Worker Identities in a New Era of Immigration

Kim Voss, Sociology, UC Berkeley

Since 1990, immigrants and their children have been the fastest growing component of the American population and their presence is profoundly altering the nation’s racial and ethnic landscape. Nowhere are such changes more profound than in the workplaces of California, where the number of immigrant workers exceeds that of every other state. Yet little research has assessed how these immigrants understand social hierarchy in America or how their workplace presence might be shaping both their own identities and that of native-born workers. Building on an approach pioneered by Michèle Lamont, I have completed 59 in-depth interviews and have written a working paper about the ways in which white and Latino working-class Californians construct the boundaries that define “people like me” and “people different from me.” Over the summer, I will complete additional interviews, systematically code interview transcripts, and draft an article for publication. The interviews done to date suggest that Latinos are replacing African Americans as the most salient comparative group for white workers in California and that this is altering how both white and Latino workers see themselves and each other. It is also influencing how they conceive of the work they do.

Kim Voss arrived at Berkeley in 1986 with a Ph.D. from Stanford. She studies work, social movements, labor, inequality, and comparative-historical sociology.

Her current research explores contemporary social movements, worker identities in a new era of immigration, and the shfting competitiveness of  college admissions. Most recently, she published a coedited book on the 2006 immigration protests (with Irene Bloemraad), Rallying for Immigrant Rights: The Fight for Inclusion in 21st Century America (University of California Press 2011) and  “The Local in the Global: Rethinking Social Movements in the New Millennium,”  with Michelle Williams in Democratization (Vol. 19, 2012).

She has published two books about U.S. labor today: Hard Work: Remaking the America Labor Movement (with Rick Fantasia, University of California Press 2004) and Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement (co-edited with Ruth Milkman, Cornell University Press 2004), along with several articles, including, most recently, “Democratic Dilemmas: Union Democracy and Union Renewal,” Transfer: European Review of Labor and Research, 16 (August 2010): 369-382.

In earlier work, Professor Voss studied the Knights of Labor–the largest American union organization of the nineteenth-century–to shed light on the question of why the U.S. labor movement has traditionally been so weak and politically conservative in comparison to labor movements in Western Europe. Her book on the Knights, The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century (Cornell University Press) was published in 1993. In 1996, she and five of her Berkeley colleagues wrote Inequality By Design: Cracking the Bell Curve Myth (Princeton University Press).