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We Would Have to Die Working, So We Decided to Die Striking
When I lived in California I found most of my work through the casual labor office. Of course, the work I found there was rarely casual. In fact, it was usually the dirtiest work on the job site. However, it paid the bills and gave me the freedom to walk away from any gig I didn’t want. Most of the jobs I undertook were in the city, since that’s where the labor office was. However, on occasion, a bunch of us would be hired to do some farm work. This usually meant picking some kind of produce. Since my picking skills were nothing when compared to those that made their living from farmworking, I was usually assigned a job that paid by the hour, not by the crate or whatever the unit of measurement was for the piecework that the pickers performed. This most often meant that I ended up picking up fruit that had fallen to the ground. My pay rate was $2.50 an hour, which was the minimum wage in the late 1970s. It’s not like I cared as much as the men and women with families did. After all, I only needed money to take me to the next place I might be going.
Although the farmworkers, who were predominantly Latino in the fields of California’s Central Valley, were making more money than me, I almost always got the feeling from the usually Anglo bosses that I was supposed to think that I was somewhat better than these men and women. To the credit of most of my fellow workers at those sites, we all knew that all of us were essentially little more than slaves and it didn’t matter what color our skin was or where we came from. Neither did it make much difference how much money we were making. However, there were a couple instances on the trucks taking us to the fields when the anger of tired and poor working men turned from insults over each other’s virility to each others’ ethnic origins. To me, those instances served as microcosmic examples of the complex nature of race and class relations in capitalist United States.
A new book written by Justin Akers Chacon and Mike Davis addresses this and multiple other aspects of the immigration story in these United States. Published by Haymarket Press of Chicago, No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the US-Mexico Border is, among other things, another excellent history from this press of the US told from a popular working class perspective. Black Liberation and Socialism and Subterranean Fire before it, No One Is Illegal provides a refreshing and educational take on the bitter and often brutal history of the US and the people’s fight against its excesses.
The text opens with an 80-page history of western vigilantism by author and historian Mike Davis. This brief survey covers several cases of farmworkers’ attempts to get a fair wage and decent working conditions and the murderous reaction to those attempts. Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Okies, Mexicans and others each in their turn became the whipping boys and girls of the powerful agriculture and banking interests in California. These interests hired goon squads and fascist sympathizers to beat, harass, and occasionally murder the organizers and participants of farmworkers’ actions. Official unions like the AFL maintained their whiteness and encouraged racial prejudice amongst its members. Partially because of this, the New Deal purposely ignored the farmworkers when it provided protections that the rest of the workforce in the United States now take for granted. It is Davis’ contention that the vigilante man–as he calls these extralegal forces–are back again in the form of groups like the Minutemen.
The remainder of the book is written by Justin Akers Chacon. He picks up where Mike Davis left off. Chacon., a Chicano Studies and US History professor in San Diego, California, is an organizer in the volatile city of San Diego. He presents an economic history and study of the historically unequal relationship between the United States and Mexico, all of it in relation to the question of northward migration. Although Chacon explores and explains the situation in detail and in relation to the workings of international capital in specific periods, he puts forth early on that the underlying reason that people in Mexico are leaving their homes to find work in North America is because: "According to a study produced by the International Labor Organization, the wages of the Mexican working class fell faster than in any other nation in Latin America over the last few decades." This fact does not even begin to tell the story of the peasantry, who have seen their crops devalued again and again, thanks to US agribusiness domination of farming in Mexico, along with the massive imports of cheap staples from the north after the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The story Chacon relates is one of struggle. Within the broader struggle of the working people against the bosses, there is the uglier but no less real story of the struggle between workers of different national origins; even between the Chicano and the Mexican or the Mexican and the Salvadoran. Not only diversionary, these internal struggles have only made it easier for agribusiness and other corporate entities to keep all of our wages lower. The documentation that the author provides in this regard–anecdotal and statistical–proves this latter point only too well. From the beginnings of immigrant labor in the US to today’s reality where immigrants are not only portrayed as economic competitors but as potential "terrorists" as well, the manipulation of the native-born worker by his bosses has served the system only too well. Despite this, there are multiple instances of workers uniting across national and racial lines in strikes and other job-related actions. It is Chacon and Davis’ contention (and mine) that the May Day 2006 strikes and marches are but the latest example of the possibilities of working class unity.
Chacon completes his section of the book by bringing it full circle to the fight against anti-immigrant and racist vigilantism. His target is the so-called Minutemen. While rightly lampooning their organization as being mostly composed of a bunch of weekend warriors, he nevertheless takes this group and the phenomenon they represent seriously. Directly challenging the Minutemen’s claims that they are not racist, Chacon points out the propaganda of fear that this group uses: telling their target audience that Latino immigration is "a silent Trojan Horse invasion that is eroding our culture." Drawing the link between this idea of a superior culture and the rhetoric of white supremacists in the United States, Chacon makes it clear that the Minutemen’s agenda is a supremacist agenda combined with a superficial economic analysis that blames non native-born workers for the economic uncertainties many US workers find themselves in thanks to the latest stage of monopoly capitalism–capitalist globalization (or neoliberalism, which is what Chacon and many others call this stage.) He cites the presence of known racists in the organization and the attendance of KKK members and neo-nazis at Minutemen events as further proof of the group’s racist underpinnings.
Unmentioned in Chacon’s discussion of the Minutemen’s economic analysis is that elements in the United Farm Workers, most notably its leader, Cesar Chavez, took a similar view of illegal migration. Indeed, the view that it was the individual fault of undocumented workers that everyone else’s wages were lower convinced the UFW to lead a 1969 march to the US-Mexican border to protest illegal immigration. Furthermore, UFW members in Arizona actually patrolled the border in that state, beating up undocumented migrants and chasing them back into Mexico . Chacon does mention this aspect of the UFW briefly, but attibutes the union’s stance against illegals to the leadership’s desire to appease supporters on the right wing of the Democratic Party. Any discussion of the superficiality of an economic analysis that blames the individual worker forced to migrate because of the machinations of capital does not occur in his comments on Cesar Chavez and the UFW.
On a similar note, it seems worth mentioning that today’s UFW conitinues to lean towards legislation that restricts immigration. Like Samuel Gompers and other labor leaders of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the UFW (along with the SEIU and UNITE) went on record supporting the so-called Senate compromise bill, known colloquially as Hegel-Martinez. Like immigrant rights organizer Nativo Lopez told an audience in New York last month,
How is it possible that those three unions bolted from the AFL-CIO to create the new progressive Change to Win coalition, and they accepted the premise that contract labor in massive form could exist in the United States, with those unions be the beneficiaries by cutting deals with Corporate America for yellow-dog collective bargaining agreements, in which they would receive dues money from those contract laborers. (Socialist Worker 6/30/2006)
Yet, even Lopez seems to have gotten part of his history wrong when he continued by stating that Cesar Chavez was rolling over in his grave because of these unions’ selling out. Lopez was correct, however, when he pointed out that the current "compromise" bills offered by Democrats in Congress are bills written by and for corporate America. He was also correct in urging his listeners to combat such compromises.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is its internationalism. Chacon and Davis operate with the understanding that the working class in each nation is not a national entity as much as it is a global one. This is especially the case in today’s world of capitalist globalization and the ever-increasing movement of capital across borders. With this movement of capital has come an even greater movement of workers. National borders are only reinforced to control wages of workers of all nationalities and to create and maintain divisions within the international working class. Just like imperial war, immigration control is a tool of the imperial elites in their pursuit of domination and profit. If the immigrant rights movement wants to be truly successful, Chacon reminds us that it must keep this perception as its basis. Its essential demand must be the eradication of borders–especially those borders that restrict humans from crossing them. Reading No One Is Illegal is a great place to begin understanding the fundamental nature of this demand.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org