Ask Labor Jane: How Can We Organize Worried Immigrant Workers?

Jane McAlevey argues that bosses will always try to divide native-born and immigrant workers — that’s what they do. Our response, in union drives and politics as a whole, has to be unconditional solidarity.

Filipina nurses put their thumbs up after dropping their strike ballots in the box.

Hi Jane, 

I am an academic worker at the University of Pittsburgh organizing with the Graduate Student Organizing Committee. We met over the summer and went out to dinner for Mexican food when you came to Pittsburgh to do internal organizing with the United Steelworkers. I hope you are doing well!

The university administration was found to have engaged in unlawful behavior during our April election, so the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board has ordered a new election. We are waiting to hear the date, and we have continued organizing in the meantime. We could see a new vote in as few as five to six weeks!

Our organizing committee strongly respects the precarious position that international grads are in. Do you have any advice on how you would handle structure tests and the need for them to be public with international grad workers who are worried their visa status could be threatened if they are seen publicly supporting the union?

Thanks a million for all you do.

In Unity,



Hi Beth in Pittsburgh!

Great to hear from you, and glad you asked this question. Your email raises several important issues, including your employer’s illegal behavior, in addition to risk-taking generally and for workers in this country with some form of visa.

I will start by answering the main question you are asking, “Do you have any advice on how you would handle structure tests and the need for them to be public with international grad workers who are worried their visa status could be threatened if they are seen publicly supporting the union?”

It’s incredibly important that as you build toward a second chance at officially forming a union, you are designing and using real structure tests. Structure tests, for people who don’t know, are key to building strong organizations because they allow you to understand where you are strong and where you are weak in the organization-building process. After you learn that, you know the work areas on which you must focus. Each structure test is designed as a mini-campaign in which face-to-face participation is mapped out and assessed, often by using a simple, hand-signed petition that addresses an issue workers in the campaign are fighting to change.

I’ve been involved in many campaigns just like yours, where a large number of workers were not US citizens. They were either with or without official immigration or visa documents, but they were working just as hard as everyone else. Under national labor law — in particular, under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — workers can’t be punished or discriminated against because of their citizenship status. Think back to 1935: it made sense then because the early surge in strikes that led to the passage of our nation’s first, broad law establishing collective bargaining came from a context where millions of immigrants were toiling in factories in places just like Pittsburgh! But at that time, the international workers were in the steel mills; these days, they toil in academia, in addition to just about every sector of the economy.

Thus, it is crucial that international workers — regardless of their status — are deeply integrated into every aspect of your campaign, including public structure tests. The key to every public structure test is no different for any worker: the principle behind it is that a supermajority of workers sign their names or take their photos, so they are gaining their own protections by building a level of human solidarity that will stand united against any attempt of employer repression.

Back in 2006, I experienced this firsthand in Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center, in Las Vegas, where Bernie Sanders has just spent several days getting heart stents to get him back on the campaign trail. Despite its local-sounding name, the hospital is owned by one of the world’s largest for-profit hospital corporations, a conglomerate called Universal Health Services (UHS). Allan Miller, the CEO of UHS, is a major donor to the Republican Party and in 2006 had single-phone-call access to George Bush — that’s “W.” Miller hired a union-busting firm to try to destroy Desert Springs’s nurses and technical workers union. Like many hospitals in the United States, Desert Springs hired a lot of nurses from the Philippines and brought them to this country on H1 visas. US corporations do this in the hopes that they can avoid having to pay workers fair wages and good compensation, dangling the threat of collective action over their heads lest they demand family-supporting wages that allow them to care well for their patients.

Early on in the contract campaign, before the solidarity and unity needed to overcome the employer were built, we began our first public majority structure tests. Many white nurses from the United States would say things like, “Jane, you know the Filipina nurses won’t sign that because they are scared of being deported.” What was fascinating was the Filipina nurses weren’t saying this — they were signing! What the constant, doubtful comments from white nurses revealed was their own fear of signing. And what helped the non-Filipina nurses decide to get over their own anxiety in many cases was the extraordinary leadership that came from the Filipina nurses! The best example of how the could-have-been-more-scared international workers actually schooled their white nurse colleagues came when the negotiating committees voted to recommend what became the first hospital strike in Las Vegas history. The boss was sowing division, and the union busters who had moved into now two of the UHS hospitals (back then they owned three and were building a fourth there) were, in fact, threatening to deport Filipina nurses. The white nurses, with good reason, were terrified of going on strike and insisted the Filipinas would definitely not risk their jobs through a strike action.

We decided to once again let the Filipina nurses cast ballots early in the strike-voting process. We made a beautiful flyer with a picture of the top Filipina nurse leaders, the organic leaders among the Filipinas; the picture showed them with their thumbs up after dropping their strike ballots in the box. The strike vote was overwhelming: the nurses and technical workers won their best union contract ever, and the rest is history. No Filipina was punished, and no one was sent back to the Philippines. They won a historic contract — and in a right-to-work (for less) state to boot! Their organizing action also broke down racist walls between the Filipina and white nurses, forging the exact unbreakable solidarity so desperately needed, be it in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, or anywhere else in this polarized country.

So, yes, your employer will attempt to divide the workers and scare the international workers. The fact is, the only way to be sure that international workers of any kind — graduate workers or nurses, janitors, or construction workers — are even allowed into the country requires all of us to forge strong unions, fast. The only response to the most anti-immigrant “president” in our history is to challenge his racism by doing just what you are doing.

The campaign for fairness and decency in Pittsburgh in 2019 is really no different from the best strategies for the same in the Pittsburgh of 1919: developing wall-to-wall worker unity by forging solidarity across all workers, regardless of ethnicity, legal status, gender, skill, or any other division. By the way, head’s up: it’s the same for the 2020 elections.

In Solidarity,

Jane McAlevey