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One Class, One Struggle! Undocumented and Documented Workers Unite on May Day

By Patrick O’Donoghue - The Organizer, May 1, 2017

A Day of Resistance!

Today is May Day, or as we in the labor movement call it, International Worker’s Day- a day of celebration and resistance for working class people. It is a day not only of looking forward to the future, but also remembering the lessons of the past. May Day commemorates the struggle of the Haymarket Martyrs, a group of labor organizers, most of them immigrants, executed in Chicago for their work in the Eight Hour Day movement. The Eight Hour Day was the first time that workers around the world joined together in one campaign, supporting each other’s strikes and protests around a single demand- reduce the work day to eight hours, without a cut in pay. The movement faced violence and arrests from governments, but eventually won in country after country. The eight hour day became the basic work day for workers across the countries where the movement fought, with victories across Europe, North and South America, Australia, Iran, Japan, and elsewhere. Over a century ago, workers realized the power we have when we refuse to be divided by borders, industry, or race.

This May Day is also the Day Without Immigrants. It is the latest in a wave of of day strike by immigrant workers- not only to protest wages and work conditions, but also to protest the Trump’s plans to increase deportations. Under the Trump’s ramping up of the Obama administration’s already record-breaking deportations, ICE has increasingly targeted previously protected DREAMers and other undocumented people not otherwise criminalized by the state. ICE raids are becoming more regular even in “Sanctuary Cities”, and more of our neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends are being captured, torn from their homes, forced through over-crowded detention centers and courts without due process.

In the Twin Cities, many of the actions today are organized by CTUL, the workers center for low wage workers of color, especially immigrant workers. Even more of the walk outs and sick outs are “wildcat” actions organized on the shop floor between undocumented workers, without needing the go-ahead from a union or organizer.

By striking, these undocumented workers are showing how important they are to making the world run. How many restaurants are shut down today because the back end staff didn’t come in? How many landscapers and construction companies who rely on day laborerers are not making money today? How many farm fields aren’t being worked? Every day, undocumented immigrant workers do some of the toughest jobs in America, and the country starts to grind to a halt without immigrant workers. Deportations crackdowns have already left millions of dollars of produce to rot in the fields in Alabama, Georgia, and California as farmers dependent on exploiting undocumented workers can’t find Americans to work for as low as $10,000-$12,000 a year. The four industries with the most undocumented workforce- agriculture, cleaning and maintenance, construction, and food preparation and service- are all expecting labor shortages if Trump’s deportation plan is carried out. American companies and bosses need our immigrant fellow workers- but the administration and parts of the press try to tell workers who are citizens that undocumented workers are hurting American working standards. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Hard Times and Scapegoats

Those of us born here in the US might hear from our coworkers, “Why should we care about the immigrants out protesting today? They’re taking our jobs! They’re taking our welfare! They’re bad hombres!”. Sadly, this idea that immigrants are taking our jobs and tax dollars is common around America, fed by a media machine headed up by Fox News, Breitbart, and right-wing talk radio. This media machine has built up as part of a long-term strategy for the Right and corporate America to drum up public support for rolling back social programs, public spending, and labor rights, as laid out in the famous Powell Memorandum that instructed industrial lobbyists on how to organize politically to push back against workers’ movements. The push against immigrants, as well as the Right’s rhetoric about the “inner city” and those of us who live there, reflects the Southern Strategy, an intentional decision by the Right in America to use racial anxiety against people of color to enlist white voters. This is done by implying or repeating, over and over, that immigrants and people of color are criminals, do not work, and are taking public benefits without contributing. The fact is that undocumented workers not only contribute over $10.6 billion in local and state taxes and $15 billion in social security annually, but are also ineligible for public assistance including welfare, SNAP, and Medicaid. On the whole, undocumented workers are not among the most exploited at work, but also subsidize a tax pool for benefits that they are not able to apply for. Still, US-born workers are expected to believe that undocumented workers are the cause of low wages and high unemployment- not decades of attacks on worker power and unions through mechanization and outsourcing. This narrative is pushed for one reason- to get workers with citizenship to act as attack dogs against workers without citizenship. Buying into it gets workers nowhere.

Race to the Bottom, or Struggle From Below?

When Trump says, “Make America Great Again”, he is calling voters to remember a time when America was different in two very different ways. First, at the peak of what many conservative Americans remember as the time the country was “great” in the 1950s and 1960s, segregation was still law in most of the South and unofficially practiced, like it is today, in most of the country. Women’s liberation had not yet picked up steam, and LGBT rights were considered a fringe issue at best. Without a doubt, anxiety over the changing status of people of color, women, and queer people is one of the emotions driving Trump’s presidency, especially in the wealthier voting bloc that gave him the bulk of his support.

Still, among working class Americans, especially white workers in the Rust Belt and Appalachia, the phrase also brings to mind the higher standard of living working class people enjoyed at the high water mark of unionization and social democracy in the US.

Unionization has fallen from almost a third of American workers to just over a tenth, not only from direct union busting, but also from the loss of jobs in former union strongholds like mining and manufacturing. With these blue collar union jobs gone, wages have stagnated since the 1970s. Meanwhile, productivity has steadily climbed. Profits have skyrocketed as more of that productivity goes to our bosses instead of to our paychecks. As a result, inequality in the US has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. Infant mortality, substance abuse, and depression are all increasing, and life expectancy is falling. Workers are expected to either accept our place in low wage service work, or to “increase our human capital” by taking on enormous student debt for a chance at a career.

Still, it’s not blue collar jobs like auto manufacturing, mining, and longshore workers we really miss; it’s the workers’ power we built on those jobs. These were only good jobs because they were unionized. Before the unions, these jobs were considered low skill, and were almost always low wage. They were usually held by workers with the minimum education, or by recent immigrants. In fact, a lot of the arguments used against unionizing fast food, service, or janitorial workers today would have sounded familiar to factory workers before the unions!

The loss of these jobs has nothing to do with immigrants, and everything to do with a corporate strategy to bust the power of unions. In the US and in Europe, since crisis of the 1970s when manufacturing and mining workers pushed against the stagnation of wages and inflation, business looking to keep profitability have adopted a dual strategy for gutting the power of labor- replacing high waged workers with machines, and moving production to places where labor is kept cheap by poverty and repression.

The mechanization of jobs has been most stark to workers like coal miners, who Trump promises to “put back to work” even as experts say it is impossible. Even before the rise of cheaper natural gas, solar, and wind put the final nail into coal’s coffin, the bulk of coal jobs were lost decades earlier as the industry switched from large shifts of underground miners, to environmentally devastating mountaintop removal mining with bulldozers, back hoes, and drag lines. Since 1983, West Virginia and Kentucky alone have lost around half of their former 79,000 coal jobs, despite production holding almost steady at 245 million short tons in 1983 and 250 million in 2011. The same trend has happened in granite quarrying here in Minnesota. Quarrying jobs in the area around Saint Cloud have declined by about a third since 1990 even as production expanded, while in the Iron Range what mining is left after the closure of pits for cheaper ore elsewhere, is done with more heavy equipment and fewer workers.

The second method for breaking American unions has been outsourcing unionized jobs to countries where wages are lower and unions are more easily repressed. For example, the Ford Plant in Saint Paul shut down in 2011, resulting in over 2,000 layoffs, even though it was one of Ford’s most productive and efficient plants. Its closure was part of Ford’s strategy, called “The Way Forward”, which outlines how Ford will weaken the United Auto Workers by moving production to Spain, Mexico, China, and other countries where labor is cheaper, and attacking the unions there to keep that labor cheap. Between 1979 and today, manufacturing employment nationwide fell from around 19.6 million jobs to 12.6 million, with 5 million jobs lost since the signing of NAFTA. Trade deals like NAFTA allow companies to move to where low wages are enforced by violence against union organizers. Some companies don’t even need to move operations overseas- they can “outsource” jobs to prison labor where prisoners can be made to work for pennies an hour, and the prison system ramps up harsher penalties and more prison time to keep cheap prison labor available. The violence of mass incarceration here and union busting overseas busts unions here and leaves everyone working more for less.

When politicians promise to make manufacturing jobs “come back”, they’re not offering us the same deal that assembly line workers in the 60s or 70s might have had. Instead, these jobs are mostly coming back as non-union, low wage labor, mostly in states across the South with weaker labor protection, where the companies are fighting to keep the United Auto Workers off the shop floor. Wages for production workers declined 4.4% between 2003 and 2013, when a fourth of all manufacturing workers made $16/hr or less. The median wage for manufacturing workers in 2015 was just $16.14 an hour.

Our politicians, whether following the policies of international trade deals or the policies of protectionism and “America first”, offer no real alternative for workers- just a race to the bottom for the lowest wages. This May Day, immigrant workers are showing us all another way- fighting back against exploitation anywhere to fight for workers everywhere.

Make The Working Class Rise Again!

While workers take to the streets today, we need to look to the next day, the next week, and the next month to keep up the fight against exploitation. Some of the most important work linking the struggle of undocumented workers and citizens is being done quietly, on the shop floor and in our communities every day. The transformative power of solidarity can be seen in work like the Worker’s Project in Indiana and its campaign between union carpenters and non-union immigrant construction workers. When Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne hired non-union immigrants to work on construction projects, the Trades unions initially planned to rally for “Local Jobs for Local People”. As they talked it over and met with the immigrant workers, though, the carpenters realized the oldest truth in the labor movement. As the union put it, “if  they’re getting f–cked, we’re getting f–cked”. Or, as we say in the IWW, “An Injury to One is An Injury to All”.

Instead of campaigning against undocumented workers, the union invited the undocumented workers to their meetings and listened to their grievances and plans. The undocumented workers launched a campaign over unpaid overtime, and the union workers helped them workers get documentation for the hours they worked. When the undocumented workers picketed their job site over safety hazards, Trades workers honored the picket lines. Finally, the Trades workers invited the undocumented workers into the unions. Eventually, the undocumented workers won settlements from the university, some joined the unions, and both the citizen and undocumented workers came out stronger.

This is the kind of the solidarity between workers that the Industrial Workers of the World, including our Wobblies in the Trades in Indiana, fights for. We extend our solidarity and struggle to every fight against the attacks on the working class. In New York City, IWW members picketed and locked down to bread delivery trucks to stand with undocumented workers threatened with deportation. In Milwaukee and in Saint Cloud, IWW General Defense Committee members have helped provide security at rallies by immigrant communities facing intimidation by anti-immigrant forces. In Minneapolis, the IWW has picketed in defense of CNT union organizers at Ford factories in Spain, where low wages contribute to outsourcing from Minnesota. The Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee organizes imprisoned workers across borders, and last September launched the US’s largest ever prison strike. Campaigns like Stardust Family United and the Burgerville Workers Union are building worker power in food service industries that have kept traditional unions out.

There is a new labor movement, and with it a new world, being built every day in the shell of the old. Today, undocumented workers march at the front of it. By stopping work just for a day, they are showing us all a lesson that the Haymarket Martyrs knew long ago. Working people make the world go around, and that by simply taking a break, we can make the world stop until it listens to us. Today, immigrant workers take to the picket lines and the streets. But, they can’t stand alone, and they won’t- the working class knows no borders.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.