When I was a union organizer, I had an experience that dramatized for me the importance of the cultural and historical traditions that immigrants from Mexico bring with them when they come to the United States, and how they affect the way people organize.
I was working for the United Electrical Workers, one of the most progressive U.S. unions. We were contacted by workers at a huge sweatshop, Cal Spas. Unhappy with low wages and abusive conditions, they began to organize a union. Then the head of the workers’ organizing committee was beaten up in the middle of the street in front of the plant. It was an obvious effort to scare the workers and make them stop organizing.
That night, the workers’ committee met and discussed what should be done. Many had no legal immigration status. They had no resources, or even food at home in some cases, because their wages were so low. Yet most people wanted to strike.
But they did have one big question. They wanted to know if a strike was legal. I told them that strikes under those circumstances in the United States were legal, and they decided that this would be their course of action. The next day, they held a big rally at lunchtime in front of the plant. The committee got up on the back of a flatbed truck and made speeches about the beating and intimidation. At the end of the rally, the committee asked the workers not to go back to work. Hundreds of workers set up picket lines, and the strike was on.
The next morning, however, there were dozens of people at the plant office, applying for jobs. The company spent a day signing them up. The following morning, the police arrived in a massive show of force. Escorted by the cops, these new workers crossed the picket lines and went to work.
The strike committee turned to me. One worker, in a tone that indicated he thought I had lied to them, said that I had promised the strike would be legal. I said it was, and they pointed to the strikebreakers. How can it be legal, they asked, if there are people going in to work?
Different Concepts of Rights
The difference in understanding is crucial. They meant one thing when they said legal, and I meant another. In Mexico, during a legal strike, workers can put red and black flags across the doors into the plant, and the company must remain closed until the strike is over. No one can legally go in to work. The problem, of course, is that it is very difficult for most workers to get legal status for independent unions and strikes.
In the United States, unions do not have to be registered with the government, and anyone can form one. But there is little real legal protection for unions, and they have few rights. A company can legally break a strike, just as Cal Spas did.
Behind these differences are different conceptions of rights. In the United States, property rights are paramount, and they overrule labor rights. Immigration law overrules labor rights, too. The Supreme Court held in the Sure-Tan and Hoffman decisions that companies found guilty of firing undocumented workers for union activity have no obligation for reinstatement or back pay.
In Mexico, the legal and political traditions of the 1910 Revolution still mean something. Labor has important legal and social rights, at least on paper, and the state is supposed to honor and uphold them. Unfortunately, those rights often remain on paper, unenforced in real life.
The Mexican constitution gives people a right to food and housing, but people go hungry and have no place to live. There is a right to strike effectively, but in practice, independent and democratic unions are repressed. At worst, the government uses police and even military force to break unions and strikes, as it did with the Mexican Electrical Workers (SME) and the miners in Cananea this past year.
This lack of enforcement often creates a deep cynicism among immigrant workers from Mexico about the connection between unions and the state. When Cal Spas strikers saw strikebreakers escorted into the plant by police across our lines, some of them concluded that the union had lied, and was selling out the strike. That suspicion ended only after they elected a strike committee to control the strike.
Both the Mexican and U.S. governments pursue a policy of encouraging foreign investment, and see labor upsurge and rising wages as obstacles. There are growing challenges to the official corporatist union structure in Mexico, and the protection contracts that function as a means of labor control for companies building plants there. But because of the existing development policy of encouraging foreign investment at all cost, these challenges become hard-fought battles. The rule of law, as it has protected workers’ rights in the past, is undermined.
These problems become worse as the neoliberal economic model becomes stronger. The political, social, and economic crises they create produce more migration to the United States. At the same time, more production leaves the United States, looking for low wages across the border.
Maquilas and NAFTA
When the maquiladora program began in 1964, foreign-owned plants were heavily restricted. From the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920 through the early 1970s, the Mexican government encouraged economic development by Mexican producers, making products for sale in Mexico. Foreign investment was limited. The Border Industrialization Program itself was originally intended in part to absorb workers on the border who were unemployed as a result of the end of the bracero contract-labor program.
But under pressure from an accumulating foreign debt, Mexican economic policy began to change. Government businesses were sold to private investors. U.S. companies were allowed to own land and factories anywhere in Mexico, without Mexican partners. The prices of basic goods were decontrolled, and government subsidies on food and services for workers and the poor were cut back or ended altogether.
Mexico was a laboratory for the economic reforms that have transformed the economies of developing countries, away from policies encouraging national development, toward ones opening up the economy for transnational investors. Today the Mexican economy looks nothing like it did thirty years ago.
Maquiladoras furnish one of Mexico’s largest sources of foreign exchange, after oil. Remittances-the money sent home by those displaced by neoliberal policies, now working in other countries-furnish another huge source of foreign exchange. This has created a culture in which anything favoring maquiladora production is emphasized, while the human cost is ignored. The Mexican government has created an investment climate that depends on a vast number of low-wage earners. This climate gets the government’s attention, while it sacrifices domestic consumption- the ability of people to buy what they produce.
Well before passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the disparity between U.S. and Mexican wages was growing. Mexican salaries were a third of those in the United States up to the 1970s. They are now less than an eighth, and as low as one-fifteenth, depending on the industry-even during a period in which U.S. wages have declined in buying power.
Over the last two decades, the income of Mexican workers has lost more than half of its purchasing power. Under pressure from foreign lenders, the Mexican government has ended subsidies on the prices of basic necessities, including gasoline, electricity, bus fares, tortillas, and milk, which have risen dramatically. It estimates that forty million people live in poverty, and 25 million in extreme poverty.
U.S. workers were also affected by growing poverty in Mexico, which acted as a magnet drawing production south. Promises that NAFTA would create jobs in the United States to compensate for lost production were simply a political ruse to get NAFTA passed by Congress.
NAFTA’s corporate lobby, USA*NAFTA, could only document 535 U.S. jobs created by the agreement in 1994 (its first year), despite promises that U.S. exports to Mexico would account for one hundred thousand jobs that year alone. At the same time, the U.S. Department of Labor received claims for NAFTA-related Trade Adjustment Assistance from 34,799 workers. By 2002, the total was 403,000. According to “NAFTA at Seven,” a report by the Economic Policy Institute, “NAFTA eliminated 766,030 actual and potential U.S. jobs between 1994 and 2000 because of the rapid growth in the net U.S. export deficit with Mexico and Canada.” The number is far higher today. A study by Robert E. Scott for the Economic Policy Institute in 2003 found “Since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1993, the rise in the U.S. trade deficit with Canada and Mexico through 2002 caused the displacement of production that supported 879,280 U.S. jobs”
Exports don’t always produce jobs. In the five industries that account for most exports to Mexico – electric equipment, machinery, transportation equipment, chemicals, and primary metals – over 1.5 million jobs disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s, while exports increased. NAFTA accelerated the export of capital, not the export of goods and services. Foreign investment in Mexican plants and equipment, mostly from the United States, grew by $8 billion in the first half of 1994 alone. General Electric’s Mexican plants increased their sales in 1994 by 18 percent, to $1 billion. Then-CEO Jack Welch told Business Week that General Electric’s future lay in Mexico.
Through bailout and loan conditions, the U.S. government enforces a low-wage policy on the Mexican economy, with the Mexican government’s active cooperation, in order to encourage maquiladora construction. As a result, labor conflicts have broken out in plant after plant for the last two decades, from one end of the border to the other. And as those conflicts have grown more intense, a movement to support the workers involved has been painstakingly organized to the north, in the United States and Canada.
This cross-border solidarity movement not only provides immediate material support for embattled workers. Because the maquiladora-style of production itself transforms the economies of developing countries such as Mexico, this movement in response offers a proving ground for a new model of international relationships between workers and unions. Today grassroots solidarity across the U.S.-Mexican border is developing in different areas, using a variety of strategies. These share a general democratic and grassroots character, which differentiate them clearly from the top-down approach to international union relations that characterized the Cold War. The new cross-border campaigns give a voice to workers themselves.
Border labor conflicts are largely the product of the imposition of economic reforms on Mexico by the International Monetary Fund, backed up by conditions on U.S. bank loans and bailouts. The most important of those conditions, beyond even ending subsidies and opening the Mexican economy to imports, has been privatization.
In countries like Mexico, with mixed economies, a large percentage of workers historically have been employed by state enterprises. A majority of Mexican industrial workers were employed by the government until economic reforms began transforming its economy in the 1970s. Mexico’s organized labor movement had its greatest strength in the state sector.
While three-quarters of the workforce in Mexico belonged to unions three decades ago, less than 30 percent do today. In the state-owned oil company, PEMEX, union membership still hovers at 72 percent. But when the collateral petrochemical industry was privatized over the last decade-and-a-half, the unionization rate fell to 7 percent. New private owners reduced the membership of the railway workers’ union from 90,000 workers to 36,000 by the mid-1990s.
Last year, one of the most important Mexican labor struggles was fought over the privatization of the electrical system in central Mexico and the effort to destroy its union. This fight is now a decade old. In 2000, the Mexican Electrical Workers union (SME) mobilized its allies, and collected a million signatures on a petition in three weeks to stop the sale of their employer, the Power and Light Company of Central Mexico. Last year, however, the government fired all 44,000 of the company’s employees, occupied its installations with federal police, tore up the SME’s contract, and brought in thousands of subcontracted replacement workers. Since then, SME members have been beaten as they tried to demonstrate in front of power installations. Dozens mounted a hunger strike in Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zocalo. Union activists view the attack on the SME as an effort to destroy a union that has been a bulwark of the left, and the most important obstacle to the privatization of electricity.
Mass firings and the destruction of unions have already faced workers at Mexico’s airlines, railroads, buses, telephone system, and in many other industries. For over three years, miners in Cananea have been on strike to prevent the destruction of their union and the elimination of their jobs in one of Mexico’s oldest copper mines, the site of the historic 1907 battle that presaged the Mexican Revolution.
In a strike in 1998, hundreds of miners there lost their jobs after the threat of military occupation was used to enforce cutbacks by Grupo Mexico, a giant corporation that was virtually given the mine in the wave of privatizations conducted by former President Carlos Salinas. Since there is almost no other work in Cananea, a small mountain town, the jobless miners had to leave. Many of them crossed the border, just fifty miles north, to find work and a new future in the United States. If the current strike in Cananea is lost, and the union defeated or destroyed, hundreds more will lose their jobs. In effect, the miners are fighting for the right to continue living and working in Mexico.
Looking for a Future
Where do miners go when they lose their jobs and union? Where will the 44,000 fired electrical workers go to find work, if they cannot win back their jobs, their union and their rights? Migration to the United States is a direct consequence of repression, privatization, and the imposition of market-based economic reforms.
The miners and electrical workers are not alone. Migrant Rights International, an immigrant rights organization based in Geneva, estimates that over two hundred million people today live outside the countries in which they were born. They are not just moving from Mexico to the United States, but from developing countries to developed ones all over the world.
What do they find when they arrive with dreams of a better life? In the United States, they become part of an immigrant workforce with conditions and wages at the bottom. They’re denied the most basic rights-no unemployment insurance, no medical care, no social benefits of any kind. They have no right to a job. Not only can they be fired at a moment’s notice, like most workers, but, for them, the very act of working is a crime, a violation of the law-thanks to the employer sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
As Arizona’s recently passed SB 1070 clearly shows, these workers are denied the right to be residents of a stable community, to live here at all. And the irony is that they often wind up working for the same corporations whose operations in their countries of origin are part of the reason they’re here to begin with.
Workers in the United States become victims of the same free-trade economy, losing their jobs when their plants close, or when the shrinking tax base that pays for social services leads to job cuts. When this happens, they are told to find someone to blame. But instead of pointing the finger at the corporations and governments and financial institutions that actually make the decisions, they are told to blame other workers. “Blame workers in Mexico or China for taking your job. Blame the immigrant workers in the United States for the same thing.”
As a result, anti-immigrant hysteria has now become an extremely serious problem in all developed countries, as migrants have become a transnational reserve army of labor, and an integral part of the workforce in the countries to which they go.
Transnational corporations want it both ways. They want the right to invest in the developing world, forcing wages to the bottom in the pursuit of profits. And in the developed countries, they seek workers who have been displaced by high unemployment, privatization, and falling wages, and use them as a source of disposable labor at low cost.
In this drive for higher profits, corporations are aided by U.S. immigration legislation. While immigration laws are always presented in the media as a means of controlling borders, and keeping people from crossing them, they have always had a much more important function. For the last hundred years, they’ve been the means of regulating the supply, and consequently the price, of immigrant labor.
No matter how many walls are built on the border, no matter how many troops or National Guardsmen or helicopters patrol it, workers will still cross it looking for a future, so long as trade agreements and structural adjustment programs give them no alternative in order to survive. There’s no more eloquent and damning testimony to this than the fact that hundreds of women and men-workers and farmers-die every year in the desert, trying to make the journey from northern Mexico into the United States.
Throughout the Cold War, instead of fighting for the rights of these migrant workers, anti-immigrant attitudes dominated the U.S. labor movement. At the same time, U.S. unions supported the growth of free trade, U.S. corporate investment, and U.S. foreign policy generally – the very causes of the displacement of people and their migration. In 1986 the aforementioned Immigration Reform and Control Act, which made the very act of working, of having a job, illegal for undocumented immigrants, was supported by the AFL-CIO. The justification was that if people couldn’t work, they’d go home, or not come in the first place.
But when working becomes a crime, it is very difficult for workers to organize unions, go on strike, and fight for better conditions. As the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations enforce immigration law in the workplace, those difficulties have only grown worse.
Immigration agents now check documents that workers must fill out to get a job, and require employers to fire those whose documents are in question. The Social Security Administration has been pressed into misusing its database to search for undocumented immigrants. In just the last year, 1,200 union janitors were fired in Minneapolis, 300 in Seattle; 475 in San Francisco, and 2,000 sewing machine operators were terminated in Los Angeles. Hundreds more have lost their jobs in similar incidents around the country. The Department of Homeland Security says it is auditing the personnel records of 1,654 companies, leading potentially to the firing of hundreds of thousands of people. That in itself will have a profound impact on unions, as members who have been paying dues, in many cases for years, expect their unions to defend their jobs and their families’ livelihoods. If unions fail to defend them, they cannot expect that immigrant workers will want to join.
At the same time, as enforcement increases, employers propose programs that would allow workers to remain in the United States, but only as contract laborers, in conditions in which any protest for higher wages, or any effort to join a union, would lead to deportation.
Workers, Not Victims
The good news is that anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. labor movement has never gone unchallenged. And for the last two decades, U.S. unions have become much more interested in organizing and fighting for the rights of immigrant workers.
In part, this is due to the need to survive. Immigrant workers on the bottom are among those who most want and need unions, and who have been willing to accept the risks involved in organizing. Recognizing this basic fact, in 1999 grassroots immigrant rights coalitions and labor councils around the country combined to bring a resolution to the AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, calling for an end to employer sanctions, for a new amnesty program to legalize workers already here, and for ending the administration’s immigration enforcement program directed against workers. At the convention, national union leaders spoke out for a change in immigration policy.
Today U.S. unions represent about 12 percent of the workforce. They have to organize 400,000 workers a year just to stay in the same place. If they want to grow from 12 to 13 percent- just 1 percentage point-they have to organize 800,000 workers a year. The reality is that in the last few years there is sometimes a slight increase, but more often slippage. The percentage of organized workers has been dropping since the 1950s. When union density declines, wages drop and the political power to challenge large corporations and the powerful institutions of our society drops, too. Low union membership means no single-payer health insurance. It is not a difficult equation to understand.
But while this decline is taking place in general, immigrants have clearly been fighting to organize. In California, a majority of union drives over the last decade have been at least partly based among immigrants. These include not only campaigns initiated by unions, but also many spontaneous strikes and organizing projects initiated by immigrant workers themselves.
This upsurge is partly due to demographics. The workforce is changing in many industries. Immigrant workers make up an increasing percentage of the workforce in building services, healthcare, manufacturing, food processing, construction, and hospitality (hotels and restaurants). Some industries have always had a largely immigrant workforce-agriculture, garment, electronics, and others.
These are industries built on exploitation, and the rate of exploitation is getting higher. In Los Angeles’s garment industry, for instance, the inflation-adjusted wage level has fallen every year since 1986, when the immigration reform bill was passed, while at the same time, jobs were moved offshore. This also happened in residential construction, where union representation was lost in the 1950s, until thousands of immigrant drywallers and framers struck for a year in 1992 and the trend began to reverse.
Changing demographics and increased exploitation are not just happening in Los Angeles and California. This change is going on everywhere, including states that historically haven’t had many Latino or Asian immigrants.
While immigrants are exploited, they are not victims. As the AFL-CIO was debating its change of position in Los Angeles, a group of workers stopped work in a meatpacking plant in St. Paul, Minnesota, sat down on the line, and sent a delegation down the street to the United Food and Commercial Workers hall, to let the union know they were on strike and ready to join.
At the huge immigration rally that followed the Los Angeles convention, one worker testified that her employer, a Palm Springs hotel, fired workers when they began organizing a union. Housekeepers then struck the hotel for three months. When the National Labor Relations Board ordered the hotel to return the workers to their jobs, and the hotel refused to rehire those workers who had no papers, the strike went on for another month until everyone got back in.
Immigrants are not the only workers with a history of struggle. Other groups of workers are also pro-union, and courageously stand up for their rights. But there is a track record of self-organization among immigrants-of worker-initiated job actions and of community support for them. Undocumented immigrants are not a threat; they are a source of strength for the labor movement. Many immigrant workers don’t have to be told what unions are, or even, in many cases, how to organize, despite the fact that they may be unfamiliar with U.S. labor laws and rights. They have something to offer labor besides just a chance to grow.
In the Philippines, for instance, workers set up tents and live at the plant gate when they go on strike. No police harassment can chase them away. That kind of militancy helped Filipinos to organize unions in the isolated Alaska fish canneries and the fields of California and the Northwest from the 1930s through the 1950s. The great grape strike of 1965, when the United Farm Workers was born, was started by that generation of Filipino labor activists.
In Mexico and El Salvador, despite harassment and sometimes bloody repression, the law still prohibits companies from operating and hiring strikebreakers during a legal strike (although Mexico’s conservative government is trying its best to “reform” that right away). That experience often gives workers from these countries a greater expectation of their labor rights. This expectation is good for U.S. unions and communities. It helps workers raise their sights, so they do not continue to take strikebreaking for granted and treat it as a normal state of affairs. These cultural expectations place a higher value on labor rights than on private property rights – an expectation that would benefit U.S. workers as a whole.
While those Cal Spas strikers might have been initially suspicious of the union, their expectation about their right to strike was actually much higher than most U.S. workers. Many union organizers have learned to appeal to similar expectations as a way of convincing immigrant workers to start getting organized.
Immigrant communities are often very supportive of working-class struggles, and workers themselves have a tradition of mutual support. Strikes in the barrio often become struggles of a whole community against a big employer.
To reach out successfully to immigrant workers, there must be a strategic alliance between unions and immigrant communities. Organizing is not as simple as going out to a plant gate with membership cards and leaflets and signing up workers. It’s a long-term struggle that requires real organization among workers themselves, a plan for battling the employer to really change conditions in the workplace, and a sustained effort to create real community support and alliances, in the way that Jobs with Justice chapters often organize their Workers’ Rights Boards
Many immigrant communities are already well-organized. Among Mexicans and Filipinos, associations of people from the same town back home are very common. In the 1992 drywall strike in southern California, workers, many of whom came from a few towns in central Mexico, shut down residential construction from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. They found places to live and food for each other, using those town and family relationships. Town associations also played a big role in organizing the huge immigrant rights marches, from the one-hundred-thousand-person march against California’s Proposition 187 in 1995 to the million-strong marches of 2006
Immigrant rights coalitions are natural allies for the labor movement, because some of the most fundamental rights denied immigrants are their rights as workers.
Economism to Equal Rights
There has always been two ways of thinking about immigrants in the U.S. labor movement. Following a narrow economism, unions have often sought to restrict the labor supply, looking at themselves as a club for a privileged few. In the times when economism has dominated labor, as it did during the Cold War, unions defended the interests of their own members while maintaining barriers of racism, sexism, and anti-immigrant sentiment to exclude other workers and their concerns.
In 1999, the AFL-CIO took a huge step toward a very different vision, one that conceptualizes unions as social movements that seek to organize everybody. The AFL-CIO’s changed position on immigration meant that labor would fight for the interests of workers as a class- all workers, including the undocumented. By challenging corporate power with a larger vision of social justice, this position announced that labor intended to fight racism and anti-immigrant hysteria.
The 1999 resolution called on unions to oppose employer sanctions. These sanctions are actually directed against workers, not employers. When work becomes illegal, employers have a big weapon to use against any effort to organize unions or fight for better conditions. This changed position stands for equal rights for all workers. Even further, it challenged the justification for sanctions – that if migrant workers can’t work, they’ll leave the country. By demanding the repeal of sanctions, unions rejected that racist exclusion, and determined instead that they would fight for the right of migrant workers to stay in the country, and their right to work to support their families.
Labor should not give up this position. The 1999 resolution was won as a result of a thirteen-year struggle, in which unions became convinced that defending the undocumented was a key to their own survival. It became the heart of a growing alliance between labor and immigrant communities. It should not be sacrificed to political deal-making in Washington.
The AFL-CIO also called for a new amnesty, in which undocumented workers would be able to apply for legal status. Workers with a stake in the community also have a stake in organizing for better conditions. On the other hand, when immigrants are vulnerable, their second-class status is not only used against them, it is used against other workers as well.
Corporations and U.S. policy have historically looked at immigration law as a means of regulating the labor supply, to drive down wages and conditions. Today there are many visa categories that employers use to bring workers to the United States as contract laborer, for that purpose. There are programs for high tech and healthcare workers, farm workers, garment workers, and others.
When workers stand up for better conditions or organize a union, they can be easily fired, immigrant or not. But when contract or guest workers are fired, they not only lose their jobs, but also their ability to stay in the country. That effectively gives the employer the power to deport as well as fire workers, making people in these programs desperate and vulnerable. Allowing those workers to find a new employer is little protection if they are deported once they become unemployed for any period of time.
Increased vulnerability is one reason why employers want new programs or the expansion of existing ones. Another is the ability it gives employers to pit workers against each other, competing for jobs. In high-tech plants, for instance, the electronics industry has a long history of discrimination against African-American engineers, and employs hardly any. Workers of color have been banging on the door to get jobs. But instead of hiring them, and raising wages to compete for domestic labor, companies like Microsoft bring workers from other countries as dependent, indentured servants-contract labor.
These industry and employer-based visa programs are all based on the idea that immigration law should be used to supply workers to employers. These proposals eliminate any possibility for real, meaningful immigration reform, especially since increased enforcement is necessary to make sure that workers don’t leave these situations of high exploitation.
But this is what is coming. The basic element of immigration reform on which President Obama and Mexican President Calderon agree is a temporary worker program. For Calderon, a contract labor program allows him to say he has opened the door to the United States — that Mexicans will no longer have to cross the desert and risk death if they want to work. The last three U.S. Presidents have all supported guest worker programs because they are desired by corporate employers.
It is important for workers and unions on both sides of the border to decide what kind of immigration system would protect their rights and living standards, rather than simply accepting proposals made by employers and conservative politicians. In examining the immigration proposals made in Congress, they must ask some basic questions in order to decide what’s worth supporting, and what proposals must be fought. Those questions include:
Should all workers have the right to organize, and will unions therefore oppose any immigration proposal that undermines that right? Should immigration policy unite families, rather than forcing workers to live far from their families while sending money home? Should the goal of immigration policy be stable communities, where working people can build political power? Should it encourage unity and equality among workers, white and people of color, immigrant and native born? And should restrictions be placed on trade agreements and economic reforms, because they displace communities and force people to migrate in search of work?
Labor must decide what answers it gives to these questions, and then fight for what workers really want and need.
What Do We Want?
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, “We need to make sure every worker in America – documented or undocumented – is protected by our labor laws.” and that we need immigration reform that “allows immigrants to be securely part of our country from day one – able to assert their legal rights, including the right to organize, without fear of retaliation.”
But not all reform proposals will accomplish that goal. In fact, those made in Congress for the last five years go in the opposite direction. Recently the Council on Foreign Relations proposed two goals for U.S. immigration policy. “We should reform the legal immigration system,” it advocated, “so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness.” This essentially calls for using migration to supply labor to corporate employers at competitive, or low, wages. “We should restore the integrity of immigration laws,” the Council went on to say, “through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system.” This couples an enforcement regime like the present one with its raids and firings, to that labor supply system.
In the last ten years, deportations have risen to 400,000 a year, the highest in U.S. history. Over 350,000 undocumented immigrants were detained (euphemism for imprisoned) last year. Thousands are being fired from their jobs. The CFR framework essentially sees this now as a permanent part of U.S. life.
Immigration policy based on producing a labor supply for employers always has two consequences. The displacement of communities abroad becomes an unspoken policy, because it is needed to produce workers. And inequality in the countries where those workers go becomes an official policy.
The U.S. faces a choice in direction. A corporate agenda on migration would manage the flow of people with new guest worker programs, and increased penalties against those who try to migrate and work outside this system. Some proposals also contain a truncated legalization for the undocumented, but one that would disqualify most people or have them wait for years for visas.
History tells us that a better direction is not only possible, but was partially achieved by the civil rights movement. In 1964, heroes of the Chicano movement like Bert Corona, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta forced Congress to end the bracero program. The next year, Mexicans and Filipinos went out on strike in the fields of Coachella and Delano, and the United Farm Workers was born. That same year, 1965, those leaders together with many others went back to Congress, and won a law that made family unity the criteria for migration, rather than fulfilling the labor needs of corporations. The civil rights movement won the family preference system, and even more, the idea that migration should serve to strengthen families and communities, not to give a low-wage subsidy to corporations.
That fight is not over.
We need legalization, so that 12 million people can quickly gain residence rights and green cards. We need to get rid of the laws that make working a crime, along with the privately-run detention centers that enforce them.
We have to make sure that the decision-makers of Washington DC won’t plunge families in Mexico, El Salvador or Colombia into poverty, and force a new generation of workers to leave home to find jobs in furniture factories and laundries, office buildings and packing plants, on construction sites, or just in the gardens and nurseries of the rich. Families in countries where people are displaced by free trade and neoliberal policies have a right to survive, a right to not migrate. To make that right a reality, they need jobs and productive farms, good schools and healthcare at home.
Solidarity is the key to winning those rights. We have a great advantage in this increasingly globalized world. Over two hundred million people, just about all of them workers and farmers, are part of a great migrant stream, a human bond that connects the countries of the developed and developing world. What more natural vehicle for solidarity is there than workers themselves? Who knows more about the working conditions in both halves of the world than someone who’s worked in each? Who can see most clearly the operation of the global economy, and who has a greater stake in changing it?
Who can help us to change our unions, which are overwhelmingly national organizations, accustomed to functioning within national borders, into truly global organizations, uniting workers across borders?
Organizing immigrant workers is not a matter of taking pity on the downtrodden. It requires us to understand what is necessary for the survival of our communities, of our labor movement. If we want to build political power, we must incorporate migrant workers, fight for their rights and jobs, and create a movement for social justice that belongs to all of us, documented and undocumented alike.
David Bacon is a California writer and photojournalist. His latest book is Illegal People, How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. He is a contributor to the Americas Program at www.americas.org. This article first appeared in the October issue of Monthly Review.
Editor: Laura Carlsen