Jennifer Gordon: Professor, Researcher, Activist, MacArthur Fellow

This is a brief profile of an individual who, as much as anyone in America, has thrown herself into clearing the difficult pathway for immigrants towards full integration into the domestic economy.
She is Associate Professor Law at Fordham University School of Law In New York City. Go here for her academic webpage. A 1992 graduate of Harvard Law School, she devoted much of the 1990s to helping to organize Workplace Project in Hempstead, Long Island.
In her 2005 book, Suburban Sweatshops: The Fight for Immigrant Rights, she describes the struggle of many immigrants to enter the workforce and acquire step by step employee rights which American-born citizens take for granted.
In a 2005 article in the Boston Review (go here), she had this to say about working conditions and the long and exhausting effort to bring them up to minimally acceptable standards:

“Underground economy” suggests a system completely divorced from conventional labor markets. But in fact, the underground and mainstream economies are anything but divided. Immigrant workers and others move in and out of underground work. Furthermore, so-called underground businesses often operate in a relationship with larger and more formal enterprises. A name-brand garment manufacturer may depend on a chain of underground subcontractors to sew its clothing; a national superstore may contract its groundskeeping or roof repair or janitorial work to a local company that operates in the underground economy. And many enterprises are themselves formal in some regards and informal in others, complying with some but not all laws, paying workers in part on the books and in part under the table.

Since its founding thirteen years ago, the Workplace Project in Hempstead, Long Island, has grown from one desk in a room borrowed from a social-service agency into a vibrant membership organization of immigrant workers with the mission of fighting the low wages, high level of injuries, and pervasive abuses of immigrant workers on Long Island. Against the odds, the group has carried out a series of innovative organizing experiments in the underworld of immigrant work, some of which succeeded far beyond the organization’s expectations.

In its early years, the Workplace Project raised wages by over 30 percent on the Long Island street corners where day laborers wait for work—at least most of the time, in most places. They created a domestic-worker bill of rights and a model contract for domestic employers, and they forced placement agencies to promise to adhere to them—a promise that they sometimes kept. Since then, the organization has founded a very small but successful worker-owned landscaping cooperative and a much larger housecleaning co-op owned and operated by immigrant women.

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