From a Steel Worker to a Maid. Polish Migrations to the U.S.

15. 3. 2017

Over the last century, there has been a significant amount of continuity (rather than diversity and change) in patterns of Polish labor migrations to the U.S., and more generally –there has been lots of continuity in East Central European labor migrations to the economic centers in the West.

I look at the Polish migrations as just one out of many cases of labor migrations from the peripheral, economically less developed regions to economically more developed regions. The special character of Central Eastern European labor migrations is that those in the late 19th century were among the first, paradigmatic ones, labor migrations. In the next 100 years, they were to change the world as labor migrations became an available option for people from most of postcolonial areas. Central Eastern Europeans, with Poles as the largest group, along the Irish and South-Eastern Europeans (e.g. Southern Italians, Greeks) were the first international labor migrants. Italians and the Greeks ceased migrating in the 1970s, the Irish—in the 1980–90s and these countries have become the countries of immigration themselves. While in the late 20th and early 21st century, majority of the world labor migrants come from the non-European, post-colonial countries of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and North Africa, Central Eastern Europeans keep migrating internationally. (Okólski 2012) Labor migrations remain as important life strategy for Central Eastern Europeans now as in the late 19th century.

Migrations to Industrial America

Industrial capitalism—the process initiated in Great Britain in the late 18th century that spread in most of North-Western Europe and the United States in the course of the 19th century—introduced the mass migrations from countryside to industrial towns and cities; migrations from less economically developed regions and countries to regions that were more developed and industrialized. It became true for both internal migrations and international migrations.

It is only the unprecedented pace of development brought by industrialization, that moved masses of people from European countryside to towns—in their countries or abroad. Peripheral regions of Europe in the East and South joint the process only in the late 19th and early 20th century (Bobińska 1976, Nugent 1992). Abolition of serfdom in the mid to late 19th was an important precondition for migrations from Central Eastern Europe (Bukowczyk 1987).

I want to stress that this direction of migrations— from peripheries to the developed countries—that we now take for granted was a novelty in the world of the 19th century. Before that, in the pre-industrial Western world, the direction of migrations was opposite. People usually migrated as conquerors, colonists— traders, settlers, farmers, religious missionaries or specialists (teachers, artisans, artists) from more developed areas to peripheries; from expanding Europe to regions and continents scarcely populated and considered culturally inferior. Such migrants were pouring from Western to Eastern Europe from Middle Ages to the early modern times (Małowist 1973). European colonists and settlers migrated in this way to the Americas between the 16th and 19th century, and to Asia, Australia and Africa at the end of this period (Chirot 1988). Until the late 19th century, such was a character of migrations to the United States from British isles, Scandinavia and Germany. The conquerors and traders were followed by settlers who would populate and civilize the allegedly “no man’s lands” (Walaszek 2007, Zolberg 2006). In the industrial era, the position and role of migrants in the new country radically changed. These were peasants from the backward regions that migrated to work as unskilled workers in the newly established industrial centers. New migrants were bringing cheap and unskilled labor and not the ideas, skills, capital or demographic potential as earlier migrants (Nugent 1992).

Unlike during the phase of settlement migrations in the U.S., the expanding industry expected young and healthy men. The earlier settlers were expected to be a young, reproductive family of farmers with a set of cultural values similar to those dominant in the country and able of self-sufficient existence. Industry, on the other hand, preferred men, ready to perform routinized tasks for long hours, rather patient and docile, ready to conform to hierarchy and obedient to the already existing rules (Zolberg 2006). The usefulness of this unskilled labor force was proportional to the degree of mechanization and specialization. In the Fordist era, with its high specialization and routinization of labor symbolized by the factory assembly line, Eastern and Southern European often illiterate laborers were ideal labor force (Pacyga 1991). They were needed just as raw muscle power, not as carriers of ideas, not as future citizens, not even as carriers of reproductive potential (Zolberg 2006).

As Aristide Zolberg convincingly showed in his study on how the immigration policies shaped American nationalism Nation by Design (2006), this was the industrial age at the turn of the 19th and 20th century when American elites articulated the immigration dilemma that was to be repeated in all countries of labor immigration in the next century. When confronted with the shortage of labor for expanding industry, American industrialists decided for importation of laborers that were considered racially and culturally inferior. The action was organized with support of the government which recognized industrial development as the national priority. The repeating immigration dilemma was therefore: how to acquire cheap labor without carrying the burden of these laborers’ biological and cultural otherness; how to get laborers without making them voting citizens?

Central Eastern Europe at the turn of the 19th and 20th century was, along Italy, the major region where immigrants in the U.S. originated from. About 4 million Italians, 2.5 million Poles and 2 million Eastern European Jews migrated to the U.S. at the time. (Daniels 1996) Polish peasants, like Slovak, Lithuanian or Hungarian ones (and unlike Jews) were most often unskilled laborers in heavy industry. These were sectors where male labor force dominated: steel works, coalmines, in leather and chemical industry, in meat-packing industry, all with “intense heat, great danger, high accident potential, exhaustion, fatigue, death” (Golab 1977, 105).

They settled typically in towns and cities with heavy industry: coalmines, steelworks and factories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey in traditional industrial area in the northeast of the U.S. (Bodnar 1982, Golab 1977, Greene 1980, Morawska 1985, 1996).

The mechanism of recruitment was based on ethnic networks, that is older immigrants recommended newer immigrants and introduced them to their boss and their job (Morawska 1985, Bodnar 1982, Bukowczyk 1987, Roediger 2006). In factories, coalmines and steel works, where departments were organized ethnically, Slavs were at the bottom of this hierarchy of pay, prestige, security of employment and safety of work conditions. The position in industry was in accord with their position in racial hierarchy worked by the “scientific racism.” This school of thought, now discredited, developed in best Western universities by recognized scholars such as Madison Grant, and was very influential in the U.S., as in the rest of the West, at the turn of the centuries (Gabaccia 2002, Foner 2000). Slavs were perceived as strong as and docile as bulls and also as intelligent (Vecoli 1996). Only black workers, fresh internal migrants, descendants of the slaves emancipated only a generation ago, were located below the Slavs in the scientific- racist and industrial hierarchy (Golab 1977: 109, Gabaccia 2002).

Migrations to Postindustrial America

In the beginning of the 21st century, there are about 450 thousand Polish immigrants in the US, according to the US census. Most of them arrived in the 1980s and 1990s. More of them settle in large metropolitan areas (like everybody else in the US) than a century ago, and Chicago and New York City are the largest places of Polish immigrants’ settlement.

The research on contemporary Polish immigrants in Chicago (Erdmans 1998: 74, Sakson 2005), Philadelphia (Morawska 2004) and New York City (Sosnowska 2010a; Sosnowska 2013 forthcoming) show that non-industrial jobs have become their specialty. Although immigrants that arrived in the US in the late 20th century are better educated that those 100 years ago, their position on the job market is relatively weak. In New York City, their earnings and prestige are higher than those of the newest and poorest labor migrants from Latin America, but worse than those of older immigrants from Italy and Greece, new highly skilled immigrants from India, Philippines and former Soviet Union (Sosnowska 2010a). In terms of predominant occupations and socio-economic position, Polish immigrants are slightly similar to a new group of immigrants from the English and French speaking Caribbean— a bulk of them work in working class jobs but as within this group, have relatively high earnings. As I elaborate elsewhere (2013), their position on a New York City job market could be described as “working class aristocracy” or “top rank laborers.” Construction and building maintenance for men and cleaning—in private apartments and offices—for women are, according to both official statistics and Polish immigrant community leaders’ opinion, the most popular sectors of Polish employment (The Newest New Yorkers 2004, Sosnowska 2010a).

Polish immigrants’ position in the U.S. society has changed slightly since the early 20th century when peasants were coming to work at the bottom of American industrial hierarchy. However, changes in Polish migrants’ position in the American labor market and— more generally—within American society and culture result from the context change rather than from the change of position in the world that Poland has been able to secure for itself and its migrants. These have been changes in the world and changes in the United States itself as well as over a century old ethnic and immigrant networks that are responsible for Polish relative upward mobility in the U.S. Below, I characterize the most important dimensions of this context change.

1. Poles work more often in service sector and not in industry first, because the character of the American economy has changed since the 1960s. Secondly, their top rank position among immigrant service laborers results from the long tradition of immigration. Well developed ethnic networks in working class niches provides them with advantage over newer immigrants of similar occupational profile (Sosnowska 2010a, 2013 forthcoming).

The development of the new postindustrial economy, based on media, symbols and knowledge created by the 1980s brought a demand for a new type of immigrant. Industrial workers, although still employed in American industry, are not anymore the most desired labor providers. As Richard Alba and Victor Nee (2005) argued, new American economy needs either a highly skilled professional or an entrepreneurial service provider (shopkeepers, small business e.g. laundry or restaurant owners) or a service laborer who could serve this newly created, educated and busy middle classes (Alba and Nee 2005). Immigrants from Poland—legal immigrants, wakacjusze working with expired tourist visa and political refugees of the 1980s—have performed mostly the role of service laborers. As Rumbaut and Portes show (2006), laborers dominate among immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, while immigrants-entrepreneurs are typical for newcomers from South Korea, Middle East as well as South Asia while among professionals Indian engineers and Filipino or post-Soviet Jewish physicians are overrepresented (Portes and Rumbaut 2006). Polish immigrants in New York City are ready to work hard as hired laborers in low prestige sectors like other groups with no entrepreneurial traditions and not much formal education—from Spanish speaking countries of Central America and from English and French speaking Caribbean (Sosnowska 2010a).

My study on Polish working class immigrant community in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, including interviews with 26 cleaners (2013, forthcoming) indicate that cleaning jobs are quite appreciated by the cleaners themselves. Although jobs of office cleaners or maids and housekeepers in private apartments bring them no respect either from New York Polish community leaders or American society they are seen as better than alternative available employment in industry, sales or clerk jobs. As I elaborate elsewhere (Sprzątanie w wielkim mieście, manuscript), private apartments’ cleaners, even if they are unauthorized immigrants, often see themselves as small business owners and feel less tired, more autonomous and better paid than industry or sales workers although with less prestige. Especially those employed in office cleaning are considered to be trendsetters in Polish Greenpoint. Their work is respected as legal, well paid, unionized and therefore based on secure employment contract including insurance, pension plan and paid vacation. My interviews indicate that Polish immigrants compete there with other Central Eastern Europeans and Latinos. As Roger Waldinger’s study (1996) on the New York City immigrant labor market shows, this kind of jobs is a dream for uneducated immigrants (or those unable to translate their credentials into American job market) with no entrepreneurial traditions.

2. Now, Polish immigrants are not anymore among the numerically dominant groups of foreign laborers, like they were along Italians and Jews at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. They constitute a numerical minority among the migrants from non-European countries. Unlike 100 years ago, when East and South Europeans were considered biologically different and racially inferior to the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic population, their whiteness is not questioned, as they are in minority in a much less white crowd. The United States became in the 1960s a country of formal racial equality as racial segregation in the South was forbidden and antidiscrimination measures were introduced in schooling, employment and public life. However, whiteness and Europeaness, is still appreciated culturally (Bean and Lee 2010). My Polish immigrant respondents clearly discovered upon arrival in the U.S. their whiteness that they were unaware of in the native country where everybody is white. They also learnt to see it an asset in the job market and social life. They felt that their whiteness gave them (and even more their children) advantage over non-Europeans (Sosnowska 2010b).

My respondents who worked as cleaners and maids as well as some community leaders thought that ‘a Polish maid’ is a recognized and appreciated brand in New York City and that employers prefer them to maids from other nations (Sosnowska 2010a). The research shows that these are rather English speaking Caribbean women who secured themselves a niche of maids and baby sitters in New York City homes (Coble 2006: 158–160). However, I find some support for Polish immigrants’ intuition in popular culture. The image of Polish (and Eastern European catholic) maid in American popular TV series equips them with ethos of hard work, a sense of hygiene and order but also with traditional European female wisdom. Characters such as Dorota from Gossip Girl and Magda from Sex and the City are good examples here. In both series, Central Eastern European maids represent what American women have lost in the course of emancipation, getting rich and staying sexually attractive. They moralize and advise, substitute for absent mothers and know how to fix both practical and psychological problems without spending money on specialists or technological devices. In both series, Central Eastern Europe—through its immigrant maids in New York City—represents a romanticized and nostalgic version of the Western past, lost in the course of expansion of modernity, capitalism and urban culture, almost as in Herders’s writings on Slavic culture (Wolff 1994). On the other hand, in criminal affairs where Polish maids appear as thieves of their employers’ jewelry, the fact that they are white is quite exposed. Lucyna Turyk-Wawrynowicz, a maid to New York City celebrities such as Robert De Niro and Isabella Rosselini, who was sentenced to 3 years of prison for theft in 2006 is the best known case (Hartocollis 2006). Such criminal cases still rather promote (who would not like to have a housekeeper similar to the one who cleaned for De Niro?) than undermine “Polish maid” as a valuable trade mark.

3. More women migrate globally than 100 years ago because the new economy in the post-feminism societies of the West needs not primarily male workers but female service workers (Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Slany and Ślusarczyk 2012; Kindler and Napierała 2010). This demand has increased in Western societies since the 1970s, that symbolically mark the era of both the new economy and new society of counterculture ideals moving into the mainstream. Western women, including American ones, have massively entered a job market since then. As they disappeared as domestic workers and care providers, new vacancies in these sectors were created and they were filled by female immigrants. More home attendants, maids, baby sitters and elderly care providers are needed. Women from peripheries play these roles. Central Eastern European women, like Afro-Caribbean ones, have a strong position on this market. As much as being native English speakers, familiar with British middle class culture of self-improvement and discipline (Vickerman 2001) is an Afro-Caribbean women’s advantage, Polish women take advantage of their whiteness, European cultural background and well developed ethnic networks.

4. Finally, low status of Polish immigrants has not ended with the accession to European Union and change of the direction of Polish labor migrations from the United States to Europe. In the EU countries, where most Poles migrate after admission to the EU in 2004, their situation is similar to that in the United States. Here again they make together with other Eastern Europeans from smaller nations the only European immigrant group and compete with non-European migrants. “Despite positive selection (…) they work in secondary sectors of labor market (…): construction, agriculture, hospitality, as well as cleaning” where pay, prestige and security are low (Fidel, Kaczmarczyk, Okólski 2007: 82).

Significant changes in the world economy, demography and culture activated non- European peripheries in the 1970s. Since then, they have been globally a major source of labor migrants. Because of that global development and because of ethnic networks shaped in the course of over 100 year long tradition of Polish migration to the U.S., the relative position of Poles has improved. Between the industrial and postindustrial era, they have moved from the bottom of the working class to the position of “laborers’ aristocracy.” However, despite the changes in the world economy, and dramatic changes in the region itself (the two world wars, changes in social and ethnic structure in result of Holocaust and changes of borders and political systems), Poland has remained an undeveloped country that exports cheap labor to the centers of the world economy; a country whose economic development, in its pace and character, is not able to address aspirations of a significant part of its population. Emigration remains the only or most reasonable life strategy for this group as it did to hungry peasants from overpopulated villages of Galicia and Mazowsze over a century ago (Kaczmarczyk 2005). Both in the U.S. and in the new destination countries, Polish immigrants remain typically migrants-laborers (in opposition to professionals or entrepreneurs) whose comparative advantage in postindustrial service sectors is whiteness, European culture and in some countries, such as the U.S., well developed ethnic networks.

Anna Sosnowska

is a Scholar, University of Warsaw, author of Zrozumieć zacofanie. Spory historyków o Europę Wschodnią (1947–1994).

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