The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 77 (Spring 2006)
April 21, 2006
The most massive outpouring of workers in decades is unfolding in the United States. Giant demonstrations this spring protested vicious anti-immigrant legislation in Congress and demanded the legalization of all immigrants. The marches drew over a million in Los Angeles on March 25, close to half a million in Chicago and Dallas, plus hundreds of thousands each in several other cities. On April 10 alone there were two million marchers nationwide.
The protesters were mainly Mexican and other Latin American and Caribbean immigrants. This is no coincidence: they feel the strength of their enormous numbers and essential roles in the economy. They were also influenced by the great traditions of working-class and anti-imperialist struggles in Latin America.
The huge immigrant protest was aimed directly at the outrageously racist and anti-worker Sensenbrenner bill HR 4437, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December, which would label as felons the country’s estimated 12 million undocumented immigrant workers, criminalize all who assist them and erect 700 miles of walls along the Mexican border. The marches were decisive in forcing Congress to back off that nightmare legislation.
This partial victory has already begun to affect the consciousness of oppressed immigrant workers. They are learning a crucial lesson: their own power. Like the recent upheavals of workers and students in France, the marches in the U.S. show that it is possible to set back the ruling-class attacks.
In some cities, where tens of thousands of workers left their jobs to attend the marches, the effect was to shut down hundreds of businesses that rely on undocumented workers. For the next round of protests on May 1, a number of immigrant organizations are calling for a “Great American Boycott”—a day of “no work, no school, no selling and no buying.” Some, including the Mexican American Political Association (MAPA), are even calling it a “general strike.” Against this, other sponsors of the protests like Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and unions like SEIU oppose this move as too militant: they prefer to rely on electoralism and tame appeals to the ruling class. We say that it is bold mass action that has powered the struggle so far and only even more defiant mass actions can win future victories.
Nevertheless, there are real problems with the boycott and strike calls. Sales boycotts can have only momentary success, whereas mass strikes cripple the profits of the capitalists who run this society. But a strike or “work boycott” without the backing of mass workers’ organizations, in particular the unions, asks the most vulnerable workers to risk retaliation from their bosses. Immigrant workers have to pressure their leaders to demand that the unions defend them with mass action on the job as well as in the streets; all union militants should fight for such solidarity. Immigrant workers will also have to turn to building new organizations, both on the job and in their communities, to effectively take forward their struggle.
Despite the wishes of racist patriots who would like to exclude all non-white immigrants, the immigrant workers—documented and undocumented—are here to stay and will play a big role in the coming class struggles. The Minuteman types can scream about “the browning of America” but they can’t stop it. At the beginning of the 20th Century, their political ancestors foamed at the mouth over the millions of immigrant workers who poured into the expanding industrial cities, bitterly complaining about “rum, Romanism and revolution” taking over the country. Now they hope that racism will work better than the threats of Catholicism and communism.
The size of the protests was unexpected, but the anger they expressed should have come as no surprise. Most immigrants are driven to the U.S. by desperate poverty in their homelands, even though they face here endless toil at miserable jobs and inhumanly low wages. Worldwide capitalism, American imperialism above all, has so thoroughly exploited, starved and devastated the masses at home that even the hardships and bigotry of life in the U.S. could not keep them away.
Imperialism has bled dry the poorest countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America with “free trade” policies like NAFTA, “structural readjustment” policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and the privatization of nationalized industries. It has left millions of workers unemployed and wiped out millions of small farmers, turning them into landless refugees. Those forced to leave their homelands and families have every right to seek refuge and jobs wherever they can, especially in imperialist countries like the United States.
Capitalists here are happy to import workers from those lands, since without proper papers they are forced to work for rotten wages and no benefits and do not dare to file complaints. In turn, the capitalists use these low wages to undercut the living standards of the rest of the working class. The bosses also invest in factories in the former colonial and semi-colonial countries because they can pay rock-bottom wages, further undermining wages at home.
The capitalists try to turn groups of workers against each other, competing ever more fiercely for dwindling jobs and falling wages in a war of all against all; whites against Blacks, Latinos and foreign-born workers—and the latter against each other. Workers of each country are forced to compete with each other in order to force down wages everywhere. Working people have only two choices: either let the bosses play us off each other until we hit bottom, or to unite and fight for decent wages and benefits for all. Such a struggle threatens the capitalists’ profits and can ultimately succeed only by overthrowing their system.
While the protesters overwhelmingly opposed the Sensenbrenner bill, the bulk of the leaders and a majority of the demonstrators endorsed the rival McCain-Kennedy bill. This bill was favored because it opens a limited path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, provided they pay big fines and behave obediently; it would allow hundreds of thousands to work in the U.S. temporarily as “guest workers.” But these immigrants would be on probation, tied to a boss and facing the permanent threat of firing and deportation. They would be in effect indentured servants, fearing to risk strikes, protests or even militant statements. Moreover, McCain-Kennedy, like Sensenbrenner, would also mean expanding the hated immigration police (“La Migra”) and tightening the border patrol operations of Federal, state, and local agents.
The leadership of the protests has been in the hands of the Catholic Church, evangelists and other clergy, various Democratic Party politicians, middle-class-led immigrant defense and social service groups, and some trade unions. The Church seeks to cement its base among Latinos, who make up forty percent of its followers. As an institution, it is intimately tied to the exploitive capitalist class and its desire for cheap labor. The trade unions were split. The AFL-CIO opposed both bills but has played little role in the movement. The SEIU, a union with many immigrant members and the founder of the rival Change to Win federation, is playing a major role and has joined the bandwagon for McCain-Kennedy.
One wing of the bourgeoisie calls for vicious repression and whips up racism; the other, including its allies within the movement, appeals to the oppressed with promises of citizenship for good behavior. The Democratic as well as Republican representatives of the ruling class all seek to build a reservoir of poor and desperate workers subject to superexploitation. Both wings want threats over immigrant workers’ heads to keep them down and to undermine the wages and working conditions of all workers. They also seek to drive wedges between sectors of the working class, telling lower-paid workers that immigrants threaten their jobs.
The working class solution is totally different. It includes full, equal rights for all workers (whether or not they choose to become U.S. citizens), the end of racist and chauvinist discrimination, the democratic right of people to live and work freely in the country of their choice, free quality education, health care and pensions, and a vast program of public works to create jobs for all. The immense need for reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina is only the harshest example of decaying conditions everywhere; it demonstrates that there is no shortage of jobs that need to be done. But when economic decisions are made on the basis of profit, human needs are disregarded. Only a revolutionary society run by the working class can solve the crisis.
The mass of protestors do not yet see an alternative to their present leaders and their programs. The widespread display of American flags by immigrants was an attempt to send the message that they are not threatening and deserve good treatment. But it was the protests’ defiance and not flag-waving or begging that caused Washington to pause. The many Latin American and Caribbean flags that were also displayed had a different character. They were a show of pride and a challenge to bigotry and chauvinism. Middle-class leaders accustomed to appealing for sops from bourgeois politicians urged that only U.S. flags be carried in the future, but many protesters ignored this cowardly “tactical” request.
The power of the mass eruption of struggle has already added to the confidence of the workers. As the struggle becomes more intense, they will need to radicalize and see through their misleaders. Immigrant workers as well as American Black workers, because of their experience of oppression, have fewer illusions in the capitalist system and will therefore undoubtedly be represented disproportionately among the most politically advanced sections of the working class.
The consciousness of American-born workers in general is very mixed as of now. The working class, long enchained at the hands of the labor bureaucracy, is beginning to stir once again. Auto workers, transit workers and others have fought back against the attacks on their jobs, wages, health care and pensions. It is crucial that the newly awakened sense of power among immigrant workers show the way for all workers to join the fight against the capitalist attacks.
Revolutionary workers enthusiastically support and join the growing struggle of immigrant workers. We participate in order to promote the greatest united action for the needs of the working class. We warn our fellow workers, however, that the main leaders are tied to the capitalist system. They will cautiously support the struggle as long as it strengthens their political power within the system. But they will betray it as soon as the system is threatened.
To meet that crisis of leadership, the most class-conscious workers must come together to build a political party with the only program that offers a solution: an international revolutionary socialist party. In the course of the struggle, more and more workers will become convinced that the workers of the world will be able to secure a decent life, free of poverty and discrimination, through the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the building of a classless, communist society.