The New Multinational Proletariat

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Dolores Trevizo

THE END OF the Cold War has brought no peace to the Third World. U.S. troops are being transferred from Europe to the Gulf, while the so-called drug war continues to justify U.S. military actions against peasants all over Latin America.

On the economic level, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has imposed austerity throughout Latin America for over a decade. The so-called modernization of the Mexican economy, demanded by the IMF, has produced massive unemployment both in the cities and the countryside. Many of the political currents that once would have opposed these demands are now more hesitant to speak out against capitalist restructuring. Accepting its inevitability, they primarily seem to be concerned with making sure that it is undertaken in a democratic and “fair” manner.

This imperialist offensive—and particularly its economic and political ramifications in Central America and Mexico—has profoundly shaped the new working class in Los Angeles, What I mean by the term “new working class” is not what so-called post-industrial or post-modern theoreticians mean—the white or pink collar workforce. I am, rather, referring to a new wave of wage manufacturing and service workers, many of whom labor in sweatshop conditions.

War on the Immigrants

This workforce faces a contradictory situation. Their presence is one of the most important factors attracting international capital to Los Angeles, which has fueled the extensive growth of manufacturing in southern California. But their presence has simultaneously produced a racist backlash, especially among white home owners and small businesspeople: the “light up the border” campaign. A group of primarily upper-middle-class whites along the San Diego-Tijuana border illuminate the area with their car headlights to help the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spot so-called “illegal aliens.”

There have also been many home owners’ protests against the presence of day laborers seeking casual work near wealthy communities. The irony is that the very people who protest against these workers almost certainly employ them as gardeners, painters and servants.

One of the most important manifestations of this racist campaign against undocumented workers was the passage of Simpson-Rodino—the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Because all immigrants who arrived after 1982 are permanently barred from legal residence and employment, the law created a permanently marginal sub-proletariat.

The most fortunate of these work as janitors, garment workers, hotel and restaurant workers or furniture movers. Many more are forced to congregate on street corners in search of a day’s work. Others live and work on the margins of a burgeoning underground economy comprised of street vendors, domestic workers, gardeners, childcare workers or handymen.

The Hidden Economy

Women predominate in this informal sector—a result both of their legal exclusion from the formal sector of the economy and of their family responsibilities. For example, a common sight in the Los Angeles immigrant community is a street lined with women vendors selling from push carts or makeshift stands and surrounded by their children.

In their twelve- or thirteen-hour days, these women typically earn $1045. I interviewed an indigenous Mexican woman who informed me that she sold cigarettes, because they are the cheapest commodity (as opposed to perfumes, fruit, cassettes) to buy. But the resale gives her very little profit.

She spends $45 per week on the cigarettes. Even after selling them for twice as much, her weekly profit is a meager $45. Her story is a common one. While these women make very little, their income is more stable than that of their husbands and therefore furnishes the financial base for the entire family.

These women have also become a force in Los Angeles politics. Merchants with stores in the Latino community, many of whom are not themselves Latino, feel threatened by the competition from the street vendors and have pressured the City Council and police to strictly enforce health and business codes.

The result is a persistent campaign of harassment and intimidation against the street vendors. Police have gone so far as to justify their actions by saying that these vendors serve as lookouts for drug dealers.

Political and Social Struggle

In this context, the much-heralded election to the Los Angeles City Council of Gloria Molina—a former activist in the Chicano and feminist movements—takes on special significance. Molina represents the district in which most of these vendors work and live. But she has aligned herself with the police, supporting their campaign against the vendors.

During Molina’s campaign, many on the left supported her, arguing that she would add a needed progressive voice to the Council. But her constituency in the formal sense—that is, those who are eligible to vote—is only a small minority of the people who live in her district Nearly one-half the voters in her district are white, although whites comprise about eight percent of the district’s population.

Such blatantly distorted figures underscore the real limits inherent in using electoral strategies to achieve social change in many Los Angeles communities. One cannot read the “mood’ and consciousness of the people by looking at electoral results. Instead we must look at people’s actions—their self-organization and their struggles—in order to gauge their level of consciousness.

Women have played a key role in the struggles of the more “privileged” sectors of the new immigrant workforce. The struggle of the janitors in the strike against International Service Systems [see “Si Se Puede: Labor’s Giant Step in LA.,” ATC 28], for example, demonstrated that the myths of fatalistic and superstitious Latinas are utterly false.

We have to recognize that there was more at stake in this strike than in most others: By choosing to fight their employer, these women risked not only their jobs, but possible deportation as well.

The Justice for Janitors campaign has been successful precisely because it has not pursued a top-down organizing strategy, but rather has based its organizing efforts on creating workers’ committees inside every building. Often these committees were led by women.

Another reason for the janitors’ success is that its women organizers have been central to the day-to-day organizing, as well as playing a key role in the tactical decisions involved in the various militant actions. One of the strike’s pivotal organizers, for example, received her trade union experience in the streets of San Salvador. She is regarded as the local’s military expert.

These are only a few examples of the critical role that women will play in the struggles of the immigrant working class, in the communities as well as at the workplace.

July-August 1991, ATC 33