Discussing root causes of oppression as a strategy to build unity among U.S. born and migrant workers

A speech given by Camilo Viveiros, Exec. Dir of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice

"Workers have no Borders" event organized by the Boston May Day Committee on February 4, 2010.


The U.S. economy has been based on the exploitation of immigrants since the nation’s founding.

The history of exploiting immigrants mirrors the history of political repression in this country. Historically, immigrants have brought a broader social analysis to labor struggles – and for this radical vision they have been criminalized, attacked, and even deported. Many immigrants were attacked by government and business because they saw labor struggles as challenging larger systems of oppression.

Consider the fear of the “foreign radical.” In the early twentieth century, there was a prevalent societal fear that immigrant labor radicals would contaminate or radicalize conservative labor organizations. For example, consider the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920.These red-scare raids against radicals by the federal government resulted in the deportation of 500 immigrant labor activists. It was in the interest of the status quo to only mildly reform labor relationships. Government and businessmen wanted only xenophobic labor organizations that prohibited newer waves of immigrants in order to neutralize the scope of potential disruption to the economic system. Neutralizing the (real or perceived) threat of foreign labor radicals ensured a narrower, more conservative business unionism.

The Palmer Raids are not simply a page in history. Workplace immigrant raids today can be seen as a response to an increasingly vocal immigrant population. Workplace raids by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) agents increased following the massive 2006 Immigrants Rights May Day rallies. 2007 saw an increase of raids in New Haven just as the city passed an identity card plan and the police accepted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy concerning immigration status. After organizers in New Haven finally saw success in their work to build a sanctuary city, the targeting, fear and disruption of ICE raids began to defeat that sense of community and any sense of victory. Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for ICE told the New York Times, “There is no truly safe haven for fugitive aliens.”

Outside of raids that tear apart communities, workplaces with union contracts or organizing drives have been hit by a wave of immigration enforcement over the last several years. In North Carolina in 2007, ICE raided the Smithfield pork slaughtering plant. For over ten years, workers and organizers from the United Food and Commercial Workers had faced down against Smithfield’s aggressive anti-union campaign.

By 2007, union supporters were gaining ground. Court appeals forced the rehiring of fired employees, and workers were beginning to lose their fear. Yet with the workplace raids, immigrants’ fears returned. The raid resulted in the arrest of 21 workers and was followed by the departure of hundreds of others. Seven months later, ICE agents made more arrests at workers’ homes in surrounding areas. Many involved in the union drive thought that the real target of the raid was the union organizing drive and its Latino leadership.

As people who care about justice, we must learn to recognize the raids not just as a misguided and racist attempts to respond to a broken immigration system but also as a series of attacks directed at political dissent and worker power. These raids try to keep immigrants and other workers silent and in-line. The raids are an attack on workers’ attempts to organize and to shift the balance of power in society.

The repression of immigrants in their workplaces, homes and daily lives reinforces and sustains the oppressive social order that exploits working class and poor people. It is imperative that we include immigrant rights in broader labor struggles and that we work to expand rank and file support for immigrant rights in unions, as part of the larger struggle towards social unionism.
We need to illuminate the common self-interest of workers by making the connection between the day-to-day exploitation that US-born workers and older immigrants face at work with the attacks on newer waves of immigrants.

We’re surrounded by capitalist individualist culture so we must start with the basics of identifying together our common interests.
By building this common ground the workers at Smithfield were able to claim victory after the raids. Through inter-ethnic solidarity built at the plant, African-American, Puerto Rican, and immigrant Latino workers won their union struggle in 2008. Together these workers defeated what author David Bacon called, “one of the most bitter anti-union campaigns in modern U.S. labor history.”

To win victories, we need to recognize the ways our destinies are intertwined -- regardless of our immigration status. For example, the wellbeing of seniors is tied to the financial stability of social security, which is based on the backs of immigrant workers. Many postindustrial cities and towns across New England would be ghost towns if it weren’t for newer waves of immigrants bringing small businesses and their families to revitalize communities. If labor and congregations want to be relevant to larger society, they must take on immigrant rights struggles head on. With the shift from manufacturing to a service economy, it is newer immigrants that are working many of the non-unionized jobs that labor should be striving to organize.

Given the current economic crisis and high unemployment, we might think it is natural for the working class to turn against itself. We might think it is inevitable for many workers born in the United States or with legal status to blame immigrant workers and undocumented workers for their falling economic position. But it is not inevitable and we cannot let ourselves be out-organized by the racist right. We need to recognize the agency of organizers in our day-to-day work and our ability to build common ground among workers based on the recognition of common exploitation.

I want to give you some examples of the ways we can help build conversations that recognize our common ground. These come from popular education workshops I have been a part of, where participants have conversations based on people’s self-interest and direct experience.

For example, when speaking to US-born workers who often don’t hear about the root causes of migration, I have used this analogy. I ask workers what they would do if they were offered two hundred dollars an hour to work in Canada doing the same work. What would they do if they had the opportunity to make ten times more if they worked in Canada? How would you weigh the benefits to your family and loved ones from migrating by having to leave your community? After discussing this scenario, I explain the economic disparities between workers in the Global South and how even low-wage workers in the United States can potentially make much larger sums of money to support their families.

This story illustrates the essence of popular education. The organizers talk to people about circumstances that directly relate to their day-to-day lives. This analogy resonates with workers’ love of their families and their desires to provide for them. Conversations around the difficulty and challenges in supporting those families can be tied to global economic inequality and the global military practices that enforce neoliberal policies. Through conversation, participants realize that the exploitation of workers from the Global South within the U.S. also weakens their own worker power and that the best way to strengthen their power as workers is to work alongside immigrant laborers.

The Timeline from Project South, a grassroots training organization, can also be adapted as a useful political education tool. This is a timeline that includes economic policy shifts, political and military history, and immigration policy. This tool taps into people’s family histories in order to put our own stories in the context of broader political and economic policies. For example, we ask people to place on a timeline when their families came to the United States. We then have people look at the time-line and describe the political, economic, and military policies that happened before, during, and after their family’s migration. This exercise helps people to recognize the institutional and political context of migration. It counters media representations of some migrants as legitimate and others as illegitimate, illegal, and unworthy. Corporate culture obscures the larger institutional forces that shape individuals’ immigration decisions. This exercise helps us see immigration and mainstream images of migrants as an outcome of political, economic, and military forces.

Finally, I want to highlight the series of conversations Rhode Island Jobs with Justice has been hosting in Providence. These discussions for unemployed workers address the economic crisis. Rhode Island has the third highest unemployment in the country and the highest unemployment rate in New England. Over 200,000 Rhode islanders are out of work. During these discussions on the economic crisis, we tackle the myths that pit some workers against immigrant workers. We draw on people’s experiences to strategize solutions. We formulate demands and devise direct actions that challenge the corporate culprits behind the economic crisis. Once a group of workers and unemployed people can agree on common targets from their own vantage points, then the call to challenge inter-worker division and xenophobia comes from our desire to win together.
If we want to expand who works in solidarity with newer waves of immigrant workers, we must invest time and energy into developing relations of reciprocity which directly confront common exploitation. It may be tempting to try to take shortcuts to building these relationships. But after generations of division and racism we can’t expect symbolic or rhetorical appeals to produce much change in actually cultivating common solidarity. While we need to confront the regressive and reactionary anti-immigrant and racist agitators within society, we must simultaneously expand the communities of exploited workers who we can cultivate solidarity with.

To build this common ground, our work needs to provide ample time for people to understand the root causes of the growing economic inequality and the methods through which we can shift that inequality and demand economic accountability. When we have come to a common understanding, we talk about the need to grow larger movements and increase grassroots worker power. It is in this context -- after we come to a common power analysis that targets corporate and economic structures—that we are able to expand on our ability to build solidarity. It is out of the common understanding that we need to build solidarity in order to win tangible economic justice goals.
This economic crisis increases competition for jobs. Therefore it is more important than ever to reinforce relationships that focus anger at the political and economic targets that are behind worker exploitation and oppression. While some politicians will argue that now is the time for cuts to social programs, we must demand an end to the criminalization of workers and the misuse of government funds in enforcing a broken immigration system by separating families and raiding work places. As the government tries to combat record deficits by eliminating key services, the Department of Homeland Security has seen an increase in funding. Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2010 actually increases the funding for DHS—including money for a virtual border fence, E-Verify, and increasing the number of border patrol agents on the Southern border.

Progressives and radicals emphasize that the government should spend less money on war. We should also demand that the government not spend money on immigration raids. Our present economic predicament resulted from years of oppression, fear, and division. Yet now is a moment where, if we organize, we can expand our movements in order to include larger segments of unemployed workers and more community members who are frustrated at corporate policies and government inaction.

Our struggle ahead is for liberation and against exploitation. It is for legalization and against deportation. So let’s put our voices together and say:

up, up with legalization
down, down with deportation
up, up with liberation
down, down with exploitation

¡Arriba con la legalización!
¡Abajo con la deportación!
¡Arriba con la liberación!
¡Abajo con la explotación!