Unions Must Defend and Organize Immigrants
By James Haywood
James Haywood is a Socialist Voice Contributing Editor. He lives in London, England.
In a December 8 speech, British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave orders to the country’s immigrants: Conform to British society!
After a tirade against Muslim “extremists” that the Muslim Association of Britain termed “alarming,” Blair hypocritically cited “toleration” as a core British value. “So conform to it, or don’t come here.” Immigrants have “the duty to integrate,” he said. “That is what being British means.” (BBC News Dec 8; Telegraph Dec. 12)
Blair’s speech provides a licence for reprisals against those who do not “integrate” into the profit-driven values of Britain’s rulers.
The capitalist media are quick to seize every opportunity to attack immigrants. For example the Daily Telegraph on November 25: “a bogus asylum seeker committed a series of armed robberies following his early release from jail.” Or the Sun’s headline earlier last year, “450,000 illegals in UK.”
This kind of hysteria helps the government increase harassment of working people through increased spying (CCTV cameras, phone tapping, internet monitoring, etc.) The Home Office recently announced a doubling of their budget to massively increase deportations in the UK. And the government announced in December plans to make deportation easier, introduce measures such as scanning eyes and taking fingerprints, and allow the arrest of “suspicious” people. Note also the government’s stated aim of introducing national ID cards by 2008.
The labour movement needs not only to resist these measures but to combat the racist and anti-immigrant ideology that stands behind them.
The Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers, the National Assembly Against Racism, and other groups have done good work in fighting back against government and media scapegoating. Unionists need to make this campaign their own. To do this, we must make the cause of immigrants our own. Immigrants, whether documented or not, are fellow human beings with whom we must unite, in order to fight effectively against the brutal reality that capitalists impose on us all.
Yes, there is a shortage of council housing, but this is not the immigrants’ fault: it is the government that doesn’t provide enough housing. Yes, real wages are declining, but immigrants don’t set wage rates: it is the bosses who super-exploit foreign labour in order to drive down all wages.
Immigrant workers aren’t “stealing” jobs: it is the bosses who are closing down factory after factory; it is the bosses who slash staffing to increase their profits. Who took away hundreds of thousands of jobs in the coal industry?
It is the bosses and their government who brutalize immigrant workers the moment they set foot on UK soil, to force them to accept nineteenth-century-style exploitation. The government claims that immigration is out of control. While the bourgeoisie talk about managing immigrants, we should be talking about organizing them.
If we aim our fire at the ruling class and its government, joining with immigrants as fellow workers oppressed by capital, then we can mount a powerful movement.
Road Out of Unions’ Crisis
The union movement urgently needs such a campaign. Union bureaucrats are in crisis in Britain, as in every imperialist country today. In 1979, the union membership made up 55% of the UK workforce; in 2004 this percentage had fallen to 26%, and is still falling to this day. Last year Britain saw the lowest level of strike action since records began.
The bosses’ success is based in large part on the principle of “divide and rule”—keeping immigrant workers isolated, oppressed, and fearful. Immigrant workers now make up a large proportion of the industrial work force. This partly reflects the bourgeoisie’s efforts to displace older and British-born workers who had won many gains and rights over the years. The immigrant workforce is mostly unorganized. They work under the watchful eye of the cops, ready to deport an undocumented union militant at a moment’s notice.
The labour movement needs to commit resources for focused recruitment drives aiming to help immigrant workers organize. Some efforts of this type are under way. The huge Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) has begun an organizing campaign targeted specifically at Polish immigrants – the biggest nationality of immigration here – especially at the massive Grampian meat factories.
The Gate Gourmet strike last year was an example of how important immigrant workers’ role is in the union movement. The strikers, overwhelmingly immigrants from Asia, fought a long battle to defend their union, and were joined by an unofficial walkout by a thousand workers at the British airways airport, where their factory supplied food for in-flight meals.
The TGWU has also made encouraging gains in London among contracted cleaners of big buildings. Immigrants in their overwhelming majority, they are paid barely £2 per room. For example, at the Hilton hotel, for cleaning a room that rents at up to £500 a day, the cleaner receives no more than £2.50. Cleaners have protested such conditions recently with pickets and leafleting outside these buildings, including top city banks. Some of the contractors targeted have already agreed to make some concessions. (For an example of such a campaign in Canada, see Socialist Voice #97)
In December grant workers detained at Harmoundsworth made headlines with a militant protest against conditions at this notorious prison, which has a filthy record of abuse, solitary confinement, and suicides. The rioting was sparked by prison officers who refused to let these people see a TV report of their own prison!
‘Rescue the Unions’
In the United States, immigrant workers carried out a mighty uprising in 2006, including several mass strikes, which constituted the greatest uprising of the U.S. working class in sixty years. Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly, summed up the significance of these actions on May 6:
“The struggle for the rights of immigrants and against discrimination expressed in public demonstrations that mobilized millions of people and in the historic May Day protest — a date that never before had been expressed in this way in the United States — brings to the forefront a political force that now cannot be easily ignored….
“To free the immigrants from their exploitation becomes, therefore, essential for the emancipation of the workers in the developed countries. To forge a union between both exploited sectors, in an area that has had advances that are still insufficient but whose importance cannot be underestimated, is today a task that cannot be postponed.
“To rescue the role of the labor union, true bulwark of civil society, and to guarantee the rights of all workers, without exceptions, to organize oneself is an indispensable response to a capitalism that ever more openly casts off its ‘liberal’ mask and demonstrates the perverse face of tyranny.” (www.counterpunch.org/alarcon05082006.html)
Successful recruitment among immigrant workers will change the unions profoundly – with the potential of revitalizing the working class as a whole. With a strong base among immigrant workers, the unions will be well placed to oppose attacks on immigration by the government and to counter the super-exploitation of immigrant workers by the bosses. If unions are in the thick of these struggles, they can strike massive blows against the employers and set labour on the path of growth and increasing strength. We are seeing signs of this today.
Unions Must Champion Immigrant Rights
But to do this — in Alarcón’s words, to “rescue the role of the labour union” — the unions must themselves change profoundly. Many unions today are incompetent to reach to workers outside their own ranks. Union campaigns tend to be exclusively devoted to legal packages and cheap loans for its membership, rather than hitting the streets and fighting to win the millions of unorganized. Too often, when the government lashes out against immigrants, union officials stand by in embarrassed silence. Unions must be outspoken defenders of the rights of all workers, regardless of where they were born or whether they are documented.
Within a framework of action, we can begin to discuss with co-workers and unionists how the question of immigration can be resolved in a revolutionary spirit. We will have a good occasion for this in March 2007, when No One Is Illegal is holding a trade union conference to discuss immigration controls. The conference, to be held in Liverpool, has initial sponsorship from seven local trades councils. The conference announcement explains: “The well-known slogan ‘Workers of the World Unite’ means what it says. It does not mean ‘Only workers with the correct immigration status unite.’ ”
Conference organizers are rightly concerned with slogans such as “No to harsh immigration controls,” which could suggest support for “fair” controls. Workers should be outspoken in the call for “No borders.” We should call for full civil rights to anyone in the UK, regardless of whether the government considers them legal or illegal, and the right for working people to travel freely wherever we choose.
The No One Is Illegal conference is a good beginning. We should urge unions to send delegates. (Contact firstname.lastname@example.org)
The conference can take as its starting point the need to defend the political and economic rights of all workers, whether documented or not, whether born here or elsewhere. And to achieve that goal, labour needs a targeted campaign that focuses energy and resources in building a broad alliance for immigrant rights.
In this framework, we need to work up specific demands to counter the oppression of immigrants, such as:
- Stop deportations. Release inmates of immigrant prisons.
- End police harassment of immigrants and their detention on phoney “security” pretexts.
- End waiting periods for citizenship and access to social services.
- Open up professions, technical trades, and other job trusts that generally exclude immigrants.
Build the March 31, 2007 Conference!
(No One Is Illegal is organized internationally: for links to its branches, see http://noii-van.resist.ca/links.html)