The current number of undocumented people in America ranges from 10 to 12 million. While those without citizenship account for just three percent of the workforce, about half of crop farmworkers are undocumented. An overrepresentation of undocumented workers continues in the restaurant industry where one out of ten aren’t citizens. This means that from farm to fork, if you’re eating in America, there’s a decent chance that an undocumented person helped make that meal happen.

The bottom line here, however, goes beyond the vital contributions this group makes to the American economy. Undocumented workers are deserving of dignity on and off the job. Left out of much of COVID-19 recovery efforts and living under constant threat of raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, these workers have historically faced and continue to face many challenges.

Manuel Villanueva, Chair of the California Chapter of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), knows this firsthand. Born and raised in Mexico City, Manuel moved to the United States, where he lived and worked for 13 years without documentation. In 2014, he started as a labor organizer at ROC, a nonprofit with a mission to improve the quality of life for restaurant industry workers.

Manuel recently spoke with Unit about the rights of undocumented workers and his experiences as an organizer dedicated to empowering them on the job.

In this piece, you’ll read about:

  • The legal rights of undocumented workers
  • Overcoming fear and finding empowerment in organizing
  • An example union campaign involving undocumented workers
ROC members and staffers stand together. Care of ROC Los Angeles. Learn more here.

The fundamentals

Undocumented workers have the right to work in America. Also, regardless of immigration status or identities, it’s illegal for bosses to discriminate against workers. If you feel that you have been discriminated against, visit the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission website for resources to help determine how best to take action.

Not only are the rights above enshrined under U.S. law, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 enacted private sector workers’ rights to organize and engage in activities to better their livelihoods at work, and this legislation includes those who are undocumented.

In spite of these truths, Manuel says that it takes for more than just sharing this information to successfully organize undocumented workers.

Coming to terms with fear

“Going into the industry, you realize that you’re conditioned to believe one thing: that you’re disposable and that you’re a second class citizen with little-to-no rights,” Manuel says. “You cannot speak up. You have to put up with whatever is thrown your way.”

Manuel has worked with many people over the years who believe that a career with dignity and respect is only reserved for people with papers, with a different status, or with a different religion or ethnicity.

When he first started taking bartending classes at ROC, Manuel says he was stuck in the second-class mindset he now actively works to counteract. Through the respect he received at the Center, he felt he was “being humanized again after having been dehumanized for so many years.” Many undocumented workers make great sacrifices and take massive risks to get to the United States; “We are survivors because not many people make it.”

Disrupting this way of thinking and empowering workers is where Manuel has placed his focus since 2014 when he started full-time at ROC. Since then, he says he’s learned two major lessons:

  • “You cannot ask a human being not to be afraid. It’s an emotion we all have and it’s there for a reason: it’s there for protection.”
  • “With compassion comes tough love.”

Organizing process

Over the course of the past 7 years, Manuel has developed a system for creating worker connections. He divides it into three phases:

  1. “Realize that ‘I’ wasn’t the problem.” When first gauging support for a union or an issue campaign, Manuel makes clear to workers that bosses cut corners and rely on their labor to do so.  If someone is a worker, then they’re a worker and entitled to everything on the spectrum. They should push hard for the right to a break, the right to get paid overtime, the right to receive a pay stub, the list goes on. Bosses owe workers for what they work.
  2. “See where the member is at.” Hear them out to better understand what their immediate needs are. Take notes and get as full a picture as one can of the short and long term issues faced by workers.
  3. “Then there’s the education of a worker’s rights to identify where the violations were.” Sometimes a governmental agency may be able to step in and help, but Manuel resists leaning on them as a crutch; “I’ve always wanted to stay away from hiding behind a governmental agency because that takes away the power of the worker and I want our workers to be powerful.” Once the issues are identified and workers are educated, they can organize actions like work stoppages or petition drives to pressure management.

An example union campaign

A worker Manual knew got fired because he was injured. The cartilage in his shoulder had worn away because of poor working conditions. In addition to helping this worker see a specialist, Manuel and his team at ROC soon began talking with other workers and discovered company-wide issues like widespread, stagnant wages and faulty, dangerous equipment being used on a regular basis. Manuel empowered the workers to build a pressure campaign.

The company began to retaliate by having Human Resources pull people aside in one-on-ones. Coworkers not a part of the campaign were terrified and disparaged the effort. Manuel says this is common; “They will often try to minimize efforts or try to ridicule them, reflecting their own insecurities.” The worker organizers kept their issues centered though, acting as a collective throughout it all.

In the end, the company fired the managers who allowed the conditions to deteriorate; they also claimed they knew nothing about how unsafe it was on the job. Regardless of the validity of this claim, the worker who was fired for getting injured got reinstated and a promotion. The whole workplace got a 25-cent raise too, which while not a significant pay bump, was symbolic; “Those 25 cents show that it works when you get together and you raise your voice. This model worked and we replicated it into other stores.”


I’ll let Manuel take it from here; “Documentation shouldn’t be a burden anymore to feel like a person that deserves every single right that is available to workers in America.”

When it comes to organizing, he reiterated; “Education is the key. We have to approach this work with compassion.”

Visit the Restaurant Opportunities Center website for additional resources.