Undocumented Immigrants: ‘We Are the Working Class of America’
By John Peterson
“It’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” —Emilano Zapata.
The crowds stretched as far as the eye could see and waves of cheers swept across the thousands of colorful banners and flags in a roar that seemingly would not stop. The celebratory mood was punctuated by militant chants, and the music of mariachis, Aztec drums, and Irish bagpipes filled the air. This is the scene that has been repeated to one degree or another across the United States over the last few weeks, as millions of immigrants and their supporters have hit the streets in the most massive social mobilization in decades.
No longer afraid of “la migra” (the INS), and feeling the strength and solidarity of their numbers, the sleeping giant of the immigrants’ rights movement has begun to stir on a grand scale. Over the course of the last few weeks, this has become the most important debate in the country.
Demonstrations and marches have been taking place in dozens of cities around the country since the beginning of the year, but it wasn’t until Chicago’s 500,000 and Los Angeles’ 1,000,000-plus marches that the mood really took off. Taking their inspiration from these historic and unexpected turnouts, millions of undocumented workers and their supporters turned out in droves for another wave of mobilizations on April 9th and 10th.
40,000 in St. Paul, MN; 5,000 in San Francisco, CA; 30,000 in Madison, WI; 3,000 in Providence, RI; 5,000 in St. Louis, MO; 25,000 in Seattle, WA; 75,000 in Ft. Meyers, FL; 500,000 in Dallas, TX (a city of just 1.2 million people); and thousands upon thousands more in cities large and small, east and west, north and south. In several cities, High School students participated in walkouts and some university campuses have seen broad student participation as well, including UC Berkeley, the hotbed of the 1960s anti-Vietnam War movement.
These massive grass roots demonstrations have for the most part been organized by coalitions of immigrant rights and faith-based organizations as well as labor and community activists. The Latino media has also played a vital role in mobilizing these kinds of numbers, but it is only because their calls for massive participation have fallen on fertile soil that the results have been so spectacular. And although most of the immigrants on the streets have been Latinos, there have also been thousands of immigrants from every part of the world participating, many of them mobilized by the issue of family reunification.
One of the main features of these demonstrations has been the loss of fear by millions of people accustomed to constantly looking over their shoulders or keeping their heads down. The relief and joy felt by the participants at finally being able to come out into the open and express all their pent-up frustrations and aspirations was exhilarating. Along with César Chávez’ powerful and unifying chant of “Si Se Puede!” (“Yes we can!”), chants like, “el pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido” (“the people united, will never be defeated”) filled the air.
The general mood was one of broad unity and celebration, but some chants and banners were filled with a more militant and clear class and even revolutionary content. For example: “Aqui estamos, aqui nos quedamos, si nos deportan, nos regresamos!” (Here we are, and here we’ll stay, if they deport us, we’ll come back!”); “Arriba, arriba con el trabajador, abajo abajo con el explotador!” (“up, up with the worker, down, down with the exploiter!”). T-Shirts of Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata were not uncommon, and the slogans “viva la revolucion!” and “viva Zapata” were taken up by some. The revolutionary traditions of the Mexican people and their brothers and sisters across Latin America are by no means dead and buried.
Exploitation and racism
Although these demonstrations seemingly erupted out of nowhere, the social, economic, and political contradictions that set the stage for this mass movement have been simmering beneath the surface of American society for decades. For generations, millions of immigrants from around the world, and above all from Latin America, have lived in the shadows of American society, working hard to make a decent living for themselves and their families. Far from being “criminals” or “terrorists,” as the right wing media portrays them, immigrant workers in the U.S. are among the hardest working and longest suffering people on the planet. With their families’ well-being often dependent on the money they can send back to the country of their birth, the last thing they want is trouble.
But trouble came looking for them. Politicians from both big business parties have been playing with the lives of millions of people in a cheap attempt to gain votes in a mid-term election year. They were also hoping to distract the public’s attention from the quagmire in Iraq and dissatisfaction with the economy by once again playing the “national security” card here at home. House of Representatives bill HR4437, sponsored by Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrennner, is a vicious attack on the rights of undocumented workers, and by extension, on the rights of all working people in the United States.
Low or even unpaid wages? Undocumented workers took it.
Dangerous slave-like working conditions and exposure to toxic chemicals? Undocumented workers took it.
Violence and extortion by the bosses and the police, who know that those without documents can hardly complain? Undocumented workers took it.
Racist insults and being treated like second-class citizens? Undocumented workers took it.
No political, trade union, or even civil rights? Undocumented workers took it.
Deportations for trying to organize a union and the constant fear of raids by the INS? Undocumented workers took it.
The sudden and traumatic splitting up of families as a result of deportations? Undocumented workers took it, all in the hopes that their children and their grandchildren’s lives would be better.
But as with all things in society and nature, a “tipping point” has been reached where “enough is enough.”
As explained in the article “USA: The Anti-Immigration Law HR4437,” by Jose Bedia (In Defense of Marxism, March 23, 2006,” the Sensenbrenner bill is a battery of reactionary measures that would criminalize millions of undocumented workers and anyone that dared assist them in any way. The mere act of giving an undocumented migrant a glass of water after days walking across a deadly desert could be punishable by time in prison. The bill also provided for a wall to be built across the U.S.-Mexico border, and for the forced deportation of millions. This arrogant and racist bill was the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”
HR4437 is now all but dead, and various “compromise” solutions are being offered. But none of these proposals have been drafted in consultation with immigrant workers, their families, or the labor movement in general. The various “guest worker programs” and “paths to citizenship,” some of which attempt to divide immigrant workers based on the length of time they have been in the U.S., all fall far short of what is truly needed: comprehensive immigration reform and residency documents for all who wish to work here. The movement has tremendous momentum and should not stop until we achieve equal rights for all workers, both native and foreign-born.
Not surprisingly, some business leaders oppose the draconian legislation which threatens their cheap pool of labor. Many employers support immigrant workers being in this country because without them, many industries simply could not function. Immigrant workers allow for greater profits to be extracted from all working people by forcing competition between “documented” and “undocumented” workers, thereby driving wages to the bottom in an economy where jobs are increasingly hard to find.
A lack of legal protections against low or unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions, and poor housing conditions, makes undocumented workers ripe for super-exploitation and increased profits. By pitting workers against each other, the bosses can divert our attention from the real problem: an economic system that puts profits before people.
The rank and file of the movement for immigrant rights has a working class outlook due to its overwhelmingly working class composition. The immigrant community is made up of millions of working people doing some of the most difficult and tedious jobs in the country. According to the AFL-CIO, workplace fatalities among foreign-born workers have increased by 46 percent between 1992 and 2002.
An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrant workers live in the U.S., and they form a major backbone of the U.S. economy: as agricultural workers doing back-breaking work in the fields; as maids and janitors in hotels and office complexes; as meat packers in the factories and on construction sites; as cooks and dishwashers in restaurants.
Due to the economic crisis in the countries of their birth, millions have been forced to look for a better life on this side of the Rio Grande. This situation is the direct result of U.S. foreign policy and the neo-liberal economic policies of the World Bank, the IMF, and “free trade” agreements like NAFTA. Many have also escaped political persecution, and have come to rebuild their lives in the “belly of the beast”—the country whose policies forced them to flee their homes in the first place. Having fled economic hardship and persecution at home, they now face the same situation here in the “land of milk and honey.”
It’s not surprising therefore that millions have come to the conclusion that there is nowhere left to run—if they have to make a stand for their rights, they may as well make it here. For example, in an ironic and dialectical twist of history, there are some 600,000 El Salvadorean expatriates in the Washington, DC area alone—many of whom fled the U.S.-sponsored dirty wars of the 1980s. Now they are bringing their organizing skills and burning desire for social justice to the struggle for immigrant rights—right in the shadow of the White House and the Pentagon.
A national work stoppage
Millions of workers around the world celebrate May Day—International Workers’ Day—but many don’t know that the tradition began right here in the United States as part of the bitter struggle for the 8-hour day. Over the years, the day has come to be observed in the U.S. by only a few trade unionists and a hodge-podge of labor activists. The “Labor Day” holiday was moved to the end of summer and has become “one last long summer weekend for barbecuing and drinking beer,” a conscious effort to strip a day celebrating working people of its class content. This May Day however, the original class content of this day of international working class solidarity will be back on the agenda.
The immigrant rights movement is entering a new and decisive stage.
Beginning with a call to action from Los Angeles, the movement for a “gran paro nacional”—a national work stoppage/boycott on May 1st—has spread like wildfire. The call is for a “day without immigrants”—with no one going to work or school, and a boycott of all retailers to show the economic power of immigrant workers and their families. This is reminiscent of the satirical film “A Day Without a Mexican”—only it is becoming a reality. The Latino media has enthusiastically taken up the call, and community meetings are being organized across the country to discuss the issue.
Although millions of undocumented workers clearly have grievances against their bosses, the call for a May Day work stoppage is not a “strike” in the classic sense of the word: an effort to win better wages and conditions from their particular boss. It is an effort to show the importance of these workers and their families to the economy. However, it is inevitable that in many cases, resentment at low wages and poor conditions will play an important role in turning out large numbers for the stoppage.
For thousands of undocumented workers and their documented allies, it’s a not a matter of whether or not they participate in a general work stoppage, it’s a matter of organizing for it—they’ve already decided to go ahead with it. In many workplaces, spontaneous committees are being formed to decide how to go about preparing for the strike/boycott and to inform management that they won’t be at work on May Day. Predictably, this has already led to firings and to workers leaving their jobs. The mood among many is one of defiance of the bosses’ efforts to stop them from taking the day off. Many feel that if they may well lose their jobs and be deported in a few weeks anyway, they may as well go down fighting. Now that they have begun to take their destinies into their own hands, they are determined that nothing is going to stop them.
The effect of a May Day work stoppage/boycott could be powerful. In some service industries, the vast majority of workers are immigrants, and the absence of these workers would be crippling. At some hotels, 90 percent of housekeepers are Latinas. It is estimated that nationally, one in every three restaurant workers is undocumented.
As reported in the Wall Street Journal: According to the Pew Hispanic Center, of the hotel industry’s 1.5 million employees, 150,000 are undocumented. In food manufacturing, also with 1.5 million employees, there are 210,000 without documents. There are 1.2 million landscaping workers in the country, and 300,000 are undocumented. A boycott of all retail business on May Day would also definitely have an economic impact, as millions of immigrant workers and their allies are expected to participate.
A work stoppage, even by just one sector of the working class is a serious step and must be prepared for methodically. We should immediately form action committees in every workplace, school, and neighborhood to discuss preparations for May Day, including a plan of action to coordinate a massive response against employers that fire workers for not showing up that day. These action committees are already being formed in many workplaces across the country and we must work energetically to link them up on the local, state, and national level. Every effort must also be made to link up with other workers in all sectors of the economy, especially rank and file trade unionists who know full well that an injury to one is an injury to all.
Many trade unionists and even some local unions have been extremely supportive of the immigrant rights movement, especially in the service industry. Many rank-and-file members are in full support of the May 1 work stoppage and have come out strongly against some of the main proposals being debated in Congress, in particular the two-tiered system which would relegate so-called “guest workers” to permanent second-class status.
Teamsters Local 952 in Costa Mesa, CA, an anti-immigrant hotbed, recently passed a resolution calling for legal status for immigrant workers, not a “guest worker” program. They condemned the alternatives being debated in Congress on the grounds that they “do nothing to remove the economic incentives that unscrupulous employers have to hire and exploit immigrant workers, and fail to really address the fact that we have 11 million undocumented workers in this country contributing to our communities.”
Their resolution goes on to say that the union “opposes any form of employer sanctions because they have historically resulted in ‘employee sanctions’ in the form of firings of workers for union organizing and discrimination practices on the job.” The union “opposes guest worker legislative proposals because such modern day ‘bracero programs’ create an indentured servitude status for workers.”
The mood of many workers can be seen in the following anecdote, as reported by David Bacon in his article “Congress Must Face Reality—Immigrants Want Equality”:
“When Senator John McCain, co-sponsor of the Senate’s main guest worker plan, tried to defend it to a building trades union audience in his home state this week, he was booed. He told the construction workers that even at $50 an hour they wouldn’t be willing to pick lettuce, implying that only Mexicans were willing to do farm labor. For some in the audience, McCain’s remarks recalled former California Senator George Murphy, who infamously declared in the 1960s that only Mexicans would perform stoop labor because ‘they’re built so close to the ground.’ Needless to say, McCain didn’t actually include in his bill any wage guarantee for guestworkers, much less $50/hour (about 5 times what lettuce cutters make today).”
Even the officialdom of the AFL-CIO has come out strongly in favor of fundamental immigration reform. Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO, recently wrote:
“We rely on their labor each and every day. Yet the basic rights of these workers—to a minimum wage, a safe workplace and fair treatment—are routinely trampled upon. This exploitation hurts all of us, foreign and native-born alike. It must end, and the overhauling of our nation’s broken immigration laws is essential to achieving this goal.
“Tragically, all immigration reform proposals currently circulating in the halls of Congress fail to protect even the most basic rights of immigrant workers and their families. Effective reform must include three interdependent goals.... First, our government must uniformly enforce laws on workplace standards. All workers, including immigrants, should earn a minimum wage, have safe jobs and receive fair treatment. When immigrants are treated poorly, workplace standards are dragged down for all workers. Second, we must reject guest worker programs. Because these workers are wholly dependent on host employers for both their livelihoods and legal status, guest workers are ripe for exploitation. Finally, there must be a path to permanent residency for immigrant workers already here.”
The unity of all working people in defending immigrant workers is of fundamental importance. The courage of undocumented workers who face deportation just for standing up for basic rights is an inspiration for all working people. The bosses can clearly see the danger of workers without documents uniting with the rest of their working class brothers and sisters, and they seek to divide us.
There are no more crumbs to be had in this epoch of capitalist economic decay; in fact the bosses are aggressively forcing more givebacks and concessions from the workers. With immigrant workers at the forefront, the labor movement as a whole can finally turn back the bosses’ offensive that has had us on the defensive for nearly three decades.
The development of the movement has in many ways been a microcosm of a full-fledged revolution, with important implications for the future and important lessons that working people and revolutionaries must absorb. All the ebbs and flows of a revolutionary process, the advances and retreats, the optimism and confidence followed by moods of pessimism and defeatism have swirled through the movement at various stages. The rapid rise in consciousness has led to an extremely dynamic and fluid situation.
In many cities, the energy of the masses has swept aside the traditional leadership of the immigrant rights movement, who have become accustomed to decades of slow work and fighting uphill battles for a few minor reforms, unable to cope with the radically changed situation. Important as they may have been in keeping the movement together in the past, they have in many cases become an obstacle to the advance of the movement. More and more, it is the rank and file that is setting the tone of the movement, and throwing up new leaders and spokespersons.
The spontaneity and ad hoc organizing of the movement so far has been impressive, far exceeding all the organizers’ wildest predictions. Those active in the movement will emerge from this process with a wealth of experience and insight, and it is clear that many of the best leaders of the coming American Socialist Revolution will emerge from the rank and file of this movement. But methodical organization and a trusted, tested, and accountable leadership that has deep roots in the working class cannot be thrown up in the heat of struggle.
The need for a revolutionary party that fights shoulder to shoulder with the rest of our class is vital. This in no way minimizes the incredible élan, creativity, and fighting spirit of the working class, but we know all too well that revolutionary movements and opportunities don’t come around every day. We must painstakingly build a far-sighted and experienced revolutionary leadership that is organically connected to the struggles of our class. Otherwise, all the enthusiasm and energy of these movements can dissipate without achieving what must be our ultimate goal: ending this exploitative system once and for all. Shoulder to shoulder with the working class, we can and will change this society.
Where do we go from here?
The movement has gained tremendous momentum and we cannot let it stop here. The impressive displays of solidarity we have experienced these past weeks cannot be allowed to dissipate. The May Day work stoppage is intended to show the bosses and their government that these millions of workers and their families are essential to the economy. If April 9th and 10th are any indication, and if we organize ourselves as described above, that message will be loud and clear. But what are our longer-term goals?
The Senators continue to negotiate among themselves based on their election year calculations. They couldn’t care less about the millions of people whose fates they are deciding. Therefore, we need to be clear in demanding nothing less than a general amnesty for all undocumented workers, documents for all, and an efficient path to citizenship for those that want it.
Latinos are now the largest minority group in the country, and millions are among the most oppressed workers in American society. For years we have explained that due to their conditions of life, these workers were destined to play a leading role in the working class’ struggle to change society. This is now becoming a reality. There are hundreds of thousands who have never participated in any political activity whatsoever who are now preparing for a mass work stoppage and boycott. This is how rapidly consciousness can change based on changing conditions.
At the present time there is a general feeling of “immigrant unity”—regardless of class. For example, many Latino businesspeople are supportive of the movement at the moment and have agreed to give their workers the day off on May Day. However, this “springtime” of the movement won’t last forever. It will eventually split along class lines, as the business owners’ interests and those of their workers collide. Immigrant business owners who now have citizenship are some of the worst exploiters of their communities, as they know the newer arrivals have no option but to take the wages and conditions they are offered.
The only allies undocumented workers can depend on are other workers. To really succeed, undocumented workers must unite with all other working people, and link up the fight for immigrant rights with all the other social movements and struggles that are developing nationally, including the anti-war movement and above all the labor movement. In workers’ unity there is strength!
The world is in revolt. The mass demonstrations in France and the defeat of the anti-youth labor law prove that united in struggle, we can influence the policy makers who in normal times do whatever they want without consulting us. In Latin America, the revolutionary process with Venezuela at the forefront is sending shockwaves throughout the continent. Colossal convulsions are being prepared in Mexico as well, and the effect this will have here in the U.S. will be far-reaching, especially after the recent show of strength by Latino workers, most of whom are Mexican.
The mass immigration rights demonstrations of the last few weeks are just a taste of what is to come as other sectors of U.S. society join their undocumented brothers in sisters in a united struggle against the decaying profit system. From the tip of Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, working people united are going to change this continent and end the misery of capitalist exploitation once and for all.
• An injury to one is an injury to all!
• For comprehensive immigration reform that truly meets the needs of all working people!
• Documents for all immigrant workers and their families!
• Streamline the process for acquiring U.S. Citizenship and accelerate family reunification!
• For the unity of all working people and the youth in the struggle for immigrant rights!
• Organize action committees in every factory, school, and neighborhood, and link them up locally, regionally, and nationally to build for the May 1 general strike / boycott!
• For an end to NAFTA and other trade agreements that force economic refugees from their homes!
—In Defense of Marxism, April 14.2006