by Noah Zatz, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law
*This post is part of ACSblog’s Symposium on Labor and Economic Inequality.
Three vibrant movements of our time are Black Lives Matter, theDREAMers, and Fight for $15. For many progressives, only the last may seem directed at our topic of work and inequality. That intuition is wrong. Legalized state violence – incarceration, deportation, even killing – can and does depress labor standards and enable workplace exploitation (and vice versa).
We too often separate struggles against racialized state violence from those challenging economic inequality. The former seem to be about the public exercises of government power, while the latter seem to be about private exercises of corporate power. This is both an analytical error and a missed political opportunity.
Think of criminal justice, immigration, and labor as three points of a triangle. Activists and academics increasingly link mass incarceration and mass deportation, especially as immigration enforcement is criminalized. Likewise, the government’s threat to detain and deport has been linked to employer power. Guest workers face deportation if they exercise the most basic labor right, the right to quit, and undocumented workers labor under employer threats to call in immigration enforcement. Employers use this power to disrupt organizing, degrade working conditions, and depress wages.
An incarceration-labor connection parallels this immigration-labor connection. This connection mirrors the thoroughly racialized ways that immigration policy produces workplace disadvantage. That historical pattern continues today as Latina/os and others treated as presumptively “foreign” face profiling by employers and government authorities. Similarly, racism has long structured criminal justice in the U.S. From defining what is a crime to the notorious cocaine sentencing disparities, from the frequency of police stops to searches to uses of force, the criminal justice system casts an especially dark shadow over communities of color, and not by coincidence.