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Recent Union Labor Wins Recall When Central American Migrants Expanded the U.S. Labor Movement

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.

[embedded content][embedded content] On April 2, 2022, workers at one of Amazon’s warehouses on Staten Island in New York

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