From Immigrants to Labor Troublemakers

Against the Current, No. 100, September/October 2002

Teófilo Reyes

This talk was presented at an April 2002 national labor retreat organized by Solidarity.  The panel was titled, “Globalization in the Americas.”

THERE ARE CURRENTLY an estimated eight million undocumented immigrants in this country. This is a conservative Census figure, by the way. Fifty percent of the workforce in New York and Los Angeles is foreign born, and other major cities are not far behind.  There is not a single corner or industry of this country that has not been impacted by immigrants in some way.

By the way, I am very excited to announce that the Utah chapter of Jobs With Justice just joined the National Coalition for Dignity and Amnesty, and organized a May First event in Salt Lake City to demand amnesty and immigrant rights.

Before the Olympics, when the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) arrested dozens of undocumented airport workers for lying about their status, immigrant rights activists openly protested and got coverage for their demand that the workers be reinstated—this in the supposedly dire post 9-11 climate, in the liberal state of Utah.

According to the INS, 1.5 million undocumented immigrants are arrested every year. Over 400 died last year from drowning or heat exhaustion while trying to cross into the United States.

I don’t know if any of you are aware, but refugees have been repeatedly arrested for jumping “Chunnel” trains crossing the Channel between England and France.  Late last year a large group of refugees overpowered guards and forced their way into the Chunnel and were detained after they had made it halfway across.

Just last month a group of dehydrated immigrants from the Dominican Republic were discovered in a sealed container that had been delayed at a U.S. port due to faulty paperwork.  Their weak knocks were overheard, and their lives saved.  Their only regret: They didn’t make it in—but I’m sure they’ll try again.

Why do so many people risk everything to try to make it to the United States?  There are many reasons, many dating back to the popularity of “Dallas” in Latin America—TV has been a powerful medium to show previously isolated communities all the Nieman Marcus goodies they’ve been missing out on.

But I think there are three main reasons:

  1. the conscious destruction of opportunities in the third world caused by the ideological success of the neoliberal and free-trade models;

  2. increased demand for immigrant labor caused in part by the artificial need to compete in the new globalized environment;

  3. proliferation of trade routes facilitating clandestine migration flows.

The Neoliberal Plague

The neoliberal ideology has swept the globe.  Beginning with the Chicago School Boys, the drive to decimate the productive capacity of the state is the dominating public policy trend.

Other than Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, I do not think there are any Latin American leaders that were not trained at elite Ivy League schools.  Even Alejandro Toledo, the first Indian president of Peru who drove out Fujimori, is a U.S. alum.

Just looking at the example of Mexico—and I’m going to focus a lot on Mexico, since according to the INS 54% of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico—the country has:

  • changed its constitution to allow peasant farmers to freely sell their land,

  • removed tariffs on imports of subsidized U.S. corn—the overproduction of which has sent corn prices spiraling to their lowest level since 1980,

  • while at the same time it has eliminated subsidies for Mexican corn growers.

At the same time, well-connected companies send buses to take farmers from Southern Mexico to work in the maquilas near the border.

As a side note, last year, indigenous farmers found transgenic corn growing in their fields.  The transgenic corn is of a low quality but grows like a weed and threatens to destroy domestic varieties in the birthplace of maize.  The theory—ears fell off of government aid trucks for impoverished peasants.

Across the world governments have drastically reduced their budgets, cut millions of jobs, driven wages down, and privatized key enterprises.  Those privatized enterprises now employ a fraction of their previous workforces, at lower real wages, and have introduced state of the art technology and lean production practices.

The unrest in Argentina was in large part due to government efforts to cut public employee salaries by a third, cou-pled with a massive unemployment rate.

All these governments are rewarded with the mirage of the foreign investment cavalry.  Up until this year, maquilas were seen as Mexico’s savior by the Mexican ruling class.  Between 1994 and 2001, maquila employment more than doubled from 550,000 to one million 250 thousand; in that same period maquila wages dropped by over twenty percent, while productivity grew by forty percent.

UE just completed a tour with two members of the FAT (Authentic Workers Front).  One of them, Higinio Barrios Hernandez, works in Ciudad Juarez across the border from El Paso. There, workers must spend about $200 a week to feed a family of four.

Today a maquila worker is lucky if she earns $50 a week. This means that everyone in the family is forced to work to barely scrape by.

If any of you have ever seen pictures of the colonias—the new worker neighborhoods that have sprung up in maquila towns—-workers live in cardboard houses with plastic tarp roofs, and the occasional wood frame provided by the pallets that companies kindly sell to their employees.

Mexican families often travel into the United States to shop for groceries, since they often find cheaper prices across the border.

Realities of Recession

Last year, however, the maquila house of cards came tumbling down. Over 90% of maquila production goes to the United States, and the U.S. recession sent the industry into a tailspin.

When we were debating, “recession, no recession?” last June, already over 200,000 jobs had been lost in the maquilas.  Many of these jobs moved to China and Central America, where we know wage pressures are nowhere near as high as in Mexico.

Oddly enough, the INS says that fewer people tried to cross into the country last year—which is not what my intuition would tell me if I knew there were all of a sudden two hundred thousand unemployed workers just across the Rio Bravo.

Again, the U.S. recession holds the key. People come to this country because either they are recruited directly by companies and their agents—a common practice at meatpacking plants such as IBP—or the pioneers who came before them call home and say, “jump on in, the water’s fine.”

When there is no work, the encouraging phone calls don’t flow, and companies don’t go looking for new employees.  If people came and found no work, they would simply stop coming—which is what the INS contends happened for the last several months, although they give their enforcement techniques the credit.

And of course, when the jobs are there, the people come. Any which way, they come. By land, by sea, probably even by air. Mexican authorities have uncovered several tunnels that drug traffickers allegedly use to get into the United States—but human contraband is also a profitable enterprise.

And as I mentioned, the thousands of containers that enter unheeded every day have carried hidden cargo.  We only hear about them when the containers get detained and people die, or nearly do so. But with all the new trade routes and roads, trucks and containers serve as vehicles for migration, facilitated by a global just-in-time production scheme that does not allow for wasted time crossing customs.

The less fortunate of course have to walk across and face the desert’s wrath.  Some kind ranchers set out water tanks for migrants—others call their friends and throw lynching parties, as reportedly happened two summers ago.

Potential and Obstacles

Migration is a fact of life. As old as the hills.  We are all products of our migrating ancestors, whether you look back tens, hundreds, or thousands of years.  The current context is different, but not the big picture.

FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee) has a slogan: as capital is free to move, labor should be free to move also. We cannot prevent immigration without a highly militarized fascist state controlling all domestic movement, so our task is to embrace immigrants and try to take advantage of the moment—immigrants can be the Trojan horse that takes down Troy and reinvigorates the labor movement, if we figure out how to wake the army from its slumber.

I see three basic obstacles to organizing immigrants:

  1. The obscene differentials in wealth between the First and Third world.

  2. No roots.  The “I’m going back next year” syndrome.

  3. The widespread distrust of unions.

Stop and think about the minimum wage. $5.15 an hour doesn’t sound very inspiring; you’re probably thinking we need a living wage.

Now stop again and think about earning fifty-two cents an hour. All of a sudden, $5.15 an hour is a fortune.  The U.S. minimum wage is ten times higher than what the average Mexican worker earns—and this ratio is even higher when you look at other countries throughout the world.

The least among us are doing very well in the global scheme of things.  People come here to work, not to cause trouble.  And work they do. With great gusto—which is why immigrant labor is so coveted by employers.  Our task is to turn them into troublemakers.

Most immigrants think they are going to get here, make a fortune in a few years, and then return home. Almost to a one, they send hundreds of dollars home every week, a practice banks are only now learning how to cash in on by issuing ATM cards without Social Security numbers, so that relatives abroad can take out their weekly installment, with appropriate banking fees, of course.

They really think they are going to go home at the end of the year. There are literally ghost towns in Mexico, with neatly manicured and modern homes—their inhabitants all toiling in the land of opportunity.  Our task is to help them grow roots, so that they have a vested interest in our collective future.

Many immigrants come from countries where company unions and protection contracts are rampant, and the worst practices of mob dominated union locals would be an improvement.  And the daily practice of unions, with hot shop organizing, lack of intense communication, and few staff or leadership that cares or can relate, can easily spoil a community to unions for good.

Our task is to bring the rank and file strategy to immigrants—whether it means community centers helping immigrants negotiate their entry into a union, as happened with the Ironworkers in Chicago; assisting rank and file control of primarily immigrant locals as TDU has succeeded in doing; or working to unite divided immigrant and African American communities in common struggle as is now happening in North Carolina.

The rank-and-file strategy means constant communication, involving immigrant workers in all aspects of decision making, providing them with liaisons who can understand their situation and language, and assisting them in developing leadership for the long haul.

Teófilo Reyes is an immigration rights activist and has served as co-director of the Labor Education and Research Project, which publishes Labor Notes.

ATC 100, September-October 2002