Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 28, 2006

Back To Routine
Back home in the heartland after several days of meetings in the wet and wonderful Bay Area, I resumed updating of the Daily Labor News Digest today. As usual, some important stories broke in my absence. I’ll deal with a couple of them.

Immigrant Rights
Some of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history have taken place recently in response to the debate in congress about "immigration reform." A half-million marched in Los Angeles last Saturday and tens of thousands of California students boycotted classes on Monday as well. Twenty thousand turned out for protest in Phoenix and there were similar sized actions in Milwaukee, Denver, and Philadelphia. I missed a local demonstration in Kansas City, Kansas that reportedly attracted two thousand.

This outpouring indicates the level of concern and combativeness among the immigrant component of the American working class. This is a question of great importance–as well as complexity–that must be satisfactorily resolved by the working class as a whole.

The boss class speaks with forked tongue on this issue. Immigrant workers would not leave their native land, and often their families, behind to make a dangerous and expensive journey to the U.S. if there was not work being offered by employers.

Nor is this just work that "Americans won’t do," as Mexican president Fox, as well as many well intentioned supporters of immigrant workers say. Undocumented immigrants are no longer just doing seasonal work in the fields, or shaping up at Home Depot parking lots for day labor. Millions of them are in regular full-time jobs in manufacturing and service industries.

In many cases these are jobs once performed by native-born workers. Take, for example, the meat packing industry. Such jobs were once concentrated in major urban areas such as Chicago, Kansas City, and South St Paul. While never pleasant work these jobs were unionized and paid decent wages and benefits. They were an especially important component of the African-American "middle-class" and when they were closed had a big negative impact on Black communities.

America didn’t stop eating meat. The work formerly done in the big urban centers was restructured in small towns and rural areas. Unions were either kept out completely or forced to make draconian concessions. Not surprisingly the displaced "American" workers were not eager to relocate to these new areas for a third of what they were formerly paid for this work. Today meat packing is largely performed by immigrant workers who are attracted by wages that pay 3-4 times more than they can earn in their depressed home country–especially since NAFTA arrived on the scene.

The present day immigrant work force could not be easily--or so cheaply–replaced if they were all rounded up and deported. The bosses need them.

Nevertheless, the ungrateful Establishment promotes threatening anti-immigrant reprisals for two main reasons.

1-They want the immigrant workforce to feel insecure, to lay low, not make waves–and certainly not organize on the job to improve their conditions.

2-They hope to deflect the discontent of native born workers–both white and Black–who are being driven out of the "middle class." The bosses seek to direct their anger toward fellow workers born elsewhere rather than against the real culprits--the ruling rich.

To their credit, many unions have worked hard to break down traditional anti-immigrant prejudice. Some, however, following their normal "lesser evil" approach to politics, have been lured in to the trap of promoting the least objectionable of repressive legislative proposals aimed at immigrants. Several have endorsed the Kennedy-McCain approach which may ultimately prove to be the foundation for what finally comes out of congress.

This is a big mistake, in my opinion. This question is above all one of working class solidarity. The first tenet of the principle of solidarity is "an injury to one is an injury to all." There are no asterisks explaining that all doesn’t include those without government approved paperwork. All means everybody that must offer their labor to a boss in order to live. We can’t afford to leave anybody behind. Immigrants are not the problem that needs to be reformed–bosses are the source of our woes. Instead of begging for a little mercy from the politicians we should be using the forms of solidarity struggle we do best–actions in the workplace and marching in the streets.

We have a long history in this country of dealing with employers cynically playing immigrant, and African-American workers off against native-born whites. One of the darker chapters in our history was the attempts of many craft unions to maintain all-white job trusts. That approach was a dismal failure, especially in manufacturing industries.

When the new CIO in the 1930s renounced such bigotry, and appealed to Black and immigrant workers to join the new workers movement sweeping through major industries, those previously excluded from unions became among the strongest fighters for unionism--and staked out their fair share in the process. If that hadn’t been accomplished industrial unionism could not have succeeded.

Already today we can see that Latino workers, largely immigrant, are the fastest growing and most militant component of the troubled labor movement. The way forward is to unite efforts of organized labor with the new insurgent mass movement developing in immigrant communities in defense of human rights, dignity, and decent living standards for all who work.

There will be many battles ahead. Some will be lost. But no ground should be conceded without a fight.

Buy Out–Or Sell Out?
Another big story of the past week was the deal announced by GM and the UAW for a massive buy out of GM, and Delphi workers still having rights at GM. Clearly the UAW has abandoned any efforts to save jobs. Variations of the deal will also certainly be made with Ford and Daimler as well. Delphi has also offered a new deal to replace the current UAW contract. I hope to have an article on these significant new developments within the next few days.

Ceci est la guerre des classes
As this is being written mass strikes and demonstrations continue in France against attempts to end protection against firings without just cause for young workers. Of course, the media is interviewing many people on the street to elicit gripes about inconvenience, especially with the shutdown in most public transportation. One television interviewer was no doubt surprised by one woman’s complaint that not enough had taken off. "Everyone should be on strike," she said.

That’s all for this week.

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