Immigration Protests: An Inspiration for All U.S. Workers

National consciousness deepens militancy

Editors’ note: More than one million Americans of immigrant origin and their supporters marched, boycotted stores and stopped work on May 1st. The May Day demonstrations were the largest to date in a wave of protests and marches held across the United States in recent weeks. (See Socialist Voice #77) These protests have been sparked by draconian legislation — HR 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act — adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2005 and now before the Senate for final adoption.

HR 4437 will, among other effects,

  • criminalize undocumented immigration status by creating a new federal crime of “unlawful presence”. It would permanently bar the entire undocumented population (some 11 million persons), including 1.6 million children, from the United States;
  • criminalize organizations and individuals assisting undocumented immigrants, by expanding the definition of “alien smuggling” to include assisting a person to remain or attempt to remain in the USA;
  • require the Department of Homeland Security to detain all non-citizens apprehended along the border until they are removed from the United States;
  • gut the federal courts’ authority to review immigration matters; and
  • turn many minor crimes into aggravated felonies, with the worst possible immigration consequences.

In a related move, President George W. Bush on May 15 announced plans to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops along the boundary with Mexico to bolster existing drastic controls on immigration. Bush also said he will increase the size of the 6,000-member Border Patrol by a further 50 percent. “Free trade” in goods, services and capitalist investments are not to be matched by open borders for labor.

In the following article, a Socialist Voice reader in Newark, New Jersey, describes the impact of this legislative assault and the response to it by his coworkers, many of whom are among its direct targets. He also points to some significant features of the protest movement and its special importance to the labor and socialist movements.

by Fred Feldman

NEWARK — In recent weeks millions of Latinos have demonstrated for the rights of immigrants. They are not marching for the American Dream. They are not demanding to be melted down in the melting pot. These protests have a nationalist and Latino/Latina thrust and character. They are an assertion of their rights to be here, in the United States, as they are and as persons who belong to a people.

These are the biggest working class actions in the United States in decades. They are something new in the class struggle here. They deserve the support and solidarity of all working people.

The protests represent a thrust toward Latino power and also Mexicano power — the latter expressed especially in border states seized from Mexico in the mid-19th century, where significant Mexican-descent populations have lived ever since.

“Illegal,” as a blanket characterization of millions of workers in this country, is an American expression of untouchability. Of course, illegality — being in the USA without the authority of statutes or courts — is also a social reality, for these people live outside the rights conceded by U.S. law. They are, for the most part, workers who don’t have unions or have very weak ones, like mine at a fruit and vegetable-packing plant in Newark, across the Hudson River from New York City. The organizations they fight through are immigrant rights groups and other organizations, usually based in some ways on their national groups although sometimes on a broader Latino basis.

Protests buoy workers’ spirits

One of the fears these demonstrations evoke for the rulers is that at some point in a future raid on a meatpacking plant to round up “illegals,” a kind of Stonewall rebellion of illegal immigrants will result, somewhat like the revolt that erupted in New York City in 1969 when cops engaged in a routine raid on a gathering place of “illegals” (gay men) and set off a profound social explosion.

At my workplace in Newark, dozens of immigrant workers face dismissal for having used questionable social security cards — an accusation pressed on the employer by the government. Yet on May Day, when literally millions demonstrated in the streets of cities and towns throughout the United States, the vast majority of my Latino coworkers did not show up for work. The boss stormed about how “they are only hurting themselves” and set about training replacements — very unsuccessfully, I might add. But the Latino workers returned to work the next day more confident and in a much better mood.

My Latino coworkers appear to be organized to some extent, and have set things in motion legally and otherwise to try to defend their jobs and, more importantly, their right to remain here. Before the action, they seemed crushed and upset. Now they are calm and more confident. All were much more buoyed in spirit than they had been before the protest. The very fact that they were not driven into silence or intimidated into staying away from the protest was itself a big victory.

The primary demand of these Latino workers appears to be for “legalización” — not “open borders”, “amnesty,” or some more “radical”-sounding position. They do not consider themselves to be “illegal” as human beings. They want full recognition as “legal” by the U.S. authorities.

I think the workers of all nationalities where I work feel a little stronger today because of this self-assertion of the Latinos for their rights as immigrants. And this includes the Black workers, despite the mixed feelings some express about the possibility of getting more Blacks into jobs if some of the Latinos leave. Almost all the workers felt that having dozens of coworkers being forced out of their jobs and into the underground was bad news for all of us.

More than a labor struggle

There have been other big mobilizations, substantially working class and plebeian, of South Asians and Muslims against “war on terror” attacks on them: their culture, their religion, their rights, and simply for being who they are. It is of crucial importance that white radicals and all progressives stand with them, and in no sense be or seem to be above the battle. And it is important to understand that these protests are an expression of the nationalism of the oppressed.

The recent mobilizations followed the mighty action of the transit workers who shut down New York City in December 2005. This too was a predominantly nonwhite action, and its impact is still being felt even though subsequent developments have weakened the first surge of unity. There the ranks mobilized to create a more militant leadership that would also be an expression of Black power in and out of the labor movement. The gain for Black power in the election of Roger Toussaint, a Trinidadian immigrant, as the local union president strengthened the hand of all transit workers, the strike being in part one of the consequences.

And the government attacks on the union, including Roger Toussaint, will tend to reinforce determination to hold on to the ground they gained in achieving this change in their union. The power of the united workers in the strike that shut down New York City will not be lost on working people, despite the heavy sledding that the union has run into since.

The national question in the transit union — the national, and not just trade-union consciousness of the Black, Haitian and Chinese workers — is one of the big challenges the movement faces in figuring out how to advance the fight of that union.

The marches of Latinos and Latinas are a thrust into the United States of the worldwide resistance of the hundreds of millions of working people — farmers, peasants, unemployed, refugees, artisans and pedlars, homeless, student youth, etc. — who are threatened with destruction and increasingly mired in poverty and violence by imperialism today.

The anticapitalist and socialist movement in the United States has to be won politically to turn our activity and outlook more towards these people. In my opinion they are the future of real revolutionary organizations in every country. These are the people who have powered the Cuban revolution and the progressive changes now taking place in Bolivia and Venezuela. Our antiracist work, and, yes, our union work has to place them in the center of our thinking and strategizing, no matter where and with whom we work.

There is widespread discomfort on the U.S. left with the concept initially raised by Lenin that the nationalism of the oppressed has a general democratic content that revolutionaries support. But I believe this basic insight is vital for us today. We should support the nationalism of oppressed peoples in much the same spirit as we support the trade unionism and trade-union consciousness of the exploited and oppressed working class, the feminist self-assertion and consciousness of oppressed women, the self-assertion and liberationism of gay people as gays. We must support not only particular demands for rights but movements and outlooks that shape these demands. We cannot identify with prejudices or divisiveness put forward in the name of nationalism, trade unionism, or feminism. But we must relate sympathetically to the progressive forward thrust of nationalism, feminism, and trade unionism as expressions and means of struggle of the oppressed and exploited.

A national question

Lenin’s stance was the most profound shift on the national question in the history of the Marxist movement and reflected the rise of imperialism, the imperialist conquest of the world. It meant strategically looking at the struggles of oppressed nations from the standpoint of the oppressed themselves, and seeing oppressed peoples as central allies and actors in the working class struggle — not just in a trade-unionist sense as groups of workers fighting discrimination and not just as dependent allies, but as partners in the struggle for change.

Since Lenin’s time revolutionaries have learned to leave abstract condemnations of “all nationalism” in the abstract to liberal “internationalists,” the right wing of the pacifists, and the flat-earth enthusiasts of imperialist globalization.

We don’t support everything trade unions do. They collaborate with employers against their own members. They support Democratic politicians. They support imperialism. But workers need trade unions and trade-union consciousness, and we advocate and defend them as part of our socialist worldview.

However, we don’t just support specific union struggles. We have a broader outlook than trade-unionism alone. We support trade unionism as a necessity for the working class that arises organically, both as consciousness and organized movement, out of the daily struggle. But nationalism and national movements arise the same way, out of the daily oppression and struggle of oppressed peoples.

The sharpest and clearest expressions of internationalism come from socialists and thinking working people taking sides in real struggles with the nationalism of the oppressed in the United States and around the world against our ruling class and against their “American” nation. This is fundamental to building an international socialist movement that can unite oppressed and exploited humanity in struggle. It means taking a stand on the side of the oppressed as peoples.

If we don’t do so, we will tend toward economist and workerist analyses and approaches that look at the struggles of oppressed peoples and of the billions of black and brown and yellow of the earth from the outside and even above, and primarily from the standpoint of trade unionism, of the organized workers as the ordained leading layer.

Viewing the struggle “from below”

We will tend increasingly to have trouble when the struggles of oppressed nations and people come into conflict with trade unions. The Black and Puerto Rican struggles for community control of schools in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, and the teachers’ union’s savage struggle against these communities, were an example of what can happen.

It will be harder for us to stand unconditionally with Muslims against attacks on their peoples and cultures and nations, in which religion has been and is an important part of their self-definition and identity as peoples, even while we support the movements for progressive change among these oppressed peoples.

We need to start seeing the world not from the standpoint of strata that are better off, a little more secure, and not so combative, but from the standpoint of the millions in the world who are really being driven to struggle. It is important to remember that the trade unions, except during upsurges when they broaden out rapidly in membership, always tend to be made up of a relatively better off layer, in part simply because it is better to have a union than not to have one.

From the standpoint of the fight against the employers and their government, trade unionism is a “from below” outlook and movement. But relative to tens of millions of oppressed today, it can also sometimes become a perch from which the struggles of the most oppressed and exploited are criticized or even opposed in a “from above” spirit.