Last year’s huge demonstrations in Los Angeles, Chicago and across the U.S. showed the power immigrant workers have when they are united in struggle. They succeeded in stopping the viciously anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner Bill that would have criminalized undocumented immigrants. But since then the struggle has been held back and the ruling class has launched a new wave of anti-immigrant attacks.
In recent months, federal stormtroopers of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) have arrested thousands of immigrants, through terror raids at factories throughout the country. Congress is working on a new immigration bill that is openly hostile to immigrants. A work stoppage last November at the giant Smithfield pork plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina showed the potential for workers to fightback. But the strike was ended after winning only a brief delay in the attacks. Smithfield has since fired over 500 workers, allowed more to be seized for deportation and resumed its harassment of union activists.
The reason for these setbacks is that the pro-capitalist leaders of the immigrants’ struggles – union officials, clergy, heads of immigrants’ organizations, politicians of both major parties – have derailed much of the momentum through their strategy of depending on the capitalist “political process.” They discourage mass actions, and when the masses do move these misleaders steer them into passive electoral support for capitalist politicians, usually Democrats. They told demonstrators last spring, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.” The result has been that struggles like that in Smithfield have been left isolated, and the Democrats who now control Congress are joining Bush and the Republicans in leading new anti-immigrant attacks.
Last year’s protests came as massive struggles throughout Latin America presented a new and powerful challenge to imperialism’s domination and super-exploitation of the so-called “third world.” In the U.S. demonstrations, there were workers who have come from all over the world, particularly from Latin America and the Caribbean – and above all Mexico, where last summer millions mobilized in Mexico City to protest electoral fraud, and thousands rose up in rebellion in Oaxaca.
Behind these struggles is capitalism’s failure to offer the world’s workers and oppressed anything but worsening exploitation and poverty, dictatorship and war. Both the victories won through mass action and the setbacks produced by the pro-capitalist immigrant and union leaders who held back the struggle against the anti-immigrant attacks show that the workers here in the U.S. have the same need for a new leadership as do workers across the world. We workers must build our own revolutionary working class political party, committed to showing the way forward in today’s mass struggles. Such a demonstration of power would lay the basis for the future overthrow of capitalism and the building of a classless, communist society of plenty and freedom.
The new bill being pushed by the Democrats, nicknamed STRIVE (for “Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy”), revives much of the Sensenbrenner bill. It calls for more border fences, cops and jails, and for federal support for local and state police actions against immigrants; it legislates new crimes, like evading border enforcement, re-entering after being deported and possessing false documents. It would require immigrants with expired visas to return to their countries of origin to apply for legal residence, and it increases penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers.
Other provisions are designed to dress up the bill to appear helpful to immigrants – by offering pathways for legal residence, or even citizenship, for undocumented workers and some family members. But they must have clean records, pay huge fines and fees, and go through lengthy bureaucratic procedures. There is also a provision for hundreds of thousands of guest workers, called “new workers” or “conditional non-immigrants,” who face a list of conditions that would hold them hostage to their employers. These workers would need job offers to enter the country for up to 6 years; they would be allowed no more than 60 jobless days; they would have to wait 5 years to be eligible for permanent residence or citizenship. The supposed protections – entitling immigrant workers to get prevailing wages and preventing them from being hired as scabs – are paper guarantees that easily get tossed aside in the real world, especially since the bill does not guarantee union protection. Of course, the “STRIVE” bill excludes the major reform that all undocumented workers strive for – immediate, unconditional amnesty.
In short, STRIVE is a viciously anti-immigrant bill aimed at reinforcing immigrants’ status as a source of cheap labor. That liberal Democrats back this attack is no accident. The Democrats are the “liberal” wing of a capitalist system that is inherently racist and imperialist. Like all capitalist politicians, the liberals’ aim is to maintain and increase profits, which requires an obedient and desperate workforce. Whereas conservative Republican politicians rarely appeal to immigrants, the Democrats have traditionally drawn votes from workers and the oppressed – so they must pretend to offer something to them. Their specialty is stopping mass movements with promises of gains through voting and lobbying. Once the mass movements lose steam, the capitalist politicians are able to launch their counterattacks; the ICE raids and STRIVE are the result.
Because of the desperate conditions enforced on the countries they come from and discrimination against them here, immigrants tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paid, hardest and most dangerous occupations – including jobs that were once unionized and well-paid, like in the meat-packing industry and construction. The capitalists extract super-profits from the labor of immigrant workers. And by trying to force immigrant workers into a competition with native-born workers, the capitalists intensify the exploitation of all.
This divisive tactic has become increasingly important for the bosses, since the working class has grown both in numbers and strength. United in struggle, the working class would pose a grave threat to the capitalists. In the U.S. especially, the ruling class has encouraged racism to divide the working class and oppress and super-exploit workers of color, beginning with Black people during and after slavery. As the U.S. grew into an imperialist power, it extended its super-exploitation to oppressed peoples of color abroad.
The “divide-and-conquer” weapon has become all the more necessary, given the deepening crisis of the American and global economy. The bosses realize that desperately poor workers from “third-world” countries, (many of them uprooted by imperialist domination and plunder), can serve as an alternative labor supply to U.S.-born workers who had come to expect higher wages and benefits.
Thus immigrant workers of color are victims of both racial discrimination and national discrimination. The super-exploitation of immigrant labor has raised profits and increased the division of the working class. The mass use of immigrant labor has stirred competition, not only with many racist and nationally chauvinist white workers but also with Black American workers, who face even greater wage cuts and job losses and so feel especially threatened.
The capitalists’ strategy is already starting to backfire. Immigrant workers, given their militancy and international consciousness, have a great potential for furthering the struggle of all workers and oppressed in this country. Documented or not, immigrants are an integral part of the U.S. working class. They have a big, even majority, presence in major industries like food processing and services as well as construction. A strike by all the immigrants in the meat-packing industry, for example, would cut off almost the entire meat supply in the U.S.
Nor do immigrant workers always fight on their own. Most of those rallying in Smithfield were immigrants, but many Black and some white workers came out as well. Workers are more likely to fight alongside those who fight for themselves. Thus some American-born workers are realizing that the only way to overcome the use of poor immigrant workers to lower their own wages is through united struggle. This potential for fighting unity is particularly strong among Black workers, who know well what it means to fight against racist oppression.
But to realize this potential means a conscious struggle for new, fighting strategy for the immigrant working masses. The most militant and class-conscious immigrant workers must fight for demands that genuinely reflect their special interests. These include: Stop ICE Workplace Raids and All Police Attacks on Immigrants! Complete and Unconditional Amnesty for All Immigrants Now! Equal Rights for Immigrants! End All Restrictions on Immigrants and Refugees!
At the same time, immigrants should see themselves showing the way forward to the American working class as a whole. Despite the long history of racism, in the early 1970’s many white workers followed the leadership of Black workers in militant strikes. Immigrant workers now can also lead by championing demands in the interests of all workers and oppressed: Jobs for All at Decent Wages! For Free Quality Health Care and Education For All! For a Massive Public Works Program to Rebuild the Cities! Such demands are not currently voiced by the mass of American workers. But they will become increasingly popular as the working class begins to mobilize in struggle for its interests. Despite the fact that they have not been in mass struggles for years due to the sabotage of union bureaucrats and Democratic Party politicians, they are growing angrier by the day and they have an enormous history of class struggle.
Demands that meet the real needs of workers today cannot be won by voting for “lesser evil” capitalist politicians. Winning requires active mass struggle, utilizing the power immigrants have as a massive bloc of workers who keep the system running. It means mass demonstrations and mass strikes. It means building a struggle for a general strike to defend against the capitalist attacks.
To mount and sustain such a struggle requires mass workers’ organizations. At present, this primarily means the labor unions. They enroll a shrinking minority of the working class but still have millions of members; their major successes in the most recent years have been in organizing among immigrant workers. But the struggle is not confined to the unions; it will demand the creation of new, broader mass organizations of the workers and oppressed as well.
All this requires a struggle for a new leadership. The current leaders of workers’ and oppressed people’s organizations are traitors to the cause they claim to represent. Most politically active religious figures and leaders of organizations like the National Council of La Raza Unida (NCLRU) pursue positions as brokers between their oppressed followers and the capitalist class. Like the top labor bureaucrats, they gain substantial incomes and privileges from this work and therefore are natural supporters of the system.
These misleaders have a variety of attitudes towards the STRIVE proposals. NCLRU reluctantly accepts a guest worker program in return for supposedly easier paths to legal residence. The AFL-CIO leadership wants no guest worker program. Neither does the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a member of the other labor federation, Change to Win. The SEIU, also in Change to Win, seems to think that a guest worker program will help expand the numbers of dues-paying union members. But all of them supported terminating the massive struggles of last year and thereby allowed their Democratic Party allies to push the STRIVE attack. They want workers to stay off the streets and picket lines as much as possible, and instead put their faith in them and the pro-capitalist politicians.
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 workers will connect with revolutionary workers and gain the ear and support of other workers. Thus they can become the alternative leadership of the masses.
Such a leadership must see socialist revolution as the only real alternative to the miseries capitalism inflicts on the immigrant masses and all workers. Capitalism has basically nothing to offer immigrants but STRIVE and ICE or worse. Any concessions won under the system will be temporary. That revolutionary leadership must take the form of a unified international revolutionary workers’ party.
There is a rising tide of struggle in the world against imperialist and local capitalist oppression, much of it now centered 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.