Labor’s Turn Toward Immigrant Workers

By NAT WEINSTEIN

The following report is based on the lessons drawn in last month’s article by Charles Walker on the AFL-CIO’s policy shift; that is, the reversal by labor’s top officialdom of its long-standing hostile stance toward undocumented immigrant labor in the United States.

Rather than viewing undocumented immigrant workers as unfair competition, the AFL-CIO is now on record as recognizing the necessity of embracing the struggle by documented and undocumented immigrant workers for their human right to a job and a living wage.

The labor federation’s new position includes calling for an end to sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers, an amnesty for an estimated six million immigrants, and the granting of legal status to 350,000 other immigrants denied amnesty under the 1986 law-as well as to 500,000 Central Americans, Haitians, and Liberians denied refugee status during the past two decades.

Walker correctly judged the AFL-CIO officialdom’s decision to commit themselves to come to the assistance of the most super-exploited and oppressed sector of the American working class to be a hugely positive step forward.

This month, however, we intend to focus on further steps that must be taken in order to realize the promise made to immigrant workers by the labor movement’s officialdom.

After all, it should be obvious that gaining even the smallest victory will take more than resolutions and declarations. And it will certainly take more than demands on capitalist politicians to enact legislation designed to bring social, economic, and political justice to our most suffering class sisters and brothers from east and south of U.S. borders.

Politicians bought and paid for

In order for the labor movement to hope to realize its promise to champion the struggle of immigrant workers, it will take mass action in the streets and workplaces.

To win any concessions at all for these workers, the labor movement must organize mass action not only in this country but also in close collaboration with our class sisters and brothers across our southern and eastern borders.

Looking to Republicans, Democrats or to the various “third” capitalist parties to rectify the plight of documented or undocumented immigrants would be worse than doing nothing at all. Why? Because it feeds the delusion that capitalist politicians are in the business of “serving the people.”

In the first place, every last one of these politicians is bought and paid for by America’s banking and corporate establishment-national and multinational alike. The long debate in Congress and in the mass media about establishing even the most minimum restrictions on “campaign contributions” has been a years-long joke that has ended with not the slightest correction in sight.

This is simply because it’s not a matter of contributions, but a matter of buying and selling of politicians!

In the second place, capitalist politicians have not the slightest intention of removing any restrictions on “legal” and “illegal” immigrants. They won’t do it simply because it would make it a little easier for immigrant workers to organize and fight for decent wages and working conditions.

And if they did make it possible for immigrants to organize and fight, American history gives abundant evidence that given half a chance, the Irish, the German, the Polish, Italian, Jewish, and other waves of immigrants that are an integral part of American labor history were fully capable of organizing-in conjunction with the existing unions-an effective campaign to defend and advance their class interests.

Thus with the collaboration of the AFL-CIO and without legal restrictions blocking the road to a better life for immigrant workers, wages for them would slowly and steadily begin rising.

And if the lowest paid workers are able to raise their average income, the real wages of all workers will also tend to rise. The fact is that the lower the real minimum wage, the lower is the wage of all other unskilled, semi-skilled, and highly skilled workers. And the higher the former, the higher, also, is the latter.

Negative effects for corporate America

Moreover, a rise in the wages of those at the bottom of the totem pole would, in turn, set into motion other negative effects for corporate America and their political representatives in government.

Labor costs to both directly and indirectly affected American capitalists would also rise in tandem as the general wage level of the lowest paid workers pushes all the wage levels of those above them upward. This means that the general rate of profit in this country would, by the same token, tend to fall inversely proportional to a general rise in wages.

Furthermore, a generalized rise in the wages of American workers would, indeed, make American exports less competitive! But long before that would happen, those in the leadership of the AFL-CIO would come under enormous pressure by capitalists and their government to “convince” their dues-paying members that they have to be “reasonable”; that is, “in their own interests,” they must sacrifice so that their employers are able to make a “reasonable” profit and thus stay in business.

The labor officialdom would be hard pressed to resist. And as has been the case for many decades, they are quite likely to cave in and “persuasively” transmit the employers’ threat to their dues-paying members. That is, either accept our terms or some or all of you will have no jobs because you will have “priced yourselves and our company out of the marketplace.”

Now, to be sure, this is far from a simple problem with a simple solution. But, as we shall see, there is no way around the fact that some companies will “downsize” their workforce, or shut down entirely if their profit level falls or they become “uncompetitive” and lose their share of the world market.

But, and here is the rub, even if these workers capitulate and accept cutbacks, albeit because they mistakenly believe it will save their jobs, “downsizing”-a euphemism for mass layoffs-has and will continue unabated. In other words, good paying industrial jobs will continue to disappear and will, at least so long as the current booming economy continues, be replaced by lower-paying part-time as well as lower-paying full-time jobs.

It’s not hard to see how it works: When some employers in a given sector of the economy are granted wage concessions in order to remain competitive, all their competitors come under the same pressure to also do what’s necessary to remain competitive. Thus, competing capitalists everywhere invariably demand that their workers also make concessions “in order to save their jobs.”

Consequently, the workers in any given industry or country, or among competing countries, are whipsawed against each other, and the vicious cycle of falling wages continues and inevitably intensifies.

So, one obvious part of the answer to the dilemma of what to do when faced with the choice of taking a cut in wages or losing jobs should now be clear. The only real choice workers have in such cases is simply to stick to their guns, give no further concessions, and let the bosses decide which plant to close, if close they must.

(We leave aside the problem of how to fight plant closures for another time, except to mention the historic working-class demands for a steadily reduced workweek without a reduction in wages. And under the condition of sharpening class struggles, there is a rich labor history showing how it is possible to force the reopening of shut plants and then operate them under workers’ control.)

International class solidarity

It should be clear now that there’s a whole lot more to the problem of what it will take for the AFL-CIO officialdom to make good on its promise to embrace the struggle of documented and undocumented immigrant workers and help them and the working class as a whole make headway toward a better life.

So let’s go to another side of the problem that will arise if we confidently assume that the American labor movement will sooner or later mobilize on a massive scale behind the struggle by immigrants for their rights. And let us also assume that they will be mobilized in sufficient strength to make a breakthrough for immigrant workers (and by the same token, for all American workers). That would tend to give an impulse to the struggle for a living wage by Mexican workers as well-and so on from country to country.

To sum this all up, the struggle by any section of the world working class is organically linked to the global class struggle between workers and bosses. Thus, class solidarity among workers in one’s own shop, or industry or country should not stop at any point along the line. Every partial struggle is part and parcel of the global class struggle. Solidarity in one plant or one industry or one country is incomplete without international class solidarity.

Neither does it stop there-if we are to gain a more rounded conception of the essence of an effective and comprehensive working class strategy.

We need to also understand that as great as is the intrinsic power of the working class based on its strategic location at the points of production, distribution, and communication inside the global economy, even that is not enough for the workers of the world to realize their full revolutionary potential.

A necessary component of international proletarian solidarity is the indispensable responsibility of the international workers’ movement to embrace and champion the social, economic, and political interests of all the victims of capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Finally, as can now be better understood, the problem is not about whether or not the working class is capable of accomplishing its historic task-there can be little doubt about that. The real problem that must be resolved is the construction of a revolutionary working-class leadership, without which ultimate victory is impossible.

That is a leadership that has absorbed the lessons of class struggle history and has developed the capacity to lead the working class and its natural allies successfully through the unfolding series of class confrontations that are ahead-steadily building up the confidence of the masses in their strength-and all pointing toward the ultimate conquest of state power and world socialism.