The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 55 (Fall 1997).
Traducción en español
The New York cops’ sadistic torture of Abner Louima, a Haitian emigré, was just the latest in a series of vicious acts against immigrants in recent years. Each scandal gets a few days of play in the bourgeois media. The public is rightfully outraged. Then – after politicians, clergymen and “community leaders” have sufficiently deplored the “incident” and appointed another “independent” commission – the story disappears. The public never hears about the case again. But the inhuman brutality goes on.
The tortures and murders reflect a daily, deep-seated and less often recorded horror. In sweatshops, factories and fields across the United States, millions of immigrants perform endless toil, usually under miserable conditions, for substandard wages and few or no benefits. In most cases they stay because there is no alternative. The pennies they earn mean sheer survival for themselves and their families. Whole economies depend on what immigrants can send back home.
The masses who have come to these shores in the past three decades have been allowed in not because the capitalist class that rules this land is warm and caring. The reason is superexploitation. As the profound rot of the capitalist system worsens, the bourgeoisie tries to gobble up every last bit of possible profit. Since profit can only come from labor, the harder workers work and the less they are paid, the more the bosses gain. Vulnerable immigrants are ideal for this purpose.
The cops, politicians and government agents who harass immigrants are a necessary part of the system. Blaming immigrants for capitalism’s economic assault on the working class as a whole helps prevent classwide resistance. It is not just words. The vast federal bureaucracy that oversees immigration, as well as the state and city police forces, have as one of their chief duties the intimidation of immigrants. Hiring the kind of thugs who become cops to show “lesser races” who is boss inevitably results in brutality, sadism and murder.
Because the anti-immigrant attacks are so inherent in the daily operation of capitalist society, the only successful fight against them has to become anti-capitalist and revolutionary. Our purpose in this article is to demonstrate, through historical examples and political analysis, that the current pro-Democratic Party leadership of the immigrant movement has to be replaced by a revolutionary leadership based on the working class and its interests.
An increasingly important minority of U.S. capitalists and their political pit-bulls are becoming overtly racist in their attacks on immigrants. They generally reflect the interests of middle-sized companies which have not invested abroad. They sell on the U.S. market and maintain highly restrictive hiring practices. Out of fear of competition from the giant global corporations, they wrap themselves in the American flag and the banners of right-wing populism. They find a voting base among economically desperate sections of the petty bourgeoisie and elements of the white labor aristocracy.
Pat Buchanan is the chief mouthpiece for this sector of the ruling class, warning about “the immigrant hordes” and the threatened “loss of America’s Western culture and values.” Such “respectable” politicians give aid, comfort and stimulation not only to anti-immigrant thuggery but also to the dangerous rise in the general chauvinist sentiment.
Immigrant workers, however, face another danger now even more difficult to combat than the Buchanans: the mainstream capitalists. They have far greater power today and even claim to be anti-racist, to support immigrant rights and to deplore “excessive” police brutality. They’re the bosses who benefit from immigrants and love the low wages forced on them, and the effect this has in depressing wages in general. The “establishment” capitalists are represented by the so-called moderate wing of the Republican Party and, especially in recent national elections, by the Democrats.
Given this reality, it is outrageous that the present leadership of the immigrants’ struggle is intimately tied to the Democratic Party. This year’s October 12 demonstration for immigrant rights sponsored by Coordinadora ‘96, for example, is officially led by politicians from the Democratic Party, as well as by clergy and community organizers linked to them. The Democratic president and Democrats in Congress have done just as much to impose anti-immigrant laws, nationally and locally, as the right-wing Republicans.
There are of course variations within the moderate-to-liberal bloc. In words, liberal Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy defend immigrants. In practice, they supported Clinton, the author of a 25 percent increase in funding for the repressive Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the program to expand local police by adding 100,000 new cops. The liberals tell their supporters that the Republicans would do worse, while Clinton boasts to the capitalists that he got away with more than the Republicans ever could. In this Clinton is right: the “lesser evil” is no defense against the greater. As we showed in our article on the 1996 election, the lesser evil in theory becomes the greater evil in practice. (PR 53)
There is a vast social gap between the Democratic Party, run by a wing of the capitalist class, and the working class, especially its most oppressed sectors. Thus two different elements are active in the movement for immigrant rights: a leadership beholden to the exploiters, and the mass base of exploited workers. The misleaders maintain their dependence on the Democrats because they believe that lasting solutions and peaceful reforms are still possible under capitalism. Their dominance is the central reason why the movement has not yet been effective in the face of a mounting attack. The immigrants’ struggle badly needs a leadership based on the working class, not tied to a capitalist system that thrives on racism, class division and superexploitation.
Last August, Congress and President Clinton passed the “welfare reform” bill that abolishes federal welfare aid. It ends access, even for legal immigrants in this country less than 10 years, to a whole series of federal services, including Social Security old age and disability payments. In September, Clinton signed an immigration bill funding 1200 border patrol officers and 900 immigration investigators with wide powers of deportation; it also denies federally funded welfare to undocumented residents.
The INS has sharply escalated the numbers of immigrants deported or excluded from entry because of a new procedure established under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. At the same time, applications for citizenship have increased enormously. Yet background checks, fingerprinting rituals, and other additions to the process mean that immigrants are now routinely treated like criminals until proven innocent, and have to wait years longer for citizenship status than in the past.
The key precedents for these oppressive national laws were adopted in California, a center of the anti-immigrant campaign. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, denying undocumented immigrants hospital treatment, public education and other public services and forcing hospital and school workers to act like cops and turn suspected illegals over to the authorities. In 1996 the voters adopted Proposition 209, ending affirmative action in university admissions.
There have been mass protests in Los Angeles against Prop 187: one march had tens of thousands of Latino youth and shut down many of Los Angeles’s high schools. The immigrant rights march last October of over 100,000 in Washington likewise mobilized tens of thousands of Latino youth and others from the East Coast and the Midwest who want to fight the attacks.
Immediately after the passing of Prop 187, opponents got a court injunction that has kept the measure in abeyance pending a final decision. The federal measures, too, have yet to be enforced because of legal challenges and legislative attempts to modify them. But in July, a New York judge upheld the constitutionality of removing welfare benefits from legal immigrants who are not U.S. citizens. This decision was opposed by New York’s Mayor Giuliani, no friend of the foreign-born poor or any working people of color. He knows how important immigrant workers are to the city’s sizeable sweatshop economy.
The hesitation and squabbling within the bourgeoisie in implementing these laws reflect their uncertainty over how fast to assault the working class as a whole. The capitalist drive against immigrant rights, however, will proceed, despite arguments over pace. Weakening those workers with the fewest legal rights increases class divisions and thereby steps up the exploitation of all workers at every level.
This is on top of the race card the bourgeoisie plays for the same purpose. It is no accident that the most outrageous acts are aimed at immigrants of color. Historically, much of the enormous growth and relative stability of U.S. capitalism has come from the superexploitation of Black labor. Racism has served to divide the American working class. Large numbers of better-off white workers were led to see Blacks as undeserving, sub-human and dangerous enemies who had to be kept down, forcibly if necessary. This has not only helped keep Black wages low; it has forced down white wages too because of the competitive job market. Thus racism has produced extra profits out of white as well as Black labor.
Racism has also served as a justification for imperialism and America’s “right” to intervene abroad as it chooses. The U.S. Black struggle and the liberation struggles in the colonial and semi-colonial countries have made the imperialists shut up about “the white man’s burden,” but they still act in the same way to superexploit much of Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. When immigrant workers from these lands come to the U.S., they do not escape racist superexploitation.
The U.S., a country of immigrants, has always been prone to an anti-immigrant chauvinism, which becomes more active during times of economic crisis. For example, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, police rounded up hundreds of thousands of people of Mexican origin – including many U.S. citizens! – and herded them onto trains bound south of the border.
The current long-term and deepening economic decay, starting in the mid-1970’s, has heightened mass anti-immigrant sentiment around the world. In other imperialist countries like France, the attacks have been even more organized and virulent than here. Even during capitalist booms there are never enough jobs to go around and workers compete with each other for employment and wages. But during crises, competition can become cutthroat. This compels not only individual rivalry but group competition, and the most oppressed groups get the worst jobs – or none at all. Competitive hostility spills out into all areas of life, well beyond the job market. The capitalists and their Democratic and Republican politicians and media hacks tell employed, white male, U.S.-citizen workers that their increasing plight is due to “welfare mothers” and “criminals” (code for Black people) and immigrant “freeloaders.”
Black people have always been the main target of racism in the U.S. But now, the persistent bias against Latino workers, U.S. and foreign-born, is rising rapidly. Therefore, although chauvinist attacks are accelerating against West Indians, Africans, Arabs and Asians, the demagogues are now whipping up racial prejudices against Latinos in particular to a near-fever pitch. “English only” groups are at work everywhere. Buchanan and his friends scream about “the browning of America” and warn that Latinos are becoming even more numerous than Blacks. Soon, they cry, the old America will disappear, whites will no longer be a majority and English will become a second language. “Immigrant” is now often used as a threatening code-word for Latin Americans.
The Latin American presence in the U.S. is not at all new. Many Mexicans unwillingly became U.S. residents when the U.S. took half of Mexico in the middle of the 19th century. Large-scale immigration from Mexico started during the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20. Puerto Ricans, likewise unwillingly, became part of the U.S. in the 1898 war with Spain: the U.S. conquered Spain’s remaining American and Asian colonies and joined the ranks of modern imperialist nations. In 1917 the U.S. forced citizenship on Puerto Ricans in order to draft them for slaughter in the first imperialist World War.
The post-war boom produced the greatest wave of international migrations in history. The U.S. and other imperialist countries pulled unskilled labor from their own rural and undeveloped areas into their growing industrial metropolises. So vast was the expansion that they also moved to “import” labor from colonial and neo-colonial countries to help perform the dirty, low-paid jobs. The boom made old restrictions on immigration an obstacle to expanded production; the world colonial revolution and the Cold War rivalry made overt race barriers a liability. In the 1950’s, for example, the U.S. shamefacedly ended the bans on Chinese and other Asian immigration that had been in place since the 1880’s.
Lower-wage manufacturing jobs drew not only Blacks and whites from the South, but also masses from Puerto Rico, to Northeastern and Midwestern cities, where they became a major presence by the mid-‘50’s. Mexicans came in increasing numbers, joining the existing Chicano population in the cities and agricultural areas of the Southwest. Soon they migrated in increasing numbers to Midwestern farms and cities where they found themselves working alongside Puerto Ricans. Now U.S. capitalism draws Latin American immigrants of many different nationalities into the lower rungs of its domestic working class, doing the hardest, lowest-paid work and living in some of its worst slums.
Hostility toward Latin Americans, particularly incoming Mexicans, has been most obvious in the Southwest. But similar racism was also directed at Puerto Ricans from the very day of their arrival on the East Coast.
Following the lead of the Black struggles for equality and justice, Mexican and Puerto Rican movements in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s established a Latino tradition of organized mass protest in this country.
The first modern Latino mass movement in the U.S. was the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (later the United Farm Workers of America), which started in the 1960’s in California. U.S.-born and immigrant farmworkers had no rights under the laws guaranteeing the minimum wage, collective bargaining, the prohibition of child labor or even the presence on work sites of toilet and wash-up facilities. The organizing drive in California’s vineyards aroused great enthusiasm and heroic self-sacrifice from the Chicano, Mexican and Filipino workers. They struck, sat down and picketed while enduring mass firings and attacks by police and private guards. The seasonal and migratory nature of the work made it doubly hard to build stable union locals. And the owners were never shy about turning immigrant organizers in to the U.S. immigration police, “La Migra.”
Cesar Chavez and the other UFWOC leaders consciously modelled the movement to reflect the NAACP/Martin Luther King-led Black civil rights movement of the mid-50’s-‘60’s. That is, it adopted the protest movement’s line as dictated by its pro-capitalist, court-oriented, pacifist misleaders, who relied upon the good will of the Democratic Party for results. In the face of early setbacks, Chavez & Co. called off further strike activity. They didn’t demand or campaign for support strikes and other mass actions by the rest of the AFL-CIO: that would have required an open attack on the racist, boss-loving union bureaucracy and a program addressed to winning the ranks and overturning the conservative leaders.
So Chavez came up with something the union hacks could tolerate. In 1965 the Farm Workers called the national table-grape boycott, which continued on and off for almost 20 years with little noticeable effect. Chavez concentrated almost all efforts on lobbying for a California farm labor law similar to federal laws, which would extend minimum wage, union recognition elections and child labor bans to farm workers in the state. But the owners either shut the union out completely or signed sweetheart deals with UFWA’s rivals in the Teamsters’ Union. In either case agribusinesses fired UFWA organizers or had them deported with impunity.
By the time the law passed in the late 70’s, UFWA membership was half what it had been in the mid-‘60’s. Demoralization was rife: farmworkers themselves were split – citizens against immigrants, legal residents against undocumented workers – as field jobs disappeared with the end of the post-war boom.
The “realistic” legalist approach weakened the potential of a very promising militant movement. The UFWA is only now recovering from its legacy. The farmworkers, still mostly Mexican and Chicano, have again shown their willingness to fight. The leadership of the AFL-CIO has undergone cosmetic changes and actually held a carefully controlled rally this May in support of California strawberry pickers who are struggling to unionize. The basic liberal reformist strategy is the same – bring public relations-style pressure on the capitalist government for strictly controlled official union recognition elections. They still do nothing to build any genuine workers’ mass action.
Despite its misleadership and strategy, the UFWA was a turning point. A radical wing of the Latino movement sprung up in the late ‘60’s; its leaders also looked to the Black movement for inspiration – but to the more radical Black Power wing (and later, the Black Panther Party) that arose in response to the failures of the integrationist liberals. The Puerto Rican-based Young Lords were centered in New York and Chicago; there were also the MPI (Pro-Independence Movement) and the Puerto Rican Student Union. In the Southwest, the Brown Berets, La Raza Unida Party and others won even greater numbers.
By the mid-1970’s, all the radical Latino organizations had fragmented. Even though some of the fragments claimed to be building Marxist parties, the radical elements represented elements of the educated middle-classes. Inspired by the Vietnamese, Cuban and Chinese national revolutions and schooled by police brutality in the U.S., they saw that imperialism could not be reformed out of existence: revolution was necessary. But just as Mao turned from hostility to imperialism to accommodation with it, the radical middle-class forces, “anti-imperialist” but not really anti-capitalist, became more open to making deals. Ultimately they either faded out of politics or joined the liberal union bureaucrats, priests and other Democratic Party sellouts whom they had previously rejected.
The global economic decline that started in the 1970’s increased immigration to the U.S. and other imperialist nations. The collapse of “third world” nationalism and the increased drain of resources by imperialist superexploitation bred starvation conditions. As masses were forced to fight each other for scraps, bloody wars broke out. Millions were pushed out of their homelands by wars and economic desperation, and large contingents tried to get to the U.S. to survive. Among them were emigrés from Haiti, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Those who managed to get to the U.S., avoiding Coast Guard and Migra attacks, starvation and drowning, were received with racist hatred, police brutality, and near-slave labor jobs.
It was rather different with anti-Castro Cuban refugees, until recently. Almost the entire Cuban capitalist class, one of the most corrupt and servile in the world, fled, after losing its land and factories to Castro’s radical nationalist revolt. These gusanos (“worms”) received huge amounts of money and weapons from the U.S. government; elements among them played far right-wing roles in Watergate, the Contra war against Nicaragua, attacks on Cuba, etc. The wealthiest and lightest-skinned of them managed to build a sectoral bastion of their own within the bourgeoisie, particularly in south Florida, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. As the leading edge of the Cuban emigration, they kept the petty-bourgeois elements and even many of the immigrant Cuban workers in their reactionary grip, in a way very different from other Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Later waves of Cuban immigrants got different treatment. The massive immigration of the Mariel Boatlift in 1980 occurred well into the economic crisis, with anti-immigrant policies stepped up at all levels. The poorer and often darker-skinned post-1980 Cuban immigrants faced the same racist stereotyping as U.S. Blacks and other immigrants of color: they were accused of criminality, shiftlessness and low intelligence. Since then, the U.S. has severely restricted new immigration from Cuba and even amicably consulted with the hated Fidelista “socialist” government on how to keep dissatisfied Cubans from coming to the U.S.
The change in status of Cuban immigrants, and the treatment of Nicaraguans and Salvadorans, illuminates the class basis of the U.S.’s anti-immigrant policies. Salvadoran immigrants, mostly poor rural and urban workers, were fleeing the CIA-established death squads and army of the bloody military-dominated government. La Migra found a thousand ways to keep them out, deny them asylum and deport them. Nicaraguan refugees, mostly from middle-class and petty-bourgeois backgrounds, were fleeing the radical-nationalist Sandinista government. U.S. capitalists and their government hated the Sandinistas and organized the Contra army to overthrow them. But their attitude toward non-wealthy Nicaraguan immigrants, no matter how right-wing, quickly grew cool, and La Migra made it harder for them to settle. With the downfall of the Sandinistas, Nicaraguans now find themselves treated like other, non-favored Latino immigrants.
There are clear linguistic, cultural and historical links between the U.S.- and foreign-born people who trace their origin to the various Spanish-speaking countries of this hemisphere. However, it would be a gross mistake to understand them as a homogeneous bloc, politically or otherwise. While most Latinos understand their commonalities, they still emphasize their country of origin as their primary ethnic identity within North American society. The differences between Latin-American peoples are real; over time, whether they will be decisive or kept in the background is not pre-ordained.
U.S. capitalism certainly pushes toward the fusion of Latin-Americans into a single “interest group” or ethnic bloc. There is certainly an overall bias against Latinos which cannot be ignored. The pressures of national electoral politics indicate that a big “Hispanic bloc” can get more of its demands on the government fulfilled than smaller nationality-based interest groups can expect. In fact, the underlying bourgeois theory about how government benefits are politically distributed says that such blocs are in competition with each other; therefore it is better to grow large to get a bigger share. Thus Latinos are pressured into a single unit – in political competition with Blacks and other groups because, the theory says, smaller units like Puerto Ricans or Dominicans can’t compete with the larger groups.
However, competitive pressures also undermine such larger blocs and force each nationality group into rivalry with the others. In yesteryears, when the working-class voters of the various sectional groups got some minimal gains as their “share” of the sops, today they don’t even get hopes – which is why they vote less and less. As conditions worsen and government takes back more and more, the tendencies toward exacerbating relations between Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, etc. can grow – in the job market, in the neighborhoods and on the electoral front.
National origin is not the only line of fracture that exists among Latinos. Anti-Latino prejudice varies according to skin color. Latinos who appear as white meet far less prejudice than do those who more clearly reveal their African and/or Indian heritage. The racist underpinning of the anti-immigrant, anti-Latino trend cannot be ignored.
Nevertheless, the most crucial line of differentiation among Latinos is the same that runs through the rest of society. It bisects each separate nationality and (despite impressionist views of the moment) is far deeper and more significant than the national and racial differences. It is the class line, the division between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
U.S. capitalism discriminates against all Blacks – less so against the relatively small numbers of Black capitalists and the better-off middle strata, but they are still stigmatized. When they do lead fights against racism, they do so from their own class vantage point. They inevitably function to keep the masses in check, blur the class line among Blacks and help prevent working class Blacks, whites, Latinos, et al from becoming class conscious and revolutionary.
The Latino bourgeoisie and middle class play a similar role among Latinos, except that the specifics of the relationship between the capitalist and working-class elements varies according to the specific national background. For example, in some cases many Latino workers will work for the Latino bourgeoisie (Cubans, for example). But in most cases, the workers toil directly for the Anglo corporations, and the upper classes act as brokers between U.S. capitalism and the specific workforce. However, whether or not the upper class Latinos are brokers, direct exploiters or simply middle strata frontmen, their claim to represent the interests of Latino toilers is fraudulent.
Under the surface of events, capitalist contradictions are intensifying. For all their prominence today, the middle-class Latino “community leaders” are far more tied to capitalism than they are to the needs of their followers. In this, they do not differ from the middle-class leadership of Blacks and other oppressed groups, immigrant or U.S.-born.
Marxists are open and unwavering internationalists. We have no interest in building separate nations. We are, however, on the side of oppressed colonialized masses who struggle against our common enemy, the ruling imperialists. We defend the right of self-determination in order to prove that nations and national bourgeoisies are no answer to imperialism – and that the workers of all nations must unite and fight for socialist revolution.
In a similar way, when the struggle is not anti-colonial – when it is not a question of building separate nations – we defend the right of self-organization by oppressed nationalities or races. We understand why the Latino masses in the U.S., in the absence of a unified working class fighting for their interests against discrimination, are drawn to ethnic organizations out of self-defense. We will fight alongside these workers against our common enemy, openly stating that the struggle will show the real solution to the needs of the masses: not separate ethnic or racial blocs and alliances but internationalist and interracialist working-class solidarity. This means a rejection of the pro-bourgeois misleaders.
As Leninists we know the difference between the national, ethnic and racial consciousness of oppressed peoples and the national, ethnic and racial consciousness of the oppressors. It is understandable why oppressed groups want to demonstrate pride in their accomplishments when the oppressors constantly seek to debase them. However, because revolutionaries are committed to telling fellow workers the truth as they see it, we always make it clear that the goal is class consciousness and not racial or ethnic consciousness. The latter are dead-ends for all workers.
Following this outlook, we defend efforts toward self-organization. In circumstances where it is the only path open to the oppressed, we advocate it. As far as choosing between overall Latino self-organization as opposed to that by specific Latino nationalities, communists generally support larger unities rather than narrower ones. Latino-wide formations, however, are only justified as a means to deal with immediate problems that concern Latinos alone. Temporary fronts and joint actions with other groups are increasingly necessary if the oppressed are to defend themselves in the U.S. today. Therefore, in response to the anti-immigrant laws and police brutality cases, the widest possible unity in action by all oppressed peoples and their supporters is warranted – it is vital that all workers and oppressed people solidarize with the defense of immigrants, Latinos and non-Latinos alike.
While such temporary and broad formations are important for specific defense actions, they are insufficient. Capitalism is the cause; the system demands crackdowns against immigrants. Thus our chief aim is to work for the leadership of the working-class vanguard and its internationalist and interracialist program; the proletarian revolutionary party is the only answer for the plight of the immigrants.
The call for unity between immigrants and their allies is popular today. Coordinadora ‘96, the committee that organized this and last year’s rallies, stands for a “nationwide movement of immigrants and poor people,” not of immigrants alone. Coordinadora raises a program of demands which it calls Proposition One: human and constitutional rights, equal opportunity and affirmative action, citizenship now and amnesty for undocumented immigrants, no more police brutality, free public education for all children through university, reform labor law and increase the minimum wage to cost of living, and expansion of health services.
The specificity of many of these demands, plus the title Proposition One, affirms the fact that they are meant to be achieved not only under capitalism but through the methods of bourgeois-democratic electoralism – aided by mass pressure. Coordinadora ‘96 calls for “a new movement for civil rights for immigrants and poor people.”
This proposal amounts to asking the capitalist ruling class to act in the interest of immigrants and suppress the racist, chauvinist right wing. It will never happen, especially not at a time when racists are winning referendums on such social issues. Moreover, “democratically” elected governments, far from expanding free public education, are defunding public schools and making college far less affordable and less accessible to minorities than ever in recent history. The proposals envision a similar strategy, based upon trading votes for supposed support, as that put forward by civil rights and labor leaders for decades. This strategy proved to be a dead end, even in the long-gone period of prosperity.
History shows that the working class wins gains through militant mass actions and massive strikes; that is what forces legislators to change the laws in the hope of cooling the workers out. But the Coordinadora’s program seems deliberately to overlook specific appeals to working-class unity: the demand for jobs for all is conspicuously missing, in favor of non-specific labor “reform.” The Teamsters strike and the support it got against United Parcel Service this August showed how widely popular the idea of fighting for decent full-time jobs for all workers would be!
The Coordinadora is not a genuine broad front of the oppressed, united by the need for common action. Although the masses who come to its demonstrations now have many points of view, the organization reflects only one, the liberal reformist view that pretends to be broad. Its program represents not the real working-class program, nor even its supporters’ variety of views, but rather the position of lawyers, community organizers and other middle-class brokers for the dominant U.S. capitalist system. And in fact, many of the featured speakers at the ‘96 rally in D.C. were Democratic politicians and liberal clergy – the usual suspects. No speakers or rally leaders offered any strategy counterposed to pressure-group rallies, lobbying and voting – although many marchers, particularly the youth, were looking for some other way forward and were very open to revolutionary ideas.
The pro-capitalist union misleaders, who played a minor role in the demonstration, are even more dangerous to the masses than the community organizers. They control larger, more permanent organizations with more resources. And, the unions are organized by the very nature of capitalist production into a potentially cataclysmic force, despite their present shrinkage in numbers. The unions still organize the workers at the heart of capitalist production, profit-making and power. They can bring the system’s production, transportation, cities, governmental administration and profits to a halt. The tremendous power of the unions is a central reason why the bureaucracy has acted so weakly. If they actually used it, the system could be turned upside-down. But acting as salesmen for labor power and loyal to capitalism, the bureaucrats refuse to use the unions’ power.
The union officials have learned one thing from the UFWA experience of the ‘60’s and early ‘70s – to repeat it. The latest model organizing drive is the Justice for Janitors campaign of the Service Employees (SEIU). The reputation of John Sweeney’s current New Voices AFL-CIO leadership was built on this campaign to unionize building service workers. In Los Angeles, the janitors are mostly Latinos, many of them immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador.
Despite a union leadership oriented more toward middle-class public opinion than working-class action, the SEIU is growing, recruiting janitors and winning occasional contracts from previously non-union employers – with the same or slightly higher wages and benefits than before. It’s not public opinion that moves the racist building owners but the spirit and solidarity of the workers.
Some of this spirit is based on the militant struggles of the drywall hangers in the late ‘80’s. The drywallers in L.A. are mostly Mexican immigrants. They have the hardest job in housing construction, carrying heavy pre-cast plaster wall sections on their backs and fastening them in place, in the hot sun, on uneven ground, subject to firing if they lag for a moment. The struggle of these workers to form an association to force better wages and conditions from the contractors involved strikes, building-site occupations and mass pickets. Even though the contractors turned some militants in to La Migra and cops beat and arrested many, the workers’ mass action in the streets won a contract.
The drywallers obviously needed support from the rest of the working class. To build real solidarity, as with the UFWA, would have meant fighting for supporting strikes. To get such solidarity in action, they would have had to fight union leaders who run from any strike. But their leadership called in the union tops and the drywallers ended up in the carpenter’s union, a conservative craft outfit. The house-building contractors for the most part continue to hire non-union immigrant drywallers, pay them next to nothing and fire them at will.
Nevertheless, the example of militant Latino immigrant workers uniting previously unorganized sectors in the face of racist boss and cop terror foretells future developments in the struggle. Likewise, the example of Latinos solidarizing with Blacks in the Los Angeles “riots” of 1992 (against the exoneration of the cops who mauled Rodney King) signaled the potential of Latino workers to forge a wider class unity.
The opportunity for working class solidarity growing out of industrial actions by the trade unions has grown enormously. It isn’t simply that the number of workers of color has gone up in the unions and that the racist restrictions in many unions have been cracked. Once engaged in militant struggles, white workers have proved that they can learn they need Black and Latino brothers and sisters.
The strike wave, wildcat and authorized, that tore through industry in the early 1970’s established that white workers would follow militant Black workers in action. No longer were Black workers dependent on whether white workers would solidarize with them. In class actions, relations between the races were becoming more egalitarian. What is more, Black workers by virtue of the lessons learned in their struggle against oppression, were taking the lead. This accomplishment was evidence confirming Leon Trotsky’s prediction in the 1930’s that U.S. Blacks would be in the revolutionary vanguard out of proportion to their numbers.
We can say the same about Latino, Haitian, West Indian and other workers. As militancy returns to the unions, they are giving evidence of their developing role. Further, in demonstrations and discussions, it is becoming apparent that struggles both here and in their country of origin have taught lessons and made them more open to authentic communist ideas than many American-born workers, as of now.
It is inevitable that the class struggle, so long dammed up, will break through with a fury and depth that will stun impressionable people who have written off the organized working class. Such an upheaval will jettison not only the present bureaucratic leadership but its pale pink reform-minded imitators as well. In the course of struggle, the workers will learn the necessity for mass action. Like the drywallers, they will mobilize mass actions not confined by the bosses’ laws or property rights.
Experience will also show that militant action that doesn’t transcend their unions’ ties to Democratic or Republican politicians and their capitalist bosses is doomed to fail: workers’ and bosses’ interests are fundamentally opposed. A leadership that really fights for the interests of immigrants and all workers must recognize this and fight for the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a society of abundance and equality for all – socialism. However, that future development will only happen if all workers – immigrant and U.S.-born – who already understand this necessity have grouped together to build the alternative leadership, the revolutionary party of the working class.
To build the party and win the best fighters to it, slogans and militant dedication are not enough. Revolutionaries have to show that they have the program to unite immigrant and other workers in mass action. Isolated strikes often lose, but important strikes attract the attention and support of other workers, as in the UPS case. To make that support real and to defend workers from the ongoing capitalist attacks, revolutionaries point to the need for a general strike, which brings all profit-making to a halt and unites the working class and shows its real power.
The general strike will take up the struggles of all the dispossessed and show that demands in their interest are vital to the success of the strike. Revolutionaries also point out that working-class demands transcend narrow trade unionism. Armed picket lines can stop particular scabs; the only way to stop a torrent of unemployed people from scabbing is to fight for jobs for the entire class. The only way to beat the bosses is by fighting for the rights of immigrants, Blacks, Latinos, women, the unemployed and all oppressed and exploited people. Revolutionaries will also show that a successful mass action in the form of the general strike poses the question of which class has the right to rule society, the actual producers or the profit-grubbers.
The revolutionary party stands for real internationalism – an international party with sections in each country. Capitalists are always telling U.S. workers that we must accept lower wages and worse conditions: they can hire workers at maquiladoras in Mexico along the U.S. border for 1/10 the wages. These conditions will never be resolved under capitalism: the only solution is workers’s socialist revolution to do away with capitalism internationally.
The capitalists have made us one international working class while dividing us by nation and race to compete for their crumbs. We should act like one working class – for example, through cross-border strikes of workers in Mexico and the U.S. This is no fantasy: this past spring, truck drivers in France, Spain and Portugal struck together for shorter hours, higher wages and improved pensions; they won a partial victory. If our class can do it in Europe, so can we in the Americas! Such international strike action requires a fight to oust the “charros sindicales” (“trade union cowboys,” the union bureaucrats) in both the U.S. and Mexico.
These are only a few of the ways that workers of all nationalities can organize to begin fighting. The fight will be long and difficult, as everyone understands. Revolutionaries in the LRP join in every struggle to defend the working class that we can. By struggling alongside our co-workers we will show over time in practice that only the revolutionary program can defend our class from attacks, win gains and keep them. The best, most class-conscious fighters will come to see this and join with us to build the party that immigrants and all workers need.