Monday, January 30, 2012

Immigrants and Labor

By David Bacon
Chapter 11 in "Wisconsin Uprising - Labor Fights Back"
Monthly Review Press, 2012

One sign carried in almost every May Day march of the last few years in the United States says it all: "We are Workers, not Criminals!" Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they'd just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building, or picking grapes.

The sign stated an obvious truth. Millions of people have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws. Some have come with visas, and others without them. But they are all contributors to the society they've found here.

In the largest U.S. May Day event this year, marchers were joined by the public workers who protested in the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, who have become symbols of the fight for labor rights in the U.S.  Their message was the same: we all work, we all contribute to our communities and we all have the right to a job, a union and a decent life.

May Day marches and demonstrations over the last five years have provided a vehicle in which immigrants protest their lack of human rights, and unions call for greater solidarity among workers facing the same corporate system.  The marches are usually organized by grass roots immigrant rights groups, increasingly cooperating with the formal structure of the labor movement.  This year the attacks on public workers provided an additional push to unions to use May Day as a vehicle for protest.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke at the largest of those marches, in Milwaukee, where national attention has focused on the attacks on public workers and their mass resistance.  Trumka's presence marked two important political changes in labor.  May Day is no longer a holiday red-baited in the U.S. labor movement, but one used to promote a defense of workers' rights, as it is in the rest of the world.  And unions are slowly adopting a tradition of May Day demonstrations calling for immigrant rights, a tradition begun by immigrant communities themselves in 2006.

For the last five years, May Day protests have responded to a wave of draconian proposals to criminalize immigration status, and work itself, for undocumented people. The defenders of these proposals have used a brutal logic: if people cannot legally work, they will leave.  But undocumented people are part of the communities they live in.  They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working people in the United States historically have fought to achieve.  In addition, for most immigrants, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they've come.

Instead of recognizing this reality, the U.S. government has attempted to make holding a job a criminal act. Thousands of workers have already been fired. Some have been sent to prison for inventing a Social Security number just to get a job. Yet they stole nothing and the money they've paid into Social Security funds now subsidizes every pension or disability payment.

Undocumented workers deserve legal status because of that labor-their inherent contribution to society.  Past years' marches have supported legalization for the 12 million undocumented people in the United States. In addition, immigrants, unions and community groups have called for repealing the law making work a crime, ending guest worker programs, and guaranteeing human rights in communities along the U.S./Mexico border.

Undocumented workers and public workers in Wisconsin have a lot in common.  With unemployment at almost 9% nationally, and higher in many states, all working families need the Federal government to set up jobs programs, like those Roosevelt pushed through Congress in the 1930s. If General Electric alone paid its fair share of taxes, and if the troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, every person wanting a job could find work building roads, schools, and hospitals.  All communities would benefit.

Immigrants and public workers need strong unions that can push wages up, and guarantee pensions for seniors and healthcare for the sick and disabled. A street cleaner whose job is outsourced, and an undocumented worker fired from a fast food restaurant both need protection for their right to work and support their families.

Instead, some states like Arizona, and now Georgia, have passed measures allowing police to stop any "foreign looking" person on the street, and question their immigration status. Arizona passed a law requiring employers to fire workers whose names are flagged by Social Security. In Mississippi an undocumented worker accused of holding a job can get jail time of 1-5 years, and fines of up to $10,000.

The states and politicians that go after immigrants are the same ones calling for firing public workers and eliminating their union rights. Now a teacher educating children has no more secure future in her job than an immigrant cleaning an office building at night.

In Milwaukee President Trumka told marchers, "It's the same fight.  It's the same people that are attacking immigrants' rights, workers' rights, student rights, voting rights."  He paid tribute to the role immigrants have played in resurrecting May Day as a day for worker demonstrations in the U.S.

"Your voices have been heard across this nation," Trumka said, "inspiring an uprising of America's working people, standing together and saying 'No' to divide-and-conquer politics.  'No!' to tearing working families down, rather than building us up.  'No!' to corporate-backed politicians trying to turn us into a low-wage, no-rights workforce as payback to their CEO friends. And what is this America we want?  It's a land of equal opportunity, a land of fairness in the workplace and society."

While May Day marches this year were smaller than the millions-strong turnout of five years ago, they had a more organized participation from unions themselves.  That marks a fundamental shift in the attitude of U.S. labor towards May Day.

Although Mayday was born in the fight for the 8-hour day in Chicago more than a century ago, during the Cold War U.S. unions stopped celebrating it.  In 1949 nine leftwing unions were expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and a witch hunt then purged activists, including Communists, socialists and anarchists, from leadership in most unions.  The U.S. labor movement grew more conservative, enshrining a "business unionism" model, which negotiated increases in wages and benefits while defending the corporate system.

Eventually, some of the highest elements of U.S. labor leadership collaborated with U.S. intelligence services in supporting right-wing coups in other countries, in which labor and political militants were murdered.  At the same time, unionists in the U.S. who advocated celebrating May Day as a symbol of international labor solidarity were attacked and red-baited.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, large corporations, assisted by the government, intensified their attacks on unions and workers.  The percentage of workers belonging to unions fell drastically, causing an internal crisis in the labor movement.  Many Cold War-era leaders were challenged, and at the AFL-CIO convention in New York in 1995 a contest over leadership brought John Sweeney to power as president.  Richard Trumka, who'd led a critical battle of coal miners against the Pittston Corporation, was elected secretary-treasurer.

At that time, Trumka proposed a new model for internationalism in U.S. labor.  "The cold war has gone," he declared.  "It's over.  We want to be able to confront multinationals as multinationals ourselves now.  If a corporation does business in 15 countries, we'd like to be able to confront them as labor in 15 countries.  It's not that we need less international involvement, but it should be focused towards building solidarity, helping workers achieve their needs and their goals here at home."
Jack Henning, past executive secretary of the California Labor Federation, one of the most vocal critics of the old AFL-CIO Department of International Affairs, admitted, "we were associated with some of the very worst elements...all in the name of anti-communism.  But I think there's an opportunity now to review our foreign activities, to stop the global competition for jobs among the trade unions of the world."

Their ideas embodied a pragmatic view of solidarity, a first step away from that Cold War past.  But it was not radical enough to confront the new challenges of globalization  - the huge displacement and migration of millions of people, the enormous gulf in the standard of living dividing developed from developing countries, and the wars fought to impose this system of global economic inequality.

Slowly, Cold War barriers began to come down.  In Colombia, the United Steel Workers became a bastion of support for the embattled unionists of its leftwing labor federation.  In Mexico the USW supported striking copper miners in Cananea, and gave refuge to their exiled union president in Canada.  Under pressure from US Labor Against the War, the AFL-CIO publicly rejected U.S. military intervention in Iraq.  But progress was uneven.  The Democratic Party's support for war in Afghanistan and for Israel's attack on Gaza was greeted with silence.  In Venezuela, U.S. labor even supported coup plotters against the radical regime of Hugo Chavez.

Among U.S. union members at home, the key issues were jobs and trade policy, and their corollaries, displacement and immigration.  The implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 (supported by both U.S. political parties), and the battle in Seattle at the World Trade Organization meeting of 1999, profoundly affected workers' thinking about their own future.  Many were educated by the fight against corporate trade policy, and began to understand the way neoliberal reforms displaced workers and farmers in Mexico, leading to migration across the U.S./Mexico border.  That understanding created a base for solidarity with Mexican workers in the U.S. that did not exist during the Cold War era.

During the years after 1994, when NAFTA took effect, over six million people from Mexico migrated to the U.S. in search of jobs.  The number of people living in the U.S. without legal immigration status climbed to over 12 million.  Those workers, as they faced threats to imprison them as criminals because of their immigration status, began using May Day marches to call for human, political and labor rights.  People migrating to the U.S. came with a tradition of using May Day celebrations to call for labor rights.  May Day in the U.S. became their vehicle to challenge anti-immigrant hysteria.

This wave of increasingly assertive workers was hardly the first to challenge U.S. unions, many of which were organized by earlier immigrants and their children.  But U.S. unions were organized in a working class deeply divided by race and nationality. Some unions saw (and still see) immigrants as unwelcome job competitors, and sought to exclude, and even deport them.  But other unions fought racism and anti-immigrant hysteria, and argued for organizing all workers together.

Today, undocumented immigrants wonder, "Will my union defend me when the government tells my boss to fire me because I don't have papers?"  It's not an abstract question.  Thousands of workers have already been fired in the Obama administration's program to enforce immigration law in the workplace.  Last year alone, almost 400,000 people were deported, almost all ordinary workers.

The debate over immigration policy puts critical questions before U.S. unions.  Are unions going to defend all workers, including the undocumented?  Should unions support immigration enforcement designed to force millions of workers from their jobs?  How can labor achieve the unity and solidarity it needs to successfully confront transnational corporations, both internally within the U.S., and externally with workers in countries like Mexico?

The White House website says "President Obama will remove incentives to enter the country illegally by preventing employers from hiring undocumented workers and enforcing the law."  A few months after taking office he told Congress members that the government was "cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages -- and oftentimes mistreat those workers."

The law Obama is enforcing is the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which requires employers to keep records of workers' immigration status, and prohibits them from hiring those who have no legal documents, or "work authorization."  In effect, the law made it a crime for undocumented immigrants to work.  This provision, employer sanctions, is the legal basis for all the workplace immigration raids and enforcement of the last 23 years.  "Sanctions pretend to punish employers," says Bill Ong Hing, law professor at the University of California at Davis.  "In reality, they punish workers."

The history of workplace immigration enforcement is filled with examples of employers who use audits and discrepancies as pretexts to discharge union militants or discourage worker organization.  The 16-year union drive at the Smithfield pork plant in North Carolina, for instance, saw two raids, and the firing of 300 workers for bad Social Security numbers.
Whether motivated by economic gain or anti-union animus, the firings highlight larger questions of immigration enforcement policy.  "These workers have not only done nothing wrong, they've spent years making the company rich.  No one ever called company profits illegal, or says they should give them back to the workers.  So why are the workers called illegal?" asks Nativo Lopez, director of the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana.   "Any immigration policy that says these workers have no right to work and feed their families is wrong and needs to be changed."

President Obama says sanctions enforcement targets employers "who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages -- and oftentimes mistreat those workers."  This restates a common Bush administration rationale for workplace raids.  Former ICE Director Julie Meyers asserted that she was targeting "unscrupulous criminals who use illegal workers to cut costs and gain a competitive advantage."  An ICE Worksite Enforcement Advisory claims "unscrupulous employers are likely to pay illegal workers substandard wages or force them to endure intolerable working conditions."
Curing intolerable conditions by firing or deporting the workers who endure them doesn't help the workers or change the conditions, however.  And that's not who ICE targets anyway.  Workers at Smithfield were trying to organize a union to improve conditions.  In Minneapolis, 1200 fired janitors at ABM belonged to SEIU Local 26, got a higher wage than non-union workers, and had to strike to win it.  And despite President Obama's notion that sanctions enforcement will punish those employers who exploit immigrants, employers are rewarded for cooperation by being immunized from prosecution.  This policy only hurts workers.

The justification is implicit in the policy's description on the White House website:  "remove incentives to enter the country illegally."  This was the original justification for employer sanctions in 1986 - if migrants can't work, they won't come.  Of course, people did come, because at the same time that Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, it also began debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement.  That virtually guaranteed future migration. "The real questions we need to ask are what uproots people in Mexico, and why U.S. employers rely so heavily on low-wage workers," says law professor Bill Ong Hing.

No one in the Obama administration wants to stop migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be done without catastrophic consequences.  The very industries it targets for enforcement are so dependent on migrant labor they would collapse without it.  Immigration policy consigns those migrants to an "illegal" status, and undermines the price of their labor.  Enforcement then becomes a means for managing the flow of these migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay.

Managing the flow is the object, not just of current policy, but also of the proposals for immigration reform that have been supported by the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations.  Bush's Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff explained the purpose of these proposals clearly.  "There's an obvious solution to the problem of illegal work," he said, "which is you open the front door and you shut the back door."   "Opening the front door" allows employers to recruit "guest" workers to come to the U.S., giving them visas that tie their ability to stay to their employment.  And to force workers to come through this system, "closing the back door" criminalizes migrants who work without "work authorization."  When she was Arizona governor, current DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano supported this arrangement, signing the state's own draconian employer sanctions bill, while supporting guest worker programs. 

The comprehensive reform bills died in Congress over the last several years.  But Bush and Obama both began implementing their key provisions through administrative action.  The use of guest worker programs, especially for farm workers, has grown rapidly.  And enforcement through deportations, detention and firings has mushroomed.

This growing wave of firings is provoking sharp debate in unions, especially those with large immigrant memberships.  ABM's janitors, for instance, were dues-paying members for years.  They expect the union to defend them when the company fires them for lack of status.  At American Apparel, where 2000 sewing machine operators were fired in 2009, there was no union, but some workers had actively tried to organize one.  "I worked with the International Ladies' Garment Workers and the Garment Workers Center," recalls Jose Covarrubias.  "When I got to American Apparel I joined right away.  I debated with the non-union workers, trying to convince them the union would defend us."  Covarrubias was fired with the rest, and unions in Los Angeles did very little to help them.
The twelve million undocumented people in the U.S., spread in factories, fields and construction sites throughout the country, includes lots of workers like Covarrubias.  Many are aware of their rights and anxious to improve their lives.  National union organizing campaigns, like Justice for Janitors and Hotel Workers Rising, depend on their determination and activism.  That reality convinced the AFL-CIO in 1999 to reject the federation's former support for employer sanctions, and call for repeal.  Unions recognized that sanctions enforcement has made it much more difficult for workers to defend their rights, organize unions, and raise wages.
Opposing sanctions, however, put labor in opposition to the Obama administration, which it helped elect.  Some Washington DC lobbying groups now support sanctions enforcement instead.  One group, Reform Immigration for America, says, "any employment verification system should determine employment authorization accurately and efficiently."  The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win labor federation in 2009 also agreed on a new immigration position that supports a "secure and effective worker authorization mechanism that determines employment authorization accurately while providing maximum protection for workers."  Verification of authorization is exactly what happened at American Apparel and ABM.  When workers couldn't provide authorization, they were fired.

With a few exceptions, U.S. unions have been mostly silent in the face of the firings.  That undermines their growing criticism of the way corporate trade policies produce undocumented migration.

Before he retired and was succeeded by Richard Trumka, John Sweeney, former president of the AFL-CIO, wrote to President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper.  He reminded them that "the failure of neoliberal policies to create decent jobs in the Mexican economy under NAFTA has meant that many displaced workers and new entrants have been forced into a desperate search to find employment elsewhere."  The joint immigration position of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federations recognized that "an essential component of the long-term solution [to immigration reform] is a fair trade and globalization model that uplifts all workers."
Continued support for work authorization and employer sanctions contradicts this understanding.  Even with a legalization program, millions of people will remain without papers, as more come every year.  For them, work without "authorization" will still be a crime.  And while employer sanctions will not stop migration, they will make those workers vulnerable to employer pressure.

In a speech in Cleveland in 2010 AFL-CIO President Trumka challenged "working people who should know better, some in my own family - [who say] that those immigrants are taking our jobs, ruining our country ... When I hear that kind of talk, I want to say, did an immigrant move your plant overseas?  Did an immigrant take away your pension?  Or cut your health care?  Did an immigrant destroy American workers' right to organize?  Or crash the financial system? Did immigrant workers write the trade laws that have done so much harm?"

Trumka accurately described the class exploitation that underlies U.S. immigration policy.  "Too many U.S. employers actually like the current state of the immigration system-a system where immigrants are both plentiful and undocumented-afraid and available," he explained.  "Too many employers like a system where our borders are closed and open at the same time - closed enough to turn immigrants into second-class citizens, open enough to ensure an endless supply of socially and legally powerless cheap labor."

Trumka concluded by declaring that "we are for ending our two-tiered workforce and our two-tiered society ... We need to restore workers' fundamental human right to organize and bargain with their employers.  And we need to make sure every worker in America - documented or undocumented - is protected by our labor laws."

When he called for "a land of fairness in the workplace and society" in Milwaukee a year later on May Day, immigrant workers in the audience at that march, and those who read his words later, hoped this would mean a sharper challenge to the Obama enforcement policy.

Across the country, tens of thousands marched and rallied to call for national immigration reform and to support all workers' rights.  Marchers often bore placards declaring: "Somos Unos-Respeten Nuestros Derechos" or "We Are One-Respect Our Rights."  In addition to the 100,000 in Milwaukee, ten thousand marched in Los Angeles, five thousand in San Jose (in the heart of California's Silicon Valley), and thousands more in New York, Atlanta, Houston, Buffalo, Chicago and other major cities.  Smaller towns with a large immigrant population, like Fresno, in the heart of California's agricultural complex, also turned out large demonstrations.  In Boston, marchers demanded "From Cairo to Wisconsin to Massachusetts - Defend All Workers' Rights."

In Milwaukee, Jose Salazar, a volunteer with Equality Wisconsin, joined Trumka on the stage.  "Issues relating to immigration and labor law affect us all," he told the crowd. "That is why the lesbian and gay community is joining today's May Day March for Immigrant and Worker Rights.  We march to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget cuts that hurt our families and children.  And we march to support the union between immigrant and worker communities."

For more articles and images, see

See also Illegal People -- How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants  (Beacon Press, 2008)
Recipient: C.L.R. James Award, best book of 2007-2008

See also the photodocumentary on indigenous migration to the US
Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006)

See also The Children of NAFTA, Labor Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border (University of California, 2004)

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