December 21, 2006
No Way To Treat A Guest
By Alec Dubro
In an effort to get the explosive immigration issue off
the table, many liberal members of Congress are going
along with the re-creation of the guestworker status.
Surprisingly, and for the same reasons, a number of
Latino groups-such as La Raza and the Congressional
Hispanic Caucus-are also entertaining the idea,
although with conditions. Any guestworker program, said
the National Council of La Raza, 'must offer full
worker protections and rights.'
I don't believe that will work. Passage of any legal,
accepted guestworker program will redound to harm
American workers-citizens or not. The creation of a
permanent underclass of workers will remain a threat to
that layer of workers above them. And there won't be
any worker protections for either class.
For instance, in Darwin, Australia right now, there's a
controversy over guestworkers used as strikebreakers.
The striking workers are called trolley collectors,
which confused me until I recalled that trolleys here
are trams there, and trolleys there are carts. These
are the people who collect supermarket carts in the
parking lots. According to the Australian Broadcasting
Skilled migrants have been flown into the Northern
Territory's Top End shopping centres to replace
local workers who are striking over pay conditions.
Local collectors who work for the Sydney-based
Starlink International group have been on strike
Actually, the permanent workers were subcontracted to
one Karoom Trolley Services, who wouldn't pay them for
extra pre-Christmas hours. Instead, Karoom found
migrants-some with official skilled worker 457 visas,
some without-and paid some of them more than the
permanent workers. But the new workers are disposable,
used to make a point.
Contingent, occasional or undocumented workers present
an organizing problem for labor, but a large pool of
government-sanctioned Grade B workers is worse. In
Australia, all the employer had to do was think the
workers were legal and he got away with it. Labor gets
I'm not under any illusion that scrapping the
guestworker proposal will eliminate the threat of
strike-breakers. There are always some workers who are
greedy, ignorant or desperate enough to scab. But
creating a separate class of guestworkers divides
workers as surely as the color line once did.
This applies as well to the millions of undocumented
laborers who fill the low-wage jobs. Every
worker-that's every-deserves representation,
preferably in a union. By de-legitimizing huge groups
of workers, government and society ensure that here
will be a steady downward pull on wages. For too many
workers-and that's most of us-color, language or
immigration status come before equality as a worker.
That stand won't improve working conditions or wages.
Without a labor movement to stand up to employers, and
a government to stand behind the movement, capital will
find ways to get cheap labor-legal or not. But let's
not help them by branding some workers second-class.
Some of organized labor is falling for it, but not all.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said that guestworker
status sends a message to immigrant workers that
although 'their hard work is essential to the
prosperity of our nation, they deserve no better than a
perennial second-class status.'
Actually, some Italian anarchist, whose name escapes
both me and Google, said it better: 'You must pull him
up or he will surely pull you down.'
For another look at the subject, check out Amy Traub's
TomPaine article, The Guest Worker Gamble (March 23,
Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.