Organizing workers at the margins: new strategies and organizational forms for immigrant and women workers employed in low-paid, precarious jobs

Fired Workers Protest

by Prof. Jennifer Jihye Chun

In his provocative book entitled, The Precariat: the New Dangerous Class, Guy Standing, former research director at the ILO for 31 years, argues that workers employed in full-time jobs under a single employer with a full range of labor rights, social entitlements and occupational rewards are a shrinking relic of the 20th century industrial system. The vast majority of the world’s workforce today faces insecure jobs and housing, limited social entitlements and rights protections, and few, if any, ties to occupational groups and collective organizations such as labour unions as members of a new global class, which he terms, the “precariat.” Standing warns that the precariat should not be misunderstood as part of an underclass or a peripheral part of the global economic system, either in terms of size or geography. Rather, the precariat is central to the functioning of neoliberal capitalist systems and thus, must be understood as an integral part of the 21st century global economy.

The growth of low-paid, insecure jobs has been well-documented, most notably by Standing’s earlier work on the feminization of flexible labor (1989, 1999) as well as studies on precarious employment (Vosko 2000), non-standard employment (Kalleberg 2011) and informal work (Davis 2007; Agarwala 2013). As structural shifts in the global economy – namely, the reorganization of global production and the growth of non-union service sectors - has fueled a global race to the bottom in wages and working conditions, two major trends have transformed the world of work. 

First, more jobs can be categorized as what development economists typically describe as “informal,” that is a type of employment that lacks the legal protections and social entitlements associated with formal wage labor. Second, women, immigrants and other socially disadvantaged groups have been disproportionately incorporated into low-paid, insecure and atypical forms of informal precarious work. This process of informalization does not represent an inevitable outcome of global economic integration. Governments played and continue to play an active role in enhancing labor insecurity by promoting neoliberal policies that erode workers’ collective labour rights, dismantle basic welfare protections and defund public education and health care.

The Affective Politics of the Precariat

While there has been significant attention paid to the deterioration of social wages across the global north and south, scholars have paid less attention to the consequences of the new world of work on the politics of workers’ struggles. For Standing, this neglect makes sense given the devolution of class politics for the world’s working class. One of the defining conditions of the precariat is the subjective experience of chronic and pervasive precarity. Not only does the process of precaritisation deprive workers of the affective ties and associational bonds associated with clear occupational and labour union membership, but the low-paid, insecure, and fragmented nature of precarious jobs intensifies what Standing describes as the “4As” – that is, pervasive feelings of anger, alienation, anomie and anxiety. The felt and embodied experience of “being rootless” denies precariously-employed workers the relations of trust, accountability, empathy and solidarity that characterized the previous era of industrial jobs. Consequently, Standing asserts that the precariat tends to be more prone to right-wing populism, fascism and demoguery than the progressive solidaristic sensibilities of labour unions and labour parties.

Standing’s emphasis on the subjective experience of precarity is an important intervention. It compels us to recognize the significance of the affective and associational dimensions of worker politics for assessing the limits and possibilities of collective transformation. However, Standing is too hasty in offering gloomy and pessimistic predictions. While it is crucial to understand how precarity degrades the solidaristic character of work and worker politics, it is equally incumbent to examine the actual struggles being waged by precariously-employed workers. Exactly how and under what conditions is the process of precaritisation affecting workers’ ability to organize collectively to transform their living and working conditions? What new strategies and organizational forms are precariously-employed workers cultivating to rebuild the basis of their associational and symbolic ties? What are the implications of new approaches for challenging the injustice and inequality of the reigning system of precarious employment?

Organizing Workers at the Margins: new strategic repertoires and organizational forms

To develop a more concrete understanding of how the experience of precaritisation is affecting the politics of the precariat, I offer two empirical examples of how workers and their collective organizations are attempting to challenge downgraded forms of precarious employment. Based on empirical research I have conducted in the United States but also in South Korea and Canada, I focus on efforts waged by labour unions and community organizations to cultivate new strategic repertoires and organizational forms to organize precariously-employed groups of immigrant and women workers. In particular, I focus on two approaches:

a) efforts by labour unions to strengthen the basis of worker’s associational power by cultivating alternative forms of symbolic power, and
b) efforts by community organizations to create alternative organizational forms such as worker centres that can address overlapping forms of social and economic inequality for marginalized workers.

New strategic repertoires: cultivating symbolic power for workers at the margins

In my comparative study of new forms of labour organizing in South Korea and the United States (Chun 2009), I found that strikes - the most familiar schema of working-class resistance – were becoming less central in the struggles of immigrant and women workers employed in low-paid, precarious employment. This is largely due to structural shifts in the nature of employment relationships for workers on the bottom rungs of the labour market. Rather than hire workers under full-time contracts, employers are increasingly utilizing non-standard contractual arrangements such as part-time work, temporary agency employment, subcontracted work and independent contracting. As employment relationships became triangulated and structurally ambiguous, striking workers face increased obstacles for achieving their collective demands through conventional forms of associational power such as strikes and collective bargaining.

For example, in cases where workers are employed under multi-layered contracting agreements or as independent contractors, it is not always clear who is or should be the target of a strike action or what labour rights workers have access to. Consequently, when precariously-employed workers attempt to exercise conventional forms of associational power, they often face contestation from an array of entities – from the economic employer who provides source of the wage payment to the legal employer-of-record who technically hires and fires workers.

These dilemmas around employment classification are also exacerbated by labour market inequities based on race, gender, immigration status, education, social networks or age. Many workers recruited into low-paid subcontracted employment tended to represent historically disadvantaged segments of the workforce – namely, immigrants, women and people of color who faced restricted job market opportunities in low-status and dead-end jobs. Socially marginalized workers not only tend to experience more arbitrary and discriminatory employment practices, but they also possess weaker forms of structural bargaining power due to their location in peripheral and labour-intensive sections of the service economy such as cleaning, hospitality, food and retail service, and various caring occupations (Silver 2003).

The strategy of symbolic struggles

Despite these challenges, the various case studies I conducted of janitors’ organizing struggles in both South Korea and the United States reveal that unions have not been derailed by the barriers to unionism presented by weakened forms of associational and structural power. Rather, they have developed new approaches for shifting the balance of power between workers, subcontracting companies and building owners based on symbolic struggles, rather than economic power or legal arguments. 

First, they have waged classification struggles to pressure building owners to accept moral responsibility as employers, regardless of whether they were legally liable. While laws often prohibit unions from directly targeting third party entities such as building owners, they have circumvented these barriers by redefining what it means to be an ‘employer’ in the eyes of broader publics, rather than the narrow confines of legal interpretation. As a result, unions have cultivated new classificatory schemas that foreground the moral, versus legal, obligations of employers during the course of a collective labour dispute. 

Second, unions have waged public dramas to escalate disputes over wages and working conditions into broader struggles over social and economic justice. Unions draw upon an array of material and symbolic resources and social relationships to strengthen the moral authority of their public dramas, including mobilizing the support of progressive student groups and other labour and community activists. Appealing to historically-contested meanings of justice and fairness forged during past social movements, particularly those waged on behalf of socially and economically disadvantaged groups of workers, help undermine the legitimacy of contractual employer obligations and reassert the moral understandings of what is just and fair in a given community.

In many ways, symbolic leverage is in direct opposition to conventional forms of worker power. Historically, industrial workers have wrested concessions from employers from a place of structural power – due to their strategic position in the economy or in tight labour markets. They have also fought bitterly for the creation of national labour laws and labour market institutions that formally guarantee the power of their collective associations, regardless of employer or region. However, for workers employed in peripheral jobs and sectors and excluded from basic labour rights protections, these forms of worker power are no longer sufficient. For these workers, symbolic leverage offers an important alternative: it seeks to overcome the absence of structural power and strengthen the basis of workers’ associational power by reclassifying the very nature of the employment relationship in moral and symbolic terms, as well as economic and political terms. In other words, symbolic leverage invokes new schemas and new resources for shifting the balance of power between workers and employers during the course of a collective struggle.

New union campaigns

Since the late 1990s, there has been a proliferation of new union struggles that utilize symbolic leverage to attempt to shift the balance of power against employers and the state during the course of a labour dispute. In the current neoliberal climate, perhaps it is no surprise that workers and unions in countries as different as South Korea and the United States have once again resorted to morally-driven, public dramas that are reminiscent of earlier historical periods of working-class insurgency. Like during the pre-New Deal era in the United States and the state-led authoritarian developmental era in Korea, workers are confronted with mounting employer (and state) resistance when they attempt to exercise basic labour rights. However, unlike previous periods of mass worker discontent, many collective struggles waged on behalf of workers at the margins are the product of time- and resource-intensive organizing campaigns. 

The breakdown of the post-war social contract between workers and management since the 1980s has created external pressures on labor unions to move beyond service-oriented unionism and embrace more strategic repertories of collective action, especially in the U.S. where unions have encountered intense employer resistance to union elections and collective bargaining. Such campaigns tend to be spearheaded by creative and innovative leaders who can adapt to changing circumstances in ways that maximize organizational capacity (Ganz 2009). They also rely on labour-community networks and coalitions which not only help broaden the base of organizational support for union-led struggles but also renew the organizational vitality of unions themselves as “swords of justice” rather representatives of “vested interests” (Tattersall 2010: 3).

While my research findings highlight the empirical and theoretical significance of symbolic leverage in the struggles of workers at the margins, it would be naïve and presumptuous to assume that profound and multi-faceted crises facing organized labour in different countries can be resolved by simply unleashing symbolic forms of worker power. All my cases demonstrate that workers at the margins of society and economy do not have power in the conventional sense. Not only is their ability to exercise basic labour rights commonly disputed on legal and contractual grounds, but their location at the lower tiers of labour market hierarchies exposes them to repeated forms of mistreatment and exploitation that are either all too familiar or tucked away from the public eye. Marginalized workers that face overlapping conditions of economic and social subordination also lack the ability to exercise recognized forms of authority or command resources. However, my cases reveal that when existing institutional channels for adjudicating workers’ grievances are blocked or constrained, workers and their collective organizations can innovate their repertoires of contention by developing new schemas and resources aimed at generating more potent forms of symbolic leverage. In these cases, the collective morality of past social movements offer important symbolic resources with which to challenge the cultural logics of precarious employment.

New organizational forms for organizing immigrant women workers: community organizations and worker centres1

Long before many labor unions began prioritizing the need to organize immigrants, community organizations such as Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA) in the San Francisco Bay Area were established to improve the working and living conditions of immigrant women workers employed in low-paid, precarious and socially devalued jobs. Founded in 1983, AIWA is one of first worker centers and earliest community-based organizations established for Asian immigrant workers employed in garment and electronics factories, a group that was particularly difficult to organize due to the flexible system of subcontracting that was dominant in both industries.

The lives of AIWA’s primary constituencies – Chinese and Korean women employed in low-paid manufacturing and service jobs – were intimately intertwined with broader demographic, economic, and political shifts characterizing the post-1960s era, including the end of federal immigration restrictions aimed to protect the wage standards of the white working class, the trend towards offshore production by footloose capital, and the dismantling of the welfare state. As immigrants from authoritarian political regimes who faced the xenophobia and racism of a white settler society, AIWA members also tended to reside in ethnic enclaves that eschewed participation in social movements that challenged existing structures of power and authority.

AIWA pioneered the Community Transformational Organizing Strategy (CTOS) to promote its founding mission: empowering low-income Asian immigrant women workers to change the conditions of their own lives, regardless of their language ability, social status, occupation, and migration history. CTOS is AIWA’s theory of change; it posits that grassroots leadership development is the key mechanism for bringing about radical democratic transformation and outlines a systematic model to enable AIWA members to envision their transformation from a subordinated state of voicelessness and devaluation into an empowered state of self-representation and self-activity. 

Key to the CTOS model’s efficacy are micro-level organizational practices such as popular education, skills and capacity building, peer-based teaching and learning, small group activities, and organizational decision-making that promote long-term trajectories of social movement participation. By providing immigrant women with the skills, knowledge and experience to participate in collective projects of change-making, the CTOS model enables immigrant women to visualize how a simple decision such as taking an English or computer class can lead to a community-driven campaign to improve workplace health and safety conditions, ensure access to public space for low-income communities, and reform state and federal health care policy.

Investing in the development of members as grassroots leaders, and their capacity to lead efforts for social change is reflective of AIWA’s relational approach to community organizing. A relational organizing approach does not prioritize “mobilization on issue campaigns,” as Mark Warren (1998, 86-87) explains, but rather involves the deliberate building of relationships and the sustained participation of community actors “for the purpose of finding common ground for political action.” 

The CTOS model establishes new forms of relationality among immigrant women based on mutuality and respect rather than the competition and fear that pervades many low-wage workplaces and ethnic economies. The CTOS model also cultivates new ethics of voluntarism and public-spiritedness among immigrant women workers who begin to see themselves and their peers as social movement leaders. For example, veteran members teach classes, facilitate trainings, and lead strategy sessions with new recruits who then become veterans training others. New members also witness veteran leaders speaking out at public rallies and marches, giving presentations in university classrooms, making demands to elected politicians and government officials, collaborating with public health experts and other recognized public leaders, and winning prestigious awards in front of multi-racial, cross-class and multi-lingual audiences--all providing immigrant women with actual examples of CTOS’s benefits.

Workers centers – a “hybrid organizational form”

Since AIWA’s founding in the mid-1980s, there has been an explosion of similar organizations aimed at improving the living and working conditions of low-wage, immigrant workers, which are commonly referred to as “workers centers” in the U.S. The number of workers centers grew from 5 in 1992 to 216 in 2012 (Fine and Milkman 2012). While worker centers take diverse forms, they operate as “hybrid organizational forms” that combine aspects of progressive community organizations and labour unions (Fine 2006). Most worker centers offer the kinds of direct services that community organizations typically provide to low-income residents, including legal and advocacy services and English language and citizenship classes. However, their primary focus tends to be immigrant workers’ rights, including efforts to address rampant workplace abuses such as unpaid backwages and health and safety violations and efforts to promote the legalization of undocumented immigrants. Many worker centers have also launched public-shaming oriented collective action campaigns on behalf of low-paid immigrant workers in a variety of sectors, including AIWA’s signature anti-sweatshop campaign against Jessica McClintock between 1992-1995 and the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center’s campaign against Forever 21 as well as the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) campaigns against wage and hour violations in restaurants such as New York City’s Windows on the World.

As a new organizational form, worker centers are carrying on traditions of community organizing among the urban working poor cultivated in the 1930s and the disenfranchised black working class cultivated in the 1960s. They are drawing upon a radical democratic legacy that promotes popular education, grassroots leadership and collective empowerment. However, worker centers are also becoming new models in their own right. In Los Angeles, Ruth Milkman (2010:3) argues that the “L.A. Model” has cultivated a “shared strategic repertoire that involves a mix of union and worker center approaches,” a model that benefits from synergies of a dense network of progressive unions, community organizations and immigrant rights coalitions, especially in the city’s vibrant Latino immigrant community. 

The success of recent initiatives to establish a “Domestic Worker Bill of Rights” by the New York-based Domestic Workers Union and the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) has attracted the attention of politicians, labor unions and the public at-large, who are working together to create community standards for protecting the dignity and rights of one of the most vulnerable and isolated groups of workers. Recently, the United Workers Congress (UWC) was launched as a national alliance of worker centers representing “workers that are either by law or by practice excluded from the right to organize in the U.S.”2 The UWC operates as the worker center counterpart to national labour federations such as the AFL-CIO, including affiliates such as the ROC, NDWA, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the National Guestworkers Alliance (NGA), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the New York and Los Angeles Taxi Workers Alliance.

Differences between workers centres and trade unions

While there are many new synergies and partnership between worker centers and labor unions, it is important to note important differences exist, which sometimes result in conflict and tension. Some of these difficulties can be attributed to differences in organizational structures and funding mechanisms. Worker centers tend to operate as small, non-profit organizations that are staffed by professional activists from university educated backgrounds and funded by philanthropic foundations, while labor unions tend to operate as large, bureaucratic organizations that pay substantial salaries to union executives and staff based on the resources of dues-paying members. Different organizational priorities and cultures of organizing also contribute to divergent approaches to promoting workers’ interests. While many worker centers tend to promote grassroots voice and participation among its members, labor unions in the U.S. have a long history of intolerance towards rank-and-file participation and worker education and tend to prioritize instrumental over processual goals. Despite these differences and challenges, the diversification of the organizational landscape is an importance innovation in the terrain of organizing among low-paid and precariously-employed immigrant workers and deserves to attract more scholarly and policy interest.


1. Parts of this section are adapted from Chun, Lipsitz and Shun 2013a and Chun, Lipsitz and Shun 2013b.

Works Cited


  • Agarwala, Rina. 2013. Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India. Cambridge, UK: Cambrdige University Press.
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  • Chun, Jennifer Jihye, George Lipsitz and Young Shin. 2013a. "Intersectionality as a social movement strategy: Asian immigrant women advocates." Signs 38(4): 917-940.
  • _____. 2013b. “Immigrant Women Workers at the Center of Social Change: Asian Immigrant Women Advocates,” pp. 207-231. In Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age, eds. N. Flores-Gonzalez, A. 
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Jennifer Jihye Chun is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research is internationally comparative and focuses primarily on the changing world of work, culture, politics in the global economy.