The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 80 (Fall 2007)
The debate over the immigration “reform” bills in Congress this summer, and now the growing crackdown on undocumented workers, expose the deadly trap that the immigrant rights movement has been steered into.
In 2006 massive numbers of immigrants poured into the streets of cities across the country. It was the largest show of work-ing-class power in years, and it defeated openly racist legislation in Congress. The mass marches also shocked ruling-class politicians, who drafted laws featuring vicious attacks on immigrants. And even though Congress hasn’t agreed on a new law, the influence of far-right national chauvinists and racists has been bolstered. “Homeland Security” chief Michael Chertoff announced that the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will terrorize immigrants with even more raids and deportations, and ICE punctuated that message by the arrest and deportation of immigrant rights activist Elvira Arellano in August.
Blame for the turnaround lies with the misleaders of the immigrant rights movement. Millions of immigrant workers will pay for their treachery unless a new course of action is opened up.
The movement burst onto the scene last year with huge protests against the Sensenbrenner bill, which would have branded all undocumented immigrants as felons. But many leaders this year supported the STRIVE bill, a disguised attack whose real aim was to repress and exploit immigrants more effectively. (See below.) Meanwhile, the ruling-class media poured out propaganda filth identifying immigrants with murderers, rapists and terrorists. And the government stepped up the home and workplace raids by federal stormtroopers from the ICE.
The change has been dramatic. In the spring of 2006, millions of marchers, the vast majority Mexican immigrant workers, took off from work and filled the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago and other U.S. cities. But the movement’s leadership – trade union officials, religious and other community leaders – advertised their intentions with the slogan “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” Accordingly, they diverted the energy of the movement into electoral campaigns for the Democratic Party. They said that when the Democrats controlled Congress, the movement could lobby for a reform bill that would win legal status for the millions of undocumented workers.
The effect of the leaders’ strategy was most visible in the low turnout for the May Day marches this year. The most important example was Los Angeles: In 2006, the “Gran Marcha” on March 25 and the May Day march both brought over a million people into the streets. But on May Day 2007, two different marches at different times and places, drew only about 10,000 people.
There is no doubt that what happens in Washington is crucial and that immigrant rights can only be secured through political action. But the stark lesson of all mass movements is that mass struggle, not the ballot box, is what wins concessions from the ruling class. Political action must grow out of this struggle and its power, not out of subordination and betrayal to the capitalist parties.
The result of the passive electoral strategy is clear. The Democrats took control of Congress, the movement leaders did their lobbying – and immigrant workers got smacked in the face, with worse yet to come.
The Democrats’ proposed bill this spring, the so-called STRIVE bill (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy), would have created so many financial and legal barriers to the “path to citizenship” that few would ever have made it. It would have created a new guest worker program which, like the old bracero program, would have amounted to virtual slavery, tying workers to their employer by the threat of deportation. It would have increased criminal penalties and created new crimes for undocumented immigrants. It would have funded more walls and fences on the U.S.-Mexican border, thousands more Border Patrol agents to capture immigrants and force others into death marches across the desert, more powers to local police to harass immigrants, and new detention centers to hold tens of thousands.
Many organizations in the immigrant rights movement supported the STRIVE bill. Among the most significant nationally were the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Pro-Democratic Party misleaders foisted an electoral strategy on the movement which paved the way for government crackdown today.
National Council of La Raza Unida (NCLRU), and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). In Chicago leading STRIVE supporters included the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant & Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and Centro Sin Fronteras. They misled immigrant workers (and some activists in their own organizations) by calling it a step forward. They claimed that it was the best the movement could get in the current political climate – a climate they helped create by derailing the marches.
On rare occasions they revealed what that argument really meant: At a Centro Sin Fronteras meeting in Chicago on April 13 of this year, one of the leaders told youth activists why they had to support the STRIVE bill. “We have to accept political reality,” he said: the American people will not accept any increase in the numbers of “brown people” in the country. In other words, accept racism, don’t fight it.
The STRIVE bill led directly to the “compromise” bill put forward by Democratic and Republican politicians, from Ted Kennedy to President Bush, which contained even worse anti-immigrant attacks. Some leading immigrant rights groups, such as ICIRR in Chicago, supported this travesty. Nevertheless, the bill was defeated – not by pro-immigrant forces, but by the most reactionary anti-immigrant politicians who can’t stomach even fake offers of citizenship to immigrants. The open racists were emboldened by the liberals, who joined them in backing more repressive measures when the active movement died down.
Why this betrayal? Revolutionaries know that the Democratic Party represents a wing of the ruling class. All the bills sponsored by capitalist politicians, even the most liberal, serve the interest of bosses who pay low wages to “illegal” immigrants to boost their profits. Despite the expectations of many immigrant activists, the bills their leaders pushed did not provide some form of amnesty for all immigrants – let alone unconditional amnesty, a necessary demand. Full rights for immigrants cannot be won through unity with exploiters who feed off the denial of these rights.
The disastrous course of seeking the support of “friendly” politicians through fundamental concessions is still at work. ICIRR is also campaigning for the so-called DREAM Act (Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors) in Congress. This bill is supposed to assist immigrant youth by granting a temporary residence permit to those who have a high school diploma or GED, and then offering permanent resident status to those who complete two years of college. But the reality is that very few immigrant youth can afford to go to college, and under the DREAM Act they won’t even be eligible for federal education grants. Education is not what the DREAM Act is really about; rather, its point is to use immigrants as cannon fodder for the imperialist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. DREAM Act supporters downplay the fact that the more realistic path to permanent resident status in the bill is to serve two years in the U.S.’s “volunteer” army. This deadly trick will reinforce the disproportionate recruitment of Latino and Black youth into the military by economic pressure.
Some immigrant rights organizations courageously oppose the Act. In Los Angeles, the Association of Raza Educators (A.R.E.) is urging immigrant and Latino college students not to support the bill “because it will do irreparable harm to our community by causing a de facto military draft for our undocumented youth.” In Chicago, the Comité Anti-Militarización (CAMí) organized a successful protest and press conference July 13 against LULAC, which had invited recruiters for all four branches of the U.S. military, along with the Department of Defense, to play a dominant role in the “career fair” for Latino youth at its national convention. The League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) played an active role in CAMí’s work to organize this protest. We consider it vital to work in united actions with militants while seeking to win an audience for our revolutionary ideas.
The LRP also played a key role in convincing the National Immigrant Solidarity Network (NISN), which had been promoting the DREAM Act, to change course. At NISN’s national conference in Richmond on July 28-29, LRP supporters and other activists explained the danger of the military service provision – at a session where the New York youth group Sueños del Barrio was presenting their campaign for the DREAM Act. By the end of the discussion, a large majority of NISN clearly opposed the Act. Even some of the youth who had come in supporting the bill were beginning to question it, saying that they wanted to remove the military part. But the staff leaders continued to defend the Act and the military service provision, saying, “We want Congress to pass the bill, and the political reality is that if the military part is removed, the bill will be dead.” The final resolutions of the conference emphasized the opposition to the military service provision and called for alternatives to the DREAM Act.
It is clear that many capitalists are eager to hire undocumented immigrants. Yet the ruling class does not want to grant legal status to the great majority. Why this seeming contradiction?
Undocumented status keeps immigrant workers permanently vulnerable, forcing them to be extremely cautious about speaking up against exploitation. This is exactly what capitalism needs: workers who have to accept miserably low wages and can’t complain. Bills like STRIVE are aimed at exploiting immigrant workers more effectively than can the policies of the openly anti-immigrant racists. “Pro-immigrant” politicians are happy to welcome immigrants into the country, in controlled numbers, as long as they live in fear and don’t fight for decent wages and conditions.
Nevertheless, millions of workers are driven to emigrate to the U.S. and other wealthier countries because of the desperate conditions in homelands plundered by imperialism. The bosses realize that these workers can serve as an alternative labor supply, since American workers, through their past struggles in an economy fattened by imperialist spoils, have come to expect higher wages and benefits.
Because of racism, Latino immigrants in the U.S. tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paid, hardest and most dangerous occupations. These include jobs that were once unionized and well-paid, like meat-packing and construction. But after successful cutbacks by the bosses, these industries were increasingly shunned by U.S.-born workers. Now the capitalists shore up their profits by a heavy reliance on immigrant workforces.
The superexploitation of immigrant labor has increased the division of the working class. By forcing immigrant workers into competition with native-born workers, the capitalists intensify the exploitation of all. The mass use of immigrant labor, at a time of retreats by the unions and minimal job security, has stirred competition, with both white and black American workers.
The transformation of the United States from a largely agricultural colonial economy into the premier world power rests on the combination of the exploitation of waves of immigrant workers and the continuous caste subjugation of Black people. (See the LRP pamphlet Marxism, Interracialism and the Black Struggle.) First there was slavery, then a system of brutal peonage after the Civil War. With the development of modern industrial capitalism at the turn of the 20th century, Blacks increasingly became a superexploited section of the working class. Black workers were relegated to the worst jobs, and a large “reserve army of the unemployed” was created out of their ranks to be used as replacements for other workers, notably those in active struggles. Opportunities for “upward mobility” were restricted to the immigrant laborers coming mainly from Eastern and Southern Europe.
There were several attempts over time by radical and socialist-minded workers to forge unified Black and white struggles against the bosses and their government. But by and large, most of the immigrant workers allowed themselves to be used against their Black fellow workers. They were seduced by the promises of the “American Dream” and the privileges of being white in a society of racial oppression. But despite their oppression, Black workers became increasingly central in major industries and major cities during the 20th Century; this process was greatly reinforced by the massive ghetto revolts of the 1960’s. During the strikes of the early 1970’s, Black workers were recognized as generally more militant and class-conscious than their white colleagues, and they were able to lead white workers in joint struggles for the first time.
Their role in industry is still important and their reputation as militant leaders is intact; but Blacks have suffered mass and permanent layoffs, notably from better-paid and organized sectors. This rollback was a product of both the decline in American industry and the desire by bosses to curtail their militant presence in the factories. Black workers not only lost jobs faster than whites, but to an extent were replaced by the new waves of immigrant workers, largely Latino, whom the bosses felt could be more easily intimidated and manipulated.
A brutal situation has emerged. The American economy has stagnated since the 1970’s, the once-prevalent myth that workers (including many Blacks) could become “middle class” is fading; the gap between the rich and the masses of poor is widening daily. In this situation, the capitalists, their politicians and their media whip up racism against Black people, Latinos and other immigrants and also stir up hostility between them.
This divide-and-conquer strategy can only be combatted by a conscious struggle for interracial working-class unity rooted in a political program that defends the interests of all workers. The only way that Black and Latino workers can defend against the capitalist attacks is by leading the struggle for jobs and higher wages and benefits for all workers, as well as defending against racist attacks. They do not have to wait for white workers to take this lead; but given the worsening conditions of many non-immigrant white workers, such a struggle has the potential to win the support and participation of much of the entire working class.
To carry out mass struggles workers need their own organizations. The only mass organizations the working class has today are the unions. The unions will have to play a central role in the immigrant rights struggle, but they will not do so without transforming their leadership.
All the unions today are led by bureaucrats who support capitalism. These officials get their income and power by acting as brokers between the capitalists and the workers. They are occasionally willing to mobilize workers for limited actions to maintain their position at the bargaining table, but they fear that workers may go too far and threaten the entire system. A fight for the unions to lead strikes and mass actions – for immigrant rights and for the interests of all workers – will inevitably mean a fight against the bureaucrats for leadership.
An important example of these issues is the ongoing battle at the huge Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. After the decade-long effort of the workers and the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) to unionize the plant, the company threatened last November to fire hundreds of undocumented immigrant workers as a way to destroy a union organizing campaign. Companies like Smithfield are happy to ignore workers’ “illegality” – in order to use their status against them when they start to organize a fightback. Over a thousand workers responded by holding a two-day wildcat strike. Mexican immigrant workers led the walkout, and they were joined by many Black and some white workers. The strike forced the company to retreat and showed the enormous potential of united working-class struggle.
The victory was very temporary: Smithfield management only agreed to delay the firing for 60 days. At minimum, more and effective strike action was urgently needed to keep the pressure on the company. But the UFCW bureaucracy did not organize anything of the sort. They focused instead on a consumer boycott against Smithfield products. Management thus felt free to go on the attack again: an ICE raid at the plant in January seized 21 workers, and Smithfield started firing the workers who had been targeted in November.
Gene Bruskin, the Smithfield campaign director for the UFCW, said, “Many people regard this as one of the most important, if not the most important, labor struggle going on in the United States. Organizing in the South is really critical to the future of the region.” That is very true, but the union officialdom refuses to use a strategy that can win even temporary security for undocumented workers, namely mass mobilizations and strikes that can use workers’ power in production to halt profit-making.
LRP supporters raised these points at the NISN conference in July, where UFCW officials gave a presentation on the unionization campaign. We noted that the UFCW already represents the workers at other Smithfield plants across the country. We said that in order to fight the company’s racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-worker attacks, the UFCW should call a national strike of workers at all the Smithfield plants it represents. That would force the company to back off its immediate attacks and recognize the union at its North Carolina plant as well. Many activists at the conference were interested in this idea. But UFCW official Ralph Ramirez rejected it out of hand: “That’s impossible. All our contracts at the other plants have no-strike clauses.”
Of course, the widespread acceptance of no-strike clauses in union contracts in the U.S. today is another example of how the union bureaucrats have betrayed the interests of union members. The bureaucrats are willing to accept them to secure deals with the bosses, particularly as they serve as a handy excuse, as Ramirez demonstrated, for not organizing necessary actions. But workers are left at the mercy of the capitalist courts and arbitrators to redress grievances for the duration of a contract. It is still necessary to organize actions like a national strike of all UFCW Smithfield workers, but it is clear they will be in spite of the contracts and the anti-worker laws.
Union bureaucrats further exposed their true loyalties in July when ICE raided six Swift meatpacking plants and arrested 25 immigrant workers, including a local union officer at Marshalltown, Iowa. These are the same plants that ICE raided last December, triggering a storm of protests at the thirteen hundred arrests and brutal harassment of workers and their families. This year the UFCW tops had nothing but praise for ICE. The head of the local at the Grand Island, Nebraska, plant, said the raid “was done the right way this time.” And UFCW headquarters issued a press release on July 10 that said, “It does not appear that ICE engaged in the same level of intimidation and overkill as they did in its raids last December at six Swift plants. To the extent this is the case, the UFCW supports law enforcement efforts that abide by the law and respect the rights of workers.”
For the leadership of a union that claims to represent immigrant workers to state its support for ICE’s immigration raids, i.e., “law enforcement efforts,” is a criminal betrayal of the working class and of immigrant workers in particular. This official statement is Exhibit A in our case for why the entire leadership of all the unions must be replaced by a new, revolutionary, leadership that fights always and everywhere for the interests of all workers and against the bosses and the capitalist state that enforces its laws in the bosses’ interests.
The UFCW is not the only union whose leaders are stabbing immigrant workers in the back. SEIU plays a very prominent role in the immigrant rights movement, and its leadership does a lot to divert the movement into electoral channels that prop up the capitalist system rather than threaten it. SEIU President Andy Stern committed a gross betrayal of immigrant workers and all workers by supporting the guest worker programs contained in last year’s McCain-Kennedy bill and this year’s STRIVE bill. They are happy to cut a deal with the government and the bosses whereby “guest workers” are exploited in conditions of temporary slavery while SEIU receives dues payments for “representing” them.
SEIU even invited Senator McCain to be a featured “proimmigrant” guest speaker at its rallies in New York. Union bureaucrats are sometimes willing to go outside the Democratic Party – but only to support Republicans. They never dream of breaking from both capitalist parties and standing for the political independence of the working class against its class enemies.
There are some union organizers, and even more rank-andfile members and supporters, who are sincere and courageous in their conduct of the union struggles that exist. Their efforts can help turn the tide in the struggle against the bosses’ increasingly cruel offensive; but only if the cynical union leadership and its pro-boss strategy are defeated.
UFCW organizer Bruskin was right about the national significance of the Smithfield struggle. But it cannot remain just a trade-union fight. While a Smithfield-wide strike could win union recognition, such a victory can only be temporary and inadequate, since immigrant workers are still subject to deportation. Stopping ICE raids and winning amnesty for all immigrants requires taking on the government through mass action.
The successful mass actions so far have been responses to the most intense attacks on immigrants. The marches in 2006 were aimed at stopping the Sensenbrenner bill. This year, the only march comparable in size was in Chicago, where a quarter million people took to the streets, in large part as an immediate response to a violent ICE raid the week before. Agents armed with automatic weapons had stormed a shopping mall in the Little Village neighborhood and held hundreds of people inside. Activists organized an immediate protest at the mall and spread the word about the May Day march.
The success of the protest against the Little Village raid in Chicago led to the formation of an Emergency Response Network, to enable activists to mobilize protests against immigration raids when they occur. Supporters of the LRP have taken an active part in the network’s meetings and events.
The immigrant rights movement has to do more than react to ICE raids and other attacks. One immediate goal should be to build a mass united demonstration to demand, “Stop the Raids and Deportations!” The Emergency Response Network and others should call on all leaders and organizations who claim to represent the immigrant community to join in organizing such a mass united demonstration against raids and deportations.
Working-class revolutionaries must challenge the union bureaucrats and other misleaders to take up the immediate demand of unconditional amnesty for all. Revolutionaries also stand for full and equal rights for all immigrants and the end of all restrictions on refugees from countries victimized by imperialism.
Revolutionaries also need to explain to our fellow workers that the real power of the working class lies not just in its numbers but in its central role in production and the rest of the economy. The May Day marches in 2006 were so powerful because they required workers to leave their jobs and therefore amounted to de facto shutdowns. Undoubtedly the potential for action in the streets to lead to action on the job is a key reason the pro-capitalist leaders prefer to avoid mass protests. Industrial struggles by immigrant workers would be an inspiration to all workers and could spark resistance against all of the capitalist attacks.
The great 2006 protests were inspiring in many ways. It was not only a festival for immigrant rights. It was also a show of solidarity with the tremendous mass struggles going on in Mexico at the time. (See “Mexico: Lessons of 2006,” in Proletarian Revolution No. 79.) The very revival of May Day, the international workers’ day, was a giant step forward for the U.S. working class. The LRP banners “Workers of the World, Unite!” were among those that reminded many immigrants of socialist marches in their home countries where this tradition had not been forgotten.
Significantly, the success of May Day inspired many immigrant workers to call for a general strike of all immigrants. Such an event would be a tremendous spark for the whole working class to start fighting back massively against ruling-class attacks that have been going on for several decades and should not be tolerated longer. A general strike would show all workers their enormous power to choke off profits. And it would inevitably confront state power, which is trying to terrify the immigrant working class. It would be a real “war on terror”!
The real solution to the problems faced by immigrant and non-immigrant workers cannot be won by strikes alone, no matter how powerful. We make no secret of the fact that revolutionaries are not just militant trade unionists. Unions are limited weapons, even in better hands. Mass struggle inevitably casts up new forms – more responsive and representative grassroots working-class organizations like strike committees and workers’ councils – and points the masses and their organizations in the direction of revolution.
In the struggles of today and tomorrow communists patiently but constantly point out that the capitalist system is the enemy and that its state power has to be overthrown and replaced by a workers’ state. Socialist revolution is the only real alternative to the miseries capitalism inflicts on the immigrant masses and all workers. Any concessions won under the present system will be temporary.
The mass actions of the workers themselves are the best demonstration of their real and potential powers. The capitalists also sense this power of the working class, which threatens and frightens them. Even though the working class does not yet have the political consciousness or leadership to get rid of the capitalist system, the wielding of working-class power can stop the attacks and compel the capitalists to make concessions.
Workers cannot ignore the current treacherous leaderships. We have to demand that they begin to mobilize a serious struggle, even as it means angering their friends in the capitalist parties. Class-conscious workers understand that the union bureaucrats and others will only do this under great mass pressure and will sabotage struggles at the first chance. In the process of building these struggles and exposing the current leaders, the most politically aware revolutionary-minded workers will gain support from other workers and become the alternative leadership of the masses.
The potential for an expanded struggle against imperialist and local capitalist oppression now exists, notably in Latin America. Immigrant workers are in a strong position to learn from their experiences, both here and in their countries of origin, that capitalism is a cruel and bankrupt system that needs to be swept away. They are certain to become a crucial component of the revolutionary party vanguard.
Immigrant Strike at Cygnus
The successful strike by immigrant workers at the Cygnus soap factory in South Chicago in August is a powerful example of how militant workers’ action can win victories where the union bureaucrats’ legalistic and consumer boycott strategies fail. Cygnus management had threatened to fire any worker whose immigration status couldn’t be verified by August 10. In response, almost the entire workforce went on strike, despite the fact that they didn’t even have a union. After two weeks on strike, the Cygnus workers won widespread support and publicity, and more importantly, brought production at Cygnus nearly to a halt. To end the strike, management retreated and dropped its threat to fire workers.
The example of Smithfield points to the danger of renewed attacks from Cygnus management. Cygnus workers urgently need to gain union representation to defend themselves. But it is also important that union bureaucrats not be allowed to take over the struggle and sap its militancy. To secure permanent gains requires the united power of the working class and a revolutionary strategy.