On October 4 in New York City, 100,000 people rallied for immigrant rights, the largest immigrant rights protest in U.S. history. The massive rally was the culmination of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride (IWFR), in which 18 buses with 900 immigrants from 10 different cities toured the country. This huge turnout is especially impressive in the post-9/11 context because it shows the willingness of immigrants and allies to fight corporate and government attacks on immigrants, even amid the current racism and nationalism of this war-time period.
Immigrant workers have always felt the brunt of both racism and exploitation in the workplace, as they have been used as scapegoats for the social and economic failings of the capitalist system. For example, corporate bosses and politicians often blame immigrants for taking white workers’ jobs, when it is, in fact, the bosses and politicians who are the ones moving factories to other countries and signing so-called “free trade” agreements. Negative stereotypes about immigrants are used by the bosses to divide and pit workers against each other to prevent them from organizing, and to intimidate immigrants to make them willing to work for miserably low wages, which puts downward pressure on all workers’ wages.
The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE), whose members are predominantly immigrants, initiated the Freedom Ride. Modeled after the Freedom Rides of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, the IWFR made over 100 stops in cities across the U.S., putting on community forums, rallies, and demonstrations. The Freedom Ride raised public awareness of the super-exploitation of immigrants – their substandard wages, lack of political rights, dangerous working and living conditions – not unlike the Jim Crow system that the original Freedom Rides fought against.
The demonstrators’ main demand was the granting of legal status to all immigrants. Official estimates have concluded that 8 million undocumented immigrants live and work in the U.S., although the actual number is probably higher. A general amnesty, also known as “papeles” (papers) among Latino immigrants, would mean the right to a legal job with equal wages and benefits, the right to a union, and the right to the same public services that other U.S. workers receive. The demonstrators also made the connection between immigrant rights and the attacks on civil liberties the Bush administration has been carrying out since September 11, most notably the Patriot Act.
Although the AFL-CIO labor federation has a long history of blatantly anti-immigrant positions, its leadership has begun to face the reality of a declining union membership alongside a growing immigrant population and its increasing political and social power. A major change took place in 2000 when the SEIU, HERE, and UNITE unions pushed the AFL-CIO executive committee to adopt a resolution calling for a general amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.
This year’s IWFR represents a big step forward for the AFL-CIO. The IWFR brought together tens of thousands of immigrants, workers, and activists, demonstrating a real force, inspiring people around the world, and putting pressure on the political establishment and big business.
The struggle for immigrant rights needs to be linked to demands for universal healthcare, bilingual education, and the right to a job at a living wage. However, these demands fundamentally threaten big business, their profits, and their political representatives at every level of government. So in order to achieve them, we need to build a massive, militant movement like the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement that challenges the continued political domination of Corporate America.
The AFL-CIO is in the best position to build the movement for immigrant rights. The labor leaders should educate all workers to see that uniting to raise the wages and rights of immigrant workers will raise the living standards of all workers. The AFL-CIO and activist organizations need to develop a clear strategy to mobilize a mass movement in workplaces and working class immigrant communities.
This fight for immigrant workers’ rights will inevitably come up against the interests of big business, and in turn, the Democrats and Republicans who serve them. By taking on the Patriot Act, the IWFR has already made a bold move against the Democrats, who are just as culpable as the Republicans in voting for the Patriot Act as well as the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Their “war on terrorism” has brought with it an onslaught of racist violence towards immigrants and cutbacks in social services and jobs.
The IWFR shows just how much power organized labor has, and gives a glimpse of the willingness of workers, particularly immigrants, to struggle for progressive change when the labor leaders provide a lead. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO is still tied to the Democratic Party, and relies mainly on lobbying tactics to pressure Democrats for reforms. As history has taught us time and time again, we cannot leave it up to the Democrats and Republicans to represent our interests. We have learned from the Civil Rights Movement and beyond that we can only rely on our own forces – unions, community groups, young people, and the working class – to make any real gains. Today the success of the immigrant rights movement is completely bound up with the need for the labor movement to quit wasting resources supporting the Democrats and use those resources instead to launch a workers’ party, independent of the two corporate parties, and contest for political power.