. Unionization barely touched these sectors in the 1980s.
More broadly, the bargaining power of labor unions was suffering under Reagan, whose presidency started with his firing of 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Downsizing and outsourcing at American companies in the 1980s also eroded union membership and pushed wages down.
Many Guatemalans and Salvadorans were veteran community organizers. They had faced down government terror to participate in unions, peasant leagues, Catholic social justice campaigns, or Indigenous rights initiatives—all currents in 1980s revolutionary Central America.
Drawing on these experiences, many Central American immigrants began to organize in their U.S. workplaces, demanding higher wages and safer conditions.
Salvadorans led Justice for Janitors to victory
Justice for Janitors began in Los Angeles in 1990. It aimed to reverse the wage drops that janitors suffered over the previous decade.
Rather than do battle with the small subcontractors that hired cleaning crews for big office buildings, Justice for Janitors targeted the corporations that owned those buildings. Led by experienced Salvadoran unionists—some of whom had fled death squad violence back home—the movement used nonviolent civil disobedience and strikes to expose exploitative labor practices.
Speaking out could be dangerous. Police once clubbed participants at a peaceful march through Los Angeles’s Century City neighborhood on June 15, 1990. Undocumented workers feared deportation.
But it worked. Janitors in Los Angeles won a 22% raise after their 1990 citywide strike, showing mainstream labor unions that even the city’s most marginalized workers—undocumented Central Americans, many of them women—had real organizing power.
Over the next decade, some 100,000 janitors nationwide joined the campaign under the banner of the Service Employees Industrial Union. The movement negotiated contracts that increased wages and health benefits for janitors across the U.S.
Guatemalans defended Florida farmworkers
Hundreds of thousands of people fled Guatemala during the early 1980s, escaping a genocidal army campaign against Indigenous communities that left entire regions of its highlands charred and empty.
Up to 90% of the fresh tomatoes in U.S. supermarkets come from Florida.
Working conditions in the state’s tomato fields were dismal in the 1980s. Migrants earned just 40 cents per 32-pound bucket of tomatoes picked. Some were forced by armed guards to work against their will, as a 1997 court case about the use of slave labor in Florida’s tomato fields exposed.
In 1993, Guatemalan immigrants joined with Florida’s Haitian and Mexican farmworkers to form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community worker alliance that began in the basement of a local church in Immokalee, Florida. It used strategies common to Latin American protest movements, including street theater and socially conscious radio broadcasts, to unite Florida’s agricultural workers.
After five years of work stoppages, hunger strikes, and marches, Florida’s tomato pickers won wage increases of up to 25%. A multiyear nationwide boycott of Taco Bell convinced the fast-food chain in 2005 to increase the earnings of the farmworkers who supply its ingredients. Other fast-food giants followed suit.
In 2015, the Immokalee coalition launched the Fair Food Program, an industrywide agreement with Florida tomato growers to promote strict health and safety standards and allow outside monitors to oversee working conditions. That same year, President Barack Obama gave the Coalition of Immokalee Workers the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combating Modern Day Slavery.
Guatemalans organized North Carolina poultry plants
As Guatemalan migrants spread across the South during the late 1980s, recruited by labor contractors in other states, they soon became a powerful organizing force in North Carolina, too.
Case Farms, a poultry company that supplies KFC, Taco Bell, Boar’s Head, and the federal school lunch program, was a notoriously dangerous place to work. Safety regulations were routinely ignored to increase output, and workers suffered serious injuries—including losing limbs to cutting machines.
In 1990, the Guatemalan immigrants at Case Farms’s plant in Morganton, North Carolina, organized a union drive.
As labor historian Leon Fink describes in his book The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South, Guatemalan poultry workers drew on prior organizing experiences back home—including coffee plantation strikes and Mayan pride movements—to organize workers.
After five years of walkouts, marches, and hunger strikes, the Case Farm workers voted in 1995 to join the Laborers’ International Union of North America. The company refused to negotiate, however, and the union pulled out of contract talks after six years.
In 2017, Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio challenged Case Farms to explain its alleged violations of U.S. law, after a New York Times and ProPublica investigation exposed ongoing abusive labor practices there.
These unionization stories show Central American migrants in a new light—not as criminals or victims, but as people who have helped make the U.S. a safer place for workers.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on January 18, 2019.