As thousands of brown immigrants marched in Seattle on May Day, one black bystander raised his arms and shouted his joy. His enthusiasm reflects the instinctive solidarity that many African Americans feel with this new civil rights movement.
In the 1960s, Blacks confronted racism with a massive movement. By winning gains such as affirmative action and anti-poverty programs, they broke barriers not only for themselves but for many others. The result was a working class less divided and better able to confront the bosses, with membership in public sector unions growing by four million over two decades.
Today’s immigrant rights movement offers a similar opportunity for working people. And in this struggle, African Americans and immigrants are natural allies.
Their experiences battling injustice make them among labor’s best, most class-conscious fighters. And when united, they rock the status quo: a powerful example is the recent New York City transit strike.
But, while immigrants and African Americans often work together and fight together, they are not united in a conscious ongoing alliance. And Corporate America wants to keep it that way.
The bosses’ blame game. The press, the politicians, and the CEOs are masters at manipulating mass sentiment. They work overtime to convince folks that Blacks and immigrants are enemies, threats to each other’s livelihoods.
CBS, for example, blew out of proportion news about the “Crispus Attucks Brigade,” African American conservatives who joined the racist Minuteman Project to patrol U.S. borders. The Brigade has no base of support among African Americans, and Black protesters countered the Minutemen when they tried to rally in the Black community in Los Angeles.
But there’s also no denying that the campaign to scapegoat immigrants is influencing many working people, African Americans included. And employers continue to deliberately pit workers of different races and national backgrounds against each other, fostering antagonism by creating fierce competition for jobs.
In Seattle’s booming construction industry, for instance, highly skilled undocumented workers are paid low wages to build luxury condos for millionaires. At the same time, African Americans are picketing because of their exclusion from jobs.
The loss of union jobs at living wages has been dramatic in recent years, and African Americans have been the most affected. But what needs to be recognized by every worker in the U.S. is that immigrants are not to blame.
The real blame rests with the capitalists, who are waging a war to lower all workers’ living standards, job conditions and expectations everywhere. “Divide and conquer” is one of their most effective techniques, and countering it is a survival question for the whole working class.
Organized labor would be the logical leader in this fight. But labor’s bureaucrats in three-piece suits are proving themselves completely unable to rise to the occasion.
Labor officials: leading in the wrong direction. Labor officialdom has long been in the rear guard when it comes to the most exploited and mistreated U.S. workers. Thanks to its top leadership, the union movement has a sorry history of exclusion of Blacks and of hostility toward immigrants.
Now the AFL-CIO labor federation is finally giving lip service to the rights of undocumented workers. But its leaders, who should have blanketed the May Day demonstrations with union cards, didn’t even motivate their ranks to attend.
The AFL-CIO also should be organizing with immigrant groups against legislation for “guest worker” programs, which would put foreign-born workers entirely at employers’ mercy. These programs are being pushed for meatpacking, construction, and other industries with high percentages of Black and immigrant workers. They would lower wages and destroy unions in these industries. Instead, the AFL-CIO is staking the future of the labor movement on Democratic Party politicians, who support these guest worker programs along with increased militarization of the border.
The position of the Change to Win federation is worse still. Its largest affiliate, Service Employees International Union, has a large immigrant membership, and turned out big for May Day. But SEIU leaders support the Hagel-Martinez bill in the U.S. Senate, which would institute guest worker programs, add 870 miles of new border fencing, and drive undocumented workers deeper into the underground labor market.
United we rise. In Los Angeles, a mass walkout and march of many colors on May 1 demanded unconditional amnesty and full labor and civil rights for undocumented workers. In helping to promote the march, the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women especially sought out union and Black community involvement. The two million demonstrators included many African Americans and key unions such as the California Nurses Association, in which Filipino immigrants are a major presence.
This event contrasted greatly with the city’s other May Day march, spearheaded by the LA County Federation of Labor, the Catholic Church, immigrant rights NGOs, and Latino Democratic Party leaders. Held after work, it called for “legalization,” a vague term often linked with guest worker programs.
In New York City, African American activists from the antiwar and Million Workers March movements and the Teamsters Black National Caucus played a key role in their city’s militant May Day march.
Bridge-building activists like those in New York and Los Angeles recognize that foreign-born and Black workers are on stormy seas in the same leaky boat. And the storm’s effects — falling wages, disappearing jobs, rising healthcare costs — are hitting every worker in the country, of whatever color or culture.
It comes down to this, it seems. The question is not whether the labor movement, given its current top leadership, will step up to save immigrant and Black workers. It’s whether immigrant and Black workers will save the labor movement. A multiracial alliance led by these two groups would have the power to bring labor back to its feet to fight.
African American activist Beverly Wright-Alley is a former Black Panther and current member of Seattle Radical Women. Linda Averill is a member of Amalgamated Transit Union and Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity, a new cross-union caucus.