Trapped at the Bottom: Racialized and Gendered Labor Queues in New Immigrant Destinations (Working Paper #176)

Laura López-Sanders, Stanford University

Abstract: While many studies document employer preference for Latino immigrants over African Americans, few studies provide evidence on how this preference translates into changes in the ethnic composition of the labor force. This paper addresses the mechanisms that account for these changes and their effects on race and ethnic relations. Using unique ethnographic data collected in new immigrant destinations, I show how the ethnic composition of a large industrial manufacturing firm changed from being almost exclusively black and white, to becoming forty percent Latino in many departments over the course of one year. Racial dynamics along with
selection mechanisms, namely “labor queues” (employers’ ranking of workers) and “job queues” (workers’ ranking of jobs), are central in explaining ethnic replacement processes. Labor queues are influenced by racial preferences and the tenuous legal status of many Latino immigrant workers; job queues, on the other hand, are influenced by the interplay of race, gender and the alternatives available to workers. These dynamics carry important consequences. When workers ranked at the bottom of the labor queue face replacement pressure, they protect their positions by antagonizing their would-be replacements. This strategy protects their jobs by providing incentives for their replacements to leave for better jobs. Ironically, this successful strategy results in a stable labor queue where workers ranked at the bottom trap themselves in jobs at the bottom of the job queue.