Year 2005-2006

Margaret Gray examines the means by which non-citizen, low-wage workers seek representation for the furthering of their rights. Her research project draws on fieldwork among farmworkers and farmworker advocates in New York. The latter are indispensable to workers’ cause, yet her research shows they can only achieve limited success, primarily due to a deficit of participation on the part of the workers themselves. Gray’s case study also shows that workers’ own collective action is inhibited by a tight network of agricultural elites, closely allied with state actors, which controls their working lives and political imagination.

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the U.S., who are mostly Latinos, are not only one of the subpopulations least visible to the mainstream eye, they are also one of the most difficult labor forces to organize. They are non-industrial—excluded from the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act—unskilled, seasonal, lacking permanency within their ranks, hidden even from local communities, and racially segregated within labor camps. Moreover, the majority are undocumented and lack English language skills; they may also be in the U.S. on agricultural (guestworker) visas. Despite these near insurmountable obstacles, farmworkers in New York have managed to advance their interests in recent years through legislation, legal redress, and negotiations with growers.

In analyzing the current state of low-wage workers in the U.S. and the limitations on their advocacy, this project presents updated information about immigrant incorporation while adding a new chapter to the study of U.S. labor movements; this is particularly timely in the context of the U.S. government’s increased scrutiny of immigrants since 9/11 and citizens’ growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Moreover, the study offers new demographic information on farmworkers in New York State.

This case study draws on several research sources: extensive ethnographic survey of Hudson Valley and Long Island agricultural workers; interviews with numerous advocates, service providers, legislators, Department of Labor representatives, and employers; and participant observation at marches, protests, and advocacy meetings. Gray also includes a comparative study of similar advocacy efforts for low-wage, immigrant workers in the U.S. and relies on existing surveys of advocacy. There is a strong urban bias in the existing literature on advocacy, and this rural case study offers an instructive alternative.

This research contributes to three major debates in the academic literature of political science, sociology, and social work, as well as a growing interdisciplinary body of work on nonprofits and philanthropy by scholars, lawyers, and practitioners. The first debate is quite local. It revolves around the exact nature of the gains made by U.S. farmworkers and how underrepresented groups can overcome structural constraints to create social and economic change through different strategies and approaches. In the second, scholars confront whether organizations and professional advocates ultimately hamper or assist struggles for social and economic change. The final debate revolves around the most apposite and effective role of advocacy efforts for the underrepresented.

In contrast to workers leveraging their economic power—perhaps a more viable alternative for immigrant workers of yesteryear—farmworkers and their advocates are devising creative strategies that often rely on nontraditional approaches to traditional politics. This is a trend seen across the country. In New York, for example, advocates facilitate meetings between state legislators and undocumented workers so that policy-makers are confronted with their plight. Furthermore, such strategies are aimed at provoking decision-makers to consider the political and economic rights that a democracy should offer to those who are vital to the economic health of the U.S.

Undocumented and transnational workers are increasingly common in other industries including garment manufacturing, meatpacking, construction, landscaping, restaurants, and domestic work. This project draws from, and complements, studies of these workers. Because of their rural isolation, migrant farmworkers are, arguably, the most dispossessed of all, and so their plight and efforts to remedy it are a potential bellwether for these other immigrant populations. Most recently, the events of 9/11 have transformed the political climate for immigrants in the U.S. Transnational workers who still identify Latin America as home are finding themselves staying in the U.S. for years at a time instead of returning annually. At the same time, many are no more incorporated into the U.S. than if they did return home annually. This case study offers a comprehensive and empirical analysis of the changing demographic of such workers, while offering a profile of their attitudes, aspirations, and the contradictions by which they live from day to day.

During the 2005-6 Rockefeller Foundation Residential Fellowship year, Christina Ewig will examine the gender and racial dimensions of Latin American social policies. Although social policies have been understood as key to minimizing inequality, little scholarly attention has been paid to the manner by which Latin American social policies themselves have served to reinforce, or create, patterns of inequality. This oversight is due in part to many scholars’ narrow conceptualization of social policy itself – often limited to formal social security. Moreover, scholarship on social policy in Latin America has largely defined citizens as individual male workers. Classic comparative historical-political accounts of social policy formation in Latin America which focused on male, formal-sector workers and employees missed the ways in which the politics of inequality in Latin America also operates within particular racial and gendered discourses.

Using comparative historical analysis and building upon the large body of feminist scholarship on gender and welfare state development, Ewig’s project will provide an alternative account of Latin American social policy formation, one that examines critically not only the class politics but also the gender and racial politics embedded in the historical development of Latin American social policies. Focusing on Peru, Mexico, Chile and Colombia, she will examine social security formation, the formation of the public health systems and women’s access to the workforce, such as daycare and gendered wage structures. This revision of existing social policy formation theses will provide a new understanding of the multiple forces that have defined the differing levels of social citizenship in the Latin American region. In addition, this project will analyze how the resulting social policies themselves have served to reinforce and perpetuate inequality in Latin America.


Latin American and Caribbean Studies Center
• Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-4345  • Phone: 631.632.7517 • Fax: 631.632.9432
Login to Edit