Stop Asking Where I'm From

Look For The Union Label: Low Levels of American Muslims in Labor Unions

Written By: humarashid - Sep• 05•11

I’ve wanted to be a labor attorney (defense/union side, the short, South Asian version of Regina Polk, except that I don’t think I look that hot in hats) ever since I studied labor law under Prof. Gerald Berendt, the chairman of Chicago’s NLRB for most of the seventies. He was my favorite professor during law school, and he was the one I emailed when I was standing outside Gov. Scott Walker’s office the day he signed that horrible anti-union ‘non-fiscal budget bill’ into law earlier in 2011.


I met this Badger in the rotunda of the Capitol building in Madison in March.



I’ve realized, though, that I’m among the very small number of American Muslims interested in labor and fiercely supportive of unions and the right to organize. Out of curiosity, I began sending out feelers in my own community of South Asian Muslims, immigrants and their first-generation US-born kids (like me), middle class and educated. And I found that there were hardly any who were part of a union, or part of a union by choice (here, some government workers), and hardly any that actually knew enough about the proud tradition of American labor to support it.

Since I began reading up on the subject, I figured that if you were a minority in America, you had to be a fool not to support labor unions. The distinction between white collar and blue collar (often a serious obstacle for union leaders trying to organize a group of workers) seemed incredibly foolish to me – yet another example of unnecessary stratification in this country, used to distract citizens from the full value of their guaranteed rights. I couldn’t understand why any non-white person, whether lower or middle class, wouldn’t want to be in a union.

Afghani refugees work at a shop in Karachi, Pakistan, making carpets. Pakistani carpets are second only to Persian ones. Source:

(Well, I could. As an almost-attorney, I’d be an idiot if I didn’t know how to play Devil’s Advocate. It’s simply that I never found the reasons for union-indifference or distaste to be compelling in the least.)

And that got me wondering about why American Muslims, my community, would be so opposed to (or in the better cases, indifferent to) labor unions. And on this proud Labor Day, I think I might have some answers. They’re hopefully the first step in addressing this problem and working to correct it, and adding a new, sizable demographic to the union roster.

Before I begin, it is important to note the employment stats of this demographic. American Muslims in generals, especially South Asians, have maintained high rates of employment and high rates of seeking advanced degrees. The majority of the South Asian population in this country is middle class and white collar and educated. High school graduation rates for their children are very, very high, as are college entrance and graduation rates, and even the numbers of their offspring seeking professional degrees. South Asians are, to repeat, a highly educated, relatively well off segment of America’s population.

All of that plays into their relationship with labor unions.

Another note: I am discussing low levels of Muslim membership in unions, but many of my examples pertain specifically to South Asian Muslim Americans, because I am one, and I understand the culture and the perspective and can articulate it. Do understand that not all American Muslims are South Asian, and not all South Asians are Muslims.

This is also not to say that this holds true for all Muslims or all South Asians. I am thrilled to know many Muslims and South Asians who do love unions, and who are union members, and I count myself among their ranks.

This is simply a response to a problem that has been niggling away in the back of my mind for quite some time, about why Muslims are in general so underrepresented in union ranks, and how culture and religion play into this, and how these misconceptions can be torn away.

Here’s what I’ve come up with. There are more reasons, I’m sure, specific to smaller portions/subsets of our community. These were the ones that I felt were most general and covered the experiences of the greatest number of South Asian/Muslim transplants to America.

  • the union dues charged

I am often the first to stand around and make jokes about how cheap Desis (ie, South Asians, anyone from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc) can be. In fact, do you mind if I do?

Eid was earlier this week, and I got $150 in Eidi money from aunties and uncles that came to visit, but my parents took it and recycled it to use as Eidi for other kids whose houses we went to visit.

I paid in cash for a $0.99 bottle of Coke and told them to keep the change. When I got back in the car my dad gave me a long lecture about how one cent can make a huge difference in your life.

Whenever we go on road trips my parents bring a rice cooker and 3 days’ worth of homemade curries.

Ah. It feels good to mock. (My parents don’t really do all this. Well, they do the third one, but to a far lesser extent. There has never been a rice cooker in my car, I promise. Just a couple bun-kabobs and a thermos or two full of hot chai. Sigh.

But the point of this part isn’t that Desis are cheap and don’t want to pay union dues. It has to do with the tangibility of the goods/services received. Union dues are paid whether the individual worker experiences any trouble with management personally or not. For a worker that joins a union-job after a contract negotiation and leaves that job before the renegotiation, there may very well not be any real problems that the individual is subjected to, if he’s lucky. But he’ll still have had to pay his union dues.

While I do make fun of Desi aunties and uncles (here I’m referring to the immigrants, rather than my generation of first born American Desis) for being cheap, I understand it. These are men and women that grew up in Pakistan shortly after the nation was created. There was very little in the way of infrastructure, and there were often food and water shortages. These are men and women that came from large families, with lots of siblings, whose parents had lots of little mouths to feed. Everything was stretched as far as it could possibly go, and then a little more, because money was tight.

These are people that do not waste anything. These are people that try to reuse and recycle, even if they’re baffled at the concept of separating plastics. It was a different kind of reuse and recycle there that had little to do with putting crates of glass bottles in trucks and a lot more to do with using chalk to paint tennis shoes white again, or patching up school uniforms with scraps of cloth, or buying one pair of shoes per year.

These people saw their parents cut corners upon corners to keep every child clothed and fed to the best of their abilities, and those lessons and those memories stuck with them. I can smirk when my grandmother takes the little bits of leftover curry that sit in turmeric-stained tupperware containers in our fridge and cooks them again in a pot of newly boiled rice, but this is the woman who remembers times when there was nothing in the icebox to feed her family, not even little bits of curry in small turmeric-stained containers.

When it comes to union dues, older South Asians (the immigrants) are reluctant to pay them, perhaps because the nature of the game is a bit foreign.

I, for example, would understand that organizing was one of my rights guaranteed by the Constitution, set forth in detail in the National Labor Relations Act, and that in joining a union and paying its dues, I was playing into a scheme in which two sides, management and labor, approached the bargaining table on relatively even ground. Management always has the power; labor levels the playing field. I would understand that in paying my dues, I was helping union leaders fight for better wages and conditions and benefits for not only me but other workers. I would understand the collective spirit behind the collective bargaining that is the foundation of labor unions.

A person who grew up seeing just how badly every rupee of every check was needed may find this … frivolous. Unnecessary. South Asians are very generous (eg, despite government restrictions under Bush and Obama that have wrongfully closed several Muslim charitable organizations due to suspicion of ties to terror organizations, American Muslims have been donating record amounts since the 9/11 terror attacks, particularly to the East African crisis, per Islamic Relief USA). Donating to the poor is one of the five pillars of our religion.

But that kind of donation is at odds, for many, with paying union dues to a group of people who discuss employment issues with the bosses. It was hard for me to understand when aunties and uncles were trying to explain it to me, but I think I grasped what they were trying to say: there’s no guarantee that something would happen that they’d actually need the union for, and in the event that nothing happened during their years of employment with a company, and they never needed the union to defend them, they would have wasted all that money they paid in dues.

This is an argument I’ve seen in literature supporting the right-to-work idea, which dealt a serious blow to American labor. But it’s an argument that failed to gain any traction with me. Even if the individual wasn’t in any situation that necessitated union involvement (unlikely – although situations may certainly come up in which the individual is not AWARE that a situation has arisen that necessitated union involvement), the mere presence of the union in a workplace is a great benefit in terms of workers’ rights.

The presence of a union sends a message: these workers are aware of their rights, they are unafraid, and they will not be trifled with. That is a powerful message, and one worth paying for. And even if your money isn’t used on you personally, but lines the union’s coffers until future employees at that company have a problem and need their union to step up and bring in lawyers … how is that a bad thing? It doesn’t mean that anyone has been ripped off. That’s the whole point of a union: the collective spirit among workers, past, present, future.

I figure we all pay extra money for a label on our clothes, shoes, handbags, or cars, to send a certain message about our personality or our social status. In light of that, I find reluctance to pay union dues in order to effectively buy the message that unions send to companies to be … insufferable. And ridiculous. And misguided.

  • serious distrust of authority

My parents have explained this to me on a number of occasions. Whenever they would tell me stories of injustices back home (people being seriously injured over a perceived insult, innocent men being sent to jail, etc), I would interrupt with exasperation, “Why didn’t they call the police?” or “Why didn’t they hire a lawyer?”

My parents would always have to explain to me that in Pakistan, where they’re from, the police are the last people you want to call if you have a problem. Often times, they make it far, far worse. They’ll steal from you, they’ll beat you up, they’ll imprison you for no reason, and they may very well kill you. Police are easily on the take; flash the right amount of cash in front of them and they’ll do anything.

Growing up in an environment like this bred in many of these immigrant aunties and uncles a serious distrust of authority. As far as they were concerned, those in positions of authority often made things much worse, and could always be bought, and had no loyalty to goodness or justice or morality or any sympathy for the suffering of the common men. It was best to stay far, far away and avoid those in authority at all cost.

(Contrast this to my experience growing up in the US, where the first thing I learned in preschool was that if I ever got lost, the first thing I should do is find Mr. Policeman, because he would help me.)

I don’t have to mention how this holds true in America now, too, especially after 9/11, when even marginally suspicious conduct will get a Middle Eastern or South Asian man detained, and when the FBI has a record number of informants infiltrating American masaajid (plural of masjid). I’m just going to leave this hilarious story right here without any additional comment.

Oddly, unions are also seen as most South Asian immigrants as being in a position of authority akin to a police officer or government official. I know, it’s weird, because I never would have made that association on my own, being a native-born US citizen, raised and educated here, with my flip flops and low rise jeans and unhealthy addiction to apple turnovers.

It probably has a lot to do with the fact that members turn over dues to their unions, and that the union is the one with the negotiating power, and that whatever the union agrees to is binding for the members … except that the union leaders at a given company are the people who work there, and they represent a collective interest, not a self-interest.

Semantics, I’m sure.

In addition, union leaders are commonly seen as white men (whether they are or not – I’m reminded of the great Bob Simpson, the African American organizing director of Local 745, right here in Chicago, a legend in his own right), and you cannot deny the imperialist connotation there.

These are people whose parents and grandparents (that is, my grandparents and great-grandparents) who remember the days of British occupation of Hindustan, and the bloodshed that accompanied and followed the white man’s rule. My grandmother still vividly recalls, during the Partition, how the trains from Panipat dripped with blood. The image of the union, whether correct or not, whether deserved or not is not the issue, as being headed up by white men still resonates in the minds of many South Asian immigrants who have lived here for decades and have raised their children here. I’ll discuss this more later, but the white man still conjures up images of the baseline of authority.

And due to the system of government and martial law and criminal justice back in those countries that these aunties and uncles came from, people in positions of authority are not to be trusted, and are only to be dealt with if such dealings are unavoidable.

And unions fall into this category, too.

  • lack of strong labor unions in South Asia

You’re kidding yourself if you want to ask me if there were strong labor unions back in India and Pakistan, at least when my parents were young, and when their parents were young adults.

It is no secret that Muslim countries have some of the worst workers’ rights abuses going on (more on this later). And they lack strong unions.

And the thing is, back home, most people felt that they didn’t need them. Or rather, more appropriately, I should say that they weren’t thinking about unions. In the days when Pakistan was just starting to be properly built up as a nation, as India geared up for its industrial and later technological revolution, people were just lucky to have jobs.

Both of my grandfathers were lucky to have government jobs. They had a measure of security. Far too many people were nowhere near that lucky. If you had a job, you accepted whatever piddling amount you were paid, because, guess what? If you complained, there were 20 other people with NO money who would be only too happy to take your place.

It was very much the same situation we saw in America before labor unions. Think back to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Work conditions unsanitary and unsafe? Pay not even close to a living wage? Too bad. Pipe down and keep working, because there are a lot more workers out there to replace you.

These aunties and uncles never saw unions rise up in their countries. They came to this countries, where unions were strong, and since unions were something new and strange, they just left them alone. (Unless they had to join them, in which case they did. And then complained. Incessantly.)

It’s all about the environment from which you came. For many aunties and uncles, the prevalent belief is that unions weren’t around (and in a strange way, that means they weren’t necessary) back home, which means that they’re not necessary here, either, and aren’t worth thinking about, much less joining.

  • white collar v. blue collar misconception

This is nothing new. Isn’t it comforting how some prejudices and misconceptions cross geographical, cultural, religious, and generational divides?

No? It’s not?

Well, then.

I’m reminded here of the story of the unionization of the University of Chicago. The library workers contacted Local 745 and said they wanted to organize. That meant a union rep had to get on the premises and hand out union cards. If 30% of the total workers signed, there would be an election in which all workers would vote for whether they wanted the Teamsters to represent them or not. If 70% signed, an election wasn’t necessary and the Teamsters became the certified union for the U of C workers.

The organizers (Polk, Simpson, ‘Reverend’ Hamilton) later recalled that one of the biggest obstacles to getting these library workers to sign on and support the union was the misconception that only blue collar workers joined and needed unions. Those poor schlubs toiling away in slaughterhouses were the ones that needed help from the union; white collar workers that sat at desks all day and had a paid lunch hour didn’t have to soil their hands with that sort of thing.

Union membership became a class marker: those in the lower class were union members, and those in the higher class, even if they were barely clinging to that class, or weren’t even really a part of that class even though they had a traditionally white collar job, well, they just weren’t.

It’s like what the immortal Marge Simpson once said: “Ladies pinch, whores wear rouge.”

White collars have a more civilized, privileged relationship with management; blue collars need unions to get down and dirty.

This was a very difficult misconception for the Teamsters Local 745 to overcome, but that’s what they did: the University of Chicago workers voted overwhelmingly in support of unionizing. Even the indomitable Regina Polk was shocked.

This story shows that even though it’s an uphill battle, confronting class constructions and social status and carefully cultivated insecurities, this misconception can be overcome, and the white-collar-blue-collar stratification can be erased.

  • dangers associated with organizing

I mentioned earlier that back ‘home,’ if you complained about your job, you were a fool, because you’d be quickly replaced with one of any number of workers who were eager for a job, no matter how low the pay. Desperate times.

It’s no secret that organizing is fraught with peril. First-world peril. No one dies (usually) or starves or steps on a landmine, but people lose their jobs and their pensions and their health insurance and their reputations and it’s all nasty, nasty business.

And when you’ve come from an environment in which you saw your father carefully clinging to his job, no matter what, and you’re in a new country where you have to secure employment so you can send your kids to a top college (you start worrying about this when they’re in preschool if you’re a Desi), you’re not going to rock the boat.

You’re going to find a job, you’re going to accept the salary, you’re going to smile at slightly racist Debbie from Accounting who always sniffs and complains that the smell of onions and garlic makes her nauseous…while looking directly at you, and you’re going to punch in at 9 and punch out at 5 for as many years as they’ll keep you around.

And if someone comes sniffing around with union cards, you’re going to crumple yours up, stick it in your pocket, and throw it away at home so that your boss doesn’t see it in the waste paper basket under your desk.

You have a job and you won’t risk losing it, even if you want better working conditions, more sick days, paid paternity leave, a pay raise, more money paid into your retirement fund, or, hell, Ice Cream Thursdays. You don’t care if the union says it will fight for these things.

Because right now, you have a job. And if talking to the union guy means that you could be fired (illegally) if your boss sees you and doesn’t like it, forget it. You just won’t talk to that union guy. You’re going to keep your head down and keep working and bringing home that paycheck without worrying about certification cards or elections or collective bargaining or unfair labor practices or lawyers or trials or strikes or scabs.

After all, your father didn’t work for years at a low-paying job in Pakistan or India to feed, clothe, and educate you so that you could come to America and attempt to do the same for your kids just to see you throw it all away on some socialist hogwash that would just get you fired, and then how will you pay for your kids to go to medical school?


I understand the instinct of self-preservation. It’s our most powerful instinct for good reason. But at the same time, I’m a believer in courage, determination, and fighting for not only the greater but the COMMON good.

  • ‘unions are a white man’s thing’

I addressed this a littler earlier when I made reference to colonialism. It’s impossible to underestimate the impact of colonialism on the Indo-Pak culture and its traditions.

I mentioned that there weren’t strong unions back home at that formative time in modern South Asia’s history. There was no basis of comparison or common frame of reference there.

These were people that came from a place with no strong union presence, where they fought to keep the jobs they had, to a place where unions were strong, and there were Labor Day parades, and people wore union buttons, and consumers bought local, and these organizations supported politicians who in turn supported them, and it was this whole big game, this whole big system, with rules and key players and something just so quintessentially American about it.

And these aunties and uncles had no clue what it was, or rather, what the big deal was.

Labor was a white man’s thing. It was a white man’s game. He clearly enjoyed it, so why not leave him to it? Brown folk don’t get mixed up in that sort of thing.

I meant what I said earlier about unions being seen as agents of authority, partly because of their association with the white union leader, and that’s very important here as well in terms of a misconception that acts as an exclusionary force, a self-fulfilling prophesy that Muslims/South Asians possibly use to keep unions at arms’ length.

And this is why it’s more important than ever for young, labor-loving Muslims and South Asians to be vocal about looking for that union label when buying that coat, dress, or blouse, in order to put a new face on American labor – a brown face, possibly a hijabi face.

(Or is that still too edgy? I often forget that in some aspects, liberals can be just as conservative as, well, conservatives. :P It’s always surprising and depressing to be slapped in the face with examples of that.)

  • questions about permissibility of unions according to Islamic teachings

This is perhaps the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard in response to this question about the reluctance of Muslims to join labor unions. But then again, it’s a common theme.

When I told my old Islamic Studies teacher that I really enjoyed criminal law, particularly from a defense perspective, she said that I shouldn’t be a criminal defense attorney because I’d have to defend people that were guilty of bad things and that was ‘unIslamic.’


If this is the kind of Islamic knowledge teachers are imparting to their young, Muslim students, I … I just give up. Find me a cave to live in, please. I’ll go to the mountain, I promise; you don’t have to bring it to me.

This question about membership in a labor union being permissible Islamically always elicits much eye-rolling from me, particularly because Islam strongly emphasizes the rights of the worker and the limits on the businessman.

The Prophet Muhammad (S), from whose sayings and examples Muslims obtain much guidance in living their lives and dealing with practical, everyday matters, said in an authenticated and oft-cited hadith, “In business, the profit should be equal to the salt added to dough to make bread.” What this means is that the Muslim businessman’s profit margins should be thin. He should not overcharge, he should not cheat his customers, and he should not seek exorbitant gain.

About workers, Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “Pay your workers before their sweat has dried.”

There is nothing in Islamic tradition that forbids joining unions to ensure better working terms and conditions; in fact, Islamic teachings and jurisprudence bend toward treating the worker as well as possible. Any Muslim of sense should be able to understand that there is absolutely no conflict between the teachings of Islam and joining a union (even one that is not exclusively Muslim workers). It’s a non-issue.


These are, in my extensive experience with the Muslim South Asian community here, and my discussions with them about unions, the main reasons that can be seen as contributing factors to the lack of Muslims in the membership rosters of unions. I’m sure there are other issues that I haven’t yet hit upon, but this is a good starting point.

The next step is for union leadership to join forces with young, educated, professional, liberal-minded American Muslims (there’s no shortage of these wonderful folks, I’m happy to say) and help turn the tide, tear down these misconceptions, and aggressively court American Muslims and bring them into their ranks.

Happy Labor Day 2011.

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