How Older Immigrant Workers Benefit from Unions and Worker Centers

In the 1970s and 1980s, radical employment restructuring—including deindustrialization and the fissuring of traditional employment relationships—contributed to de-unionization. The labor market in Los Angeles changed drastically. The city lost much of its manufacturing base due to globalization, and the rise of sub-contracting caused massive de-unionization in service industries. During the same era, millions of immigrants migrated to the United States, many becoming legal residents through the Immigration and Control Reform Act of 1986.

The decline of unions sharply reduced job quality in manufacturing and service industries, leading to an exodus of native-born workers. An influx of immigrants filled vacancies in many of the lowest-paying occupations with the worst working conditions. De-unionization and the deterioration of wages and working conditions were thus the cause, rather than the consequence, of the dramatic migration and labor market trends of the 1980s and 1990s.

Far from hurting the labor movement, immigrants became central to its revitalization—particularly in Los Angeles, where more than a third of the residents are foreign-born. Los Angeles is home to almost a quarter of the nation’s immigrants and has almost twice as many unauthorized immigrants as any other metropolitan area. Undocumented workers are a dominant force in its labor market. Undocumented immigrants, and to a lesser extent, legal immigrants, are concentrated in service, production, construction, transportation and material moving occupations.

Older Immigrants Are Labor Leaders

Violations of labor, employment and antidiscrimination laws in these sectors are rampant. Yet these immigrant workers also have emerged as leaders of a new labor movement in Los Angeles, which has achieved remarkable progress in raising labor standards.

During the past decades, union organizing campaigns in Los Angeles demonstrated that immigrant workers were more amenable to unionization than native-born workers because of their strong social networks, prior activist experience in their home countries, and a strong commitment to collective action.

Many immigrants who led union organizing campaigns are today the older generation of workers.

Los Angeles’ unprecedented growth in union organizing during this period has been paralleled by the development of worker centers. Worker centers are community-based organizations that provide support to low-wage immigrant workers through services, advocacy and organizing. They have provided a way for immigrant and low-wage workers to organize in industries that are the most difficult to organize, and to fight for their rights in labor markets, political arenas and the larger society.

Many immigrants who led these campaigns are today the older generation of workers. These older workers have a partial safety net and a healthy quality of life because of union contracts and policies that protect their rights as an aging workforce. With union density today at 10.3%, however, only 1 in 10 workers benefit from the wages and benefits of a collective bargaining agreement. To address the needs of non-union older workers in their respective industries, they have turned to policy campaigns to protect their workplace rights.

Policy campaigns among hospitality sector workers by the progressive UNITE HERE Local 11 best exemplify this approach. Worker centers like the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center (GWC) demonstrate how these organizations have been able to engage in policy initiatives to improve the lives of garment workers, many of whom have been working in the industry for years. Local 11 and GWC have engaged in innovative union contract and policy strategies to protect the rights and provide for the well-being of their older members.

UNITE HERE Local 11 and “Right to Recall” Law (SB 93)

The hospitality sector—hotels, restaurants, stadiums, convention centers, amusement parks, and airports—is among the largest and fastest-growing sectors of the region's economy. Like the broader service sector, its workforce is made up largely of immigrants, women, people of color and other economically and socially disadvantaged classes. While many hospitality jobs remain poorly paid and unstable, an increasing number have been transformed in recent years by Local 11–led campaigns into family-sustaining, middle-class jobs with decent wages, affordable family healthcare, legal service benefits and pensions. The union has been instrumental in passing numerous worker protection ordinances at the local level, including living wage and housekeeper protection laws, and actively uses antidiscrimination, wage-and-hour and worker-safety laws in campaigns to address labor abuses and raise standards.

Addressing the needs of its membership, Local 11 has also won path-breaking protections for immigrant workers—including the right to take extended leave to adjust immigration status; protections for women workers, such as panic buttons and other security measures to prevent sexual assault for workers who work alone in guest rooms or restrooms.

‘Local 11 has also won path-breaking protections for immigrant workers.’

During the pandemic, many hospitality employers terminated workers who had made their hotels successful, without extending healthcare benefits or making any binding commitment to recall them when the crisis subsides. By discarding such veteran employees when they most needed work, these irresponsible employers left workers in a state of profound insecurity, creating a critical need for protections for hotel workers laid-off during the pandemic, including the right to return to their jobs.

To address this crisis, UNITE HERE worked on the statewide campaign to pass Senate Bill 93 through the California Legislature. Governor Newsom signed this legislation into law in April 2021.

The law does not apply to all California employers. Rather, it applies generally to hotels, private clubs, event centers, airport hospitality operations and airport service providers, while also applying to janitorial, building maintenance and security services provided to office, retail and other commercial buildings. The law affords rights to laid-off employees of such businesses.

If a covered employer is going to hire a worker, it must first offer the position to its laid-off but qualified employees. A laid-off employee is considered qualified for a position if the employee held the same or similar position at the business at the time of the employee's most recent layoff. Laid-off employees must be offered the position in order of seniority. SB 93 requires employers in hospitality and business services industries to offer new positions for similar work to employees laid off during the pandemic within five days of creating a position. In what is considered to be the first victory for workers under this new policy, the California state labor commissioner recently ordered the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes to pay nearly $3.3 million in fines for failing to first offer jobs to workers who had been laid off during the pandemic shutdown once the positions were available again. SB 93 is one of many examples that highlight how older immigrant workers with seniority status in the hospitality industry benefit from union membership and collective bargaining agreements.

Los Angeles Garment Worker Center and the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62)

A coalition of immigrants’ rights advocacy groups that had been helping garment workers for many years in 2021 created the Los Angeles Garment Worker Center (GWC). Structural changes in the industry caused by globalization, and the loss of union density, created a need for an organization focused on improving garment workers’ working conditions and protecting their rights. The GWC provides garment workers the opportunity to organize for better working conditions. The garment industry is based on fast-paced rapid production, which can expose older workers to injuries and age discrimination. GWC has been a good space for these workers to participate in campaigns to address the unsafe conditions and labor exploitation that is so prevalent in this industry.

Of all the low-wage industries in Los Angeles, the garment industry has the highest level of wage theft violations. Garment workers in Los Angeles regularly work more than 12 hours per day and 60–70 hours per week while receiving only $3–$4 per hour—far below California’s $15 minimum wage—with no overtime pay. Many of the smaller factories, when they are found guilty of wage theft, close their doors, declare bankruptcy, or otherwise avoid paying workers.

The UCLA Labor Center’s research on labor violations in the garment industry has demonstrated a direct nexus between the piece-rate system and the high level of wage theft. To earn the minimum wage, employers often mandate that piece-rate workers reach unachievable, if not impossible, levels of productivity (see also

During COVID, garment workers continued to work in factories making PPE, face masks and medical gowns, earning on average $5–$6 per hour.

During the COVID-19 crisis, garment workers continued to work in garment factories making PPE, face masks and medical gowns, while earning an average of $5–$6 per hour. Most of these factories were taking only minimal measures to protect their workers' health and continued to pay subminimum piece-rate wages, despite the essential and important nature of their labor. Many garment workers were forced to choose between loss of all wages or potential exposure to the virus.

Last year in response to this egregious wage theft and deterioration of health and safety standards, GWC worked with the California Labor Federation, Bet Tzedek Legal Services and Western Center for Law and Poverty to advocate for the Garment Worker Protection Act (SB 62). This new law creates meaningful joint liability in the garment industry by including retailers in the regulatory scheme that governs the garment industry and holds them jointly and severally liable for wage theft. It achieves the first goal—expanded regulatory inclusion of retailers—by broadening the legal definitions of various actors in garment manufacturing.

Additionally, SB 62 prohibits the use of paying garment workers by the piece, thereby eliminating a significant obstacle to workers being paid minimum wage and protecting their health and safety. Garment employers will now be required to pay the statewide minimum wage of $15 per hour.


The “Right to Recall” law and the Garment Worker Protection Act are two examples of how unions and worker centers can forge policy outcomes to protect the aging immigrant workforce. Older immigrants in the hospitality and garment industry will benefit from these two recent state laws. They demonstrate how being members of innovative unions and worker centers can help protect the rights of older immigrant workers and provide them with a better opportunity for a quality of life during the later stages of their working years.

Victor Narro, JD, is project director for the UCLA Labor Center, Core Faculty for the UCLA Labor Studies Program and Core Faculty for the Public Interest Law Program of UCLA School of Law.