The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

United States:
Bosses and Immigrant Workers:
United We Don't Stand

Oct 12, 2001

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, violence against people of foreign descent in the U.S. soared. People who looked even vaguely like they might be from the Middle East were particularly at risk. In the next two weeks, the FBI admitted that at least three people were murdered. Hundreds more were attacked in their homes, on the streets, at their schools or workplaces, while thousands and thousands must have been harassed and threatened. Few of these attacks ever made it into the news.

Of course, officials like President Bush distanced themselves from these violent attacks. They denounced hate crimes. Local police made some arrests. Bush was photographed appearing in a Washington, D.C. mosque surrounded by Islamic clergy.

But those gestures paled in the face of the demagogic statements that the politicians made during the first tense days and weeks. Not to be outdone by the fundamentalist terrorists, Bush and the U.S. government came up with their own religious appeals. Bush called the coming U.S. campaign a "crusade," referring to the fight of Christianity against Islam which was nothing but the European plunder of the Near East during the Middle Ages. The Pentagon called the new campaign "Infinite Justice," a religious reference which received so much notice that the U.S. military leaders finally settled on "Enduring Freedom."

At the same time, Bush said that he wanted Osama Bin Laden "Dead or Alive," a phrase that he underlined by repeating it several times, appealing to the old-fashioned frontier-style lynch mob mentality, "hang em high." This was reinforced by the official U.S. government position that there were only two sides in this conflict, the U.S. government's side, which was likened to the side of civilization, or the side of the terrorists. In other words, anyone who disagreed with what the U.S. government did could be considered a supporter of the terrorists.

Those lower on the political food chain politicians, unofficial spokespersons, talk show hosts took this demagogy to a more rabid level. During a radio interview, Louisiana Congressman John Cooksey, for example, fulminated that anyone wearing "a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around the diaper" ought to be "pulled over" for extra questioning at airports. After Cooksey was forced to apologize for this remark, he then began to run campaign commercials on television in which he says, "We know the faces of the terrorists and where they're from." In other words, anyone who might "look" like a Muslim could be a terrorist.

This kind of rhetoric, moreover, resonated against the depiction of Arab people which has gone on for decades. Ever since the first "energy" crisis, "Arabs" have been blamed for everything from high energy prices, recessions, unemployment, the Oklahoma City bombing, jumbo jets blowing up in mid-air because the airlines had cut backs on maintenance: you name it. All the politicians had to do was utter a few phrases, and everyone immediately knew what they were talking about, who to go after.

"Our Way of Life"

One of the central myths of American history is that the U. S. is not only a nation of immigrants, but it is a haven for immigrants. Now, as during any crisis, the political establishment has taken hold of this theme in order to prove how much everyone must unify behind them in order to defend "our way of life." This is a central tenet of their current slogan, "United We Stand," symbolized by the posters and advertisement with the faces of many skin colors and ethnicities and a prominently placed American flag.

New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani evoked this theme many times in his address to the extraordinary session of the United Nations General Assembly on October 1. Said Giuliani: "There is no nation, and no City, in the history of the world that has seen more immigrants, in less time, than America." Later on he said, "We are a city of immigrants unlike any city within a nation of immigrants. Like the victims of the World Trade Center attack, we're of every race, we're of every religion, we're of every ethnicity."

All of this was to say how well immigrants have been treated: "...with democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human life that's how you become an American. It is these very principles and the opportunities these principles give to so many to create a better life for themselves and their families that make America, and New York, a shining city on a hill.'"

No doubt, for immigrants coming from war-torn countries, from countries whose economies have been decimated by underdevelopment and decades of economic depression, the United States and New York City are a step up. People at least have a better shot at survival. But that doesn't make it "a shining city on a hill," except perhaps for the small minority of those privileged who flock to the center of the largest imperial power in the world to do business or simply enjoy opulence and leisure.

For most of those who come to Giuliani's New York City, one of the traditional gateways for immigrants, "opportunity" means to join the army of low-paid labor that works in what is euphemistically called the service economy or the sweat shops, where the pay is often not even the minimum wage, without benefits. They must stretch their money by crowding into tiny, airless apartments, where the rents are high. They live in sweltering, garbage-strewn neighborhoods, with little public space, practically non-existent social services, and they send their children to public schools that are often little more than a jungle. And when they walk the streets, or simply stand in their building's doorway, they have to fear both the criminals and an NYPD that shoots first and asks questions later.

As for their legal rights, one cannot even say that immigrants are second-class citizens, since they are not citizens. They work, pay taxes, their children can be sent into the army, but they don't have the right to vote. They are entitled to many fewer social benefits. They can always be expelled from the country. And that is not to speak of the estimated nine million undocumented immigrants, or, as they are called, "aliens," now in this country, who live under the shadow of the INS, who can be picked up at any time and expelled with almost no legal recourse.

Creating the Labor Force that Built this Country

Of course, it is hardly a surprise that this is a land of immigrants. Capitalism needed labor to develop this hemisphere and labor was in short supply.

During early colonial times, the first joint stock companies that set up settlements in the New World at first tried to create a labor force from the peoples already living here, trying to enslave them. But for the most part this was unsuccessful. Growing American capitalism then began to import its labor force, a large proportion of whom came in some form of bondage. It was this labor that lay the foundations for the growing economy.

Most of those who were brought over from Europe were poor; to pay for their voyage, they sold themselves to a master for a period of from four to seven years. Some were forced into this bondage as an alternative to imprisonment in the countries they came from. In the North, the indentured servants worked in the very small artisan and manufacturing shops; that is, they provided the labor in the early years for what would eventually grow to become modern industry. In the South, these indentured servants went on to make up the mass of poor farmers.

But with the development of the plantation economy in the South, the plantation owners needed a large, stable work force that they could force to stay put. That meant that they needed a work force of slaves that could not escape. So, they brought that work force over from Africa in chains, under absolutely unspeakable conditions. The Africans, who by the time of the American Revolution made up about 20% of the total population of the entire country, produced such cash crops as tobacco, rice and cotton. After the revolution, the cotton crop that the slaves produced became the basis of the industrial revolution on two continents, in both England and the United States.

In the 19th century, with the economy beginning to spread over the entire continent, the immigrant peoples who poured into this new country from Ireland and then, later on, from China performed much of the back-breaking labor for building the roads, canals and railroads, that is, the basic infrastructure that knitted the vast territory together. On these massive projects, the conditions were so horrendous, the mortality rate so high that in the South the slave owners preferred that the work be done by Irish immigrants, rather than risk having so many of their slaves wiped out. After all, the slaves were an important monetary investment for them.

In the decades following the Civil War, industrial development boomed in most of the country, except for the South, where the old slave-owning class imposed a semi-feudal system of sharecropping, that is, economic peonage on both the ex-slaves and poor sectors of the population. To maintain this system, they instituted the Jim Crow laws, which they enforced with systematic violence. In effect, they returned black people to slavery in all but name, and the poor whites to peonage.

By the 1880s, the great mass production industries were developing in the North, bringing thousands of workers together under one roof. These included textile, steel, meat packing, machinery, cigar making, brewing, as well as railroads and mining. Most of the unskilled positions in those industries were filled by the recent immigrants, first from Germany, then from southern and eastern Europe: Italians, Slavs, Greeks, Jews. The new and very profitable steamship lines raced to bring in as many workers as possible, packing thousands at one time below decks in steerage class, with little or no food or sanitation.

Many workers had been recruited by labor contractors in their old country. When they arrived, they had to work off the cost of their passage overseas under terms of contract labor that paid exceedingly low wages. Effectively, they were a new class of indentured servants at least temporarily. This huge influx of immigrants into the country, combined with a growing number of small farmers being pushed off their farms, flooded into the big cities. And everyone worked, including children, who started as young as five or six years old. Wages and working conditions were thus pushed lower, while the hours of work were pushed higher. The average work week could last anywhere from 80 to 100 hours.

Discrimination, Racism, Bigotry

Of course, the capitalists encouraged discrimination, prejudice and separation of the immigrant workers to make it more difficult for the workers to organize against these conditions. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Know Nothings, a nativist anti-Catholic party, with strong financial support from the wealthy, developed into a real party. According to the Know Nothings, since the more recent immigrants at that time Irish and Southern German workers were Catholic, they had greater allegiance to the Pope, sitting in Rome, than to the "American Way of Life." This supposedly proved that these immigrants would never be assimilated into American society. The fact that the immigrants were so poor was also supposed to be proof that they were a source of poverty, filth and disease. The Know Nothings not only ran candidates in elections, they organized mobs, lootings and firebombings of Irish and German immigrant neighborhoods, the most famous taking place in Philadelphia in 1844. "No Irish Need Apply" signs dotted the cities and towns across the country.

In the West, bigotry was directed at the Chinese workers, 30,000 of whom had built the western part of the first transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869. Chinese workers also did a lot of the hard rock mining and worked in the early manufacturing plants in northern California, among other things. When the depression of the 1870s hit, the newspapers relentlessly attacked the Chinese workers for causing the unemployment. With the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first law limiting immigration into this country, Congress gave legal standing to those nativist prejudices.

Of course, this kind of racism and bigotry runs steadily like a thread through this country's history right up to the present.

Confronting the "American Way of Life"

Confronting this "American way of life," the immigrant workers often found ways to resist and fight back. Some of them were among the first Marxists and anarchists, who had brought these traditions with them when they came from Europe.

Workers fought against wage cuts. In the 1870s, anthracite coal miners of Irish extraction in western Pennsylvania carried out a series of long and bitter strikes to stop several wage cuts. The coal companies eventually broke the strike. But the miners didn't stop their fight, and they formed underground organizations, patterned after the organizations they had used to resist oppression of the British colonizers of Ireland. They called themselves the Molly Maguires. A company-paid agent provocateur was inserted in their midst, and framed up the main leaders for the murder of a cop. On the morning of June 21, 1877, memorialized as "Pennsylvania's Day with the Rope," nine Irish immigrant miners were publicly hanged in two towns simultaneously.

Workers fought to reduce the number of hours of work. From 1884 to 1886, in one of the largest movements of the working class in this country, workers fought for the eight-hour day. This fight culminated in a general strike concentrated in the industrial center of Chicago. Among the leaders and agitators of the strike were several German immigrants, who came from an anarchist tradition. During a large rally in Haymarket Square that protested harsh repression against the strike, an agent provocateur threw a bomb that killed eight police. The strike leaders, several of whom were not even present at the rally, were arrested, tried and found guilty by a kangaroo court. On November 11, 1887, several of these leaders Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolphe Fischer mounted the gallows and were hanged.

In 1919, the year that followed World War I, workers, encouraged by the 1917 Russian Revolution, carried out the largest strike wave up until that time. All together, one-fifth of the workers in over 4,000 companies went on strike throughout the country. Many of the strikes were carried out to impose large wage increases since during the war, the workers' standard of living had been drastically cut, while corporations had made enormous profits. But often, the strikes went much further. In steel, 275,000 workers, most of whom were unskilled immigrant workers, walked out in a national strike, the first of its kind. These workers in the largest industry in the country, challenged the corporations' policy of keeping unskilled workers from being able to organize unions in the big mass production industries. This strike was eventually violently broken. But it was a foreshadowing of what the working class would do one generation later. In the same year in Seattle, Washington, workers carried out a general strike and elected a strike committee that actually began to run the city for several days before the strike was broken. Radical and communist ideas were gaining greater influence in the working class.

President Woodrow Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, responded by carrying out mass raids against "aliens." A law passed by Congress near the end of the war provided for the deportation of "aliens" who had been accused of opposing organized government or advocating the destruction of property. On December 21, 1919, Palmer's men picked up 249 "aliens" of Russian birth (including anarchist leaders Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman), put them on a ship, and deported them. In January 1920, 4000 people were rounded up all over the country, held in seclusion for long periods of time, brought into secret hearings and ordered deported. In Boston, Department of Justice agents, aided by local police, arrested another 600 aliens and deported them. Wrote one troubled federal judge in Boston, "The arrested aliens, in most instances perfectly quiet and harmless people, many of them not long ago Russian peasants, were handcuffed in pairs, and then, for the purposes of transfer on trains and through the streets of Boston, chained together..."

This campaign of terror culminated with the arrest in Boston of two Italian-born anarchist fish peddlers, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Framed up for the murder of a guard during a robbery at a shoe factory, they went on trial, were found guilty and after losing all their legal appeals, were electrocuted in August 1927 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

The Need for Workers to Overcome Divisions

By the turn of the century, foreign-born workers made up a big part of the U.S. working class, especially in the basic industries. For example, they made up 44.3% of the miners and 36% of the iron and steel workers. If one counts the children of these immigrants working in the same industry, they made up a big majority. The fact that people from many different countries, with many different ethnicities, languages and customs worked together in the same production process posed even more difficulties in communication, not to speak of trust.

Of course, the capitalists never stopped trying to take advantage of these divisions, to play on them, and keep people divided, both on the job and when they entered into struggle. A memo from Sherman Service, Inc., hired by the steel corporations to break the 1919 strike, to one of its employees, shows how much they consciously tried to use the divisions: "We want you to stir up as much bad feeling as you possibly can between the Serbians and the Italians. Spread data among the Serbians that the Italians are going back to work... Urge them to go back to work or the Italians will get their jobs."

But history shows that these barriers were not insurmountable. Precisely at the time when foreign-born workers were streaming into the country, the working class was able to mount several major movements that swept entire regions of the country, including the Railroad Strike of 1877, the General Strike for the 8-hour day in 1886, the textile general strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912, and the strike wave of 1919. Out of these movements, workers built new unions from the ground up, such as the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), as well as a new political party, the Socialist Party. Foreign- born and American workers found ways to communicate on the job, in meetings, in leaflets, using a potpourri of languages. Joe Ettor, an IWW organizer in the 1912 Lawrence textile strike, was fluent in English, Polish and Italian, and got along in Yiddish and Hungarian. Invariably, foreign workers played prominent, if not leading roles in all these movements.

Shifts in migration

With the frontier long gone, and industrial growth slowed, new immigration laws drastically restricted the flow of immigrants into the United States starting in 1924. These restrictions lasted for the next four decades. During those years, capital satisfied its thirst for more labor from the large internal migrations of people who were being driven off the land in both the North and the South.

The old, inefficient system of sharecropping in the South could no longer compete against the mechanization of agriculture that was already well under way in the rest of the country. So black and white sharecroppers began to be tossed off the land with no way to survive. This triggered the beginning of the great migration of poor black and white people from the farms in the South to the factories in the North, that would last over the next half century. They went from a situation of peonage to absolutely abject misery and starvation in the big cities. They were joined by the small farmers of the North who were then losing their land.

These new arrivals, many of whom had been pitted against each other in the old Jim Crow South, were then thrown into competition for factory jobs, as well as the meager housing and city services that existed in the already extremely overcrowded cities. Auto magnate Henry Ford consciously tried to play on and exacerbate these tensions, by sending labor contractors into the South to recruit black and white workers for his assembly lines, and then have them compete against each other for jobs on the shop floor. This was Ford's way of controlling his workforce and preventing his workers from organizing.

With the slowing of immigration, workers were less divided along ethnic lines, but even more divided along racial lines. In the 1930s, the fact that the working class was able to carry out a vast movement, characterized by the sitdown strikes and the building of large industrial unions (including, eventually at Ford) for the first time, showed that the workers had found the way to begin to overcome this division. But this was only partial at best. The racial tensions created by the capitalists remained explosive, as indicated by the violent race riots in Detroit in 1943 that pitted white against black workers.

A New Wave of Immigration

During the years of World War II and after, industrial and agricultural production recovered from their depression levels and then expanded, leaving the capitalists with a need for ever more fresh sources of immigrant labor to exploit. But the capitalists left the immigration laws extremely restrictive, using these restrictions to their advantage to produce a different category of immigrant worker, the "illegal" immigrant, who made their way over the border or overstayed a temporary visa or work permit in order to find work in the U.S. A big number of these new "illegals," with few rights or protections, came from Mexico. Later on, they came from other parts of the Western Hemisphere. Some illegal immigrants also made their way over from Europe and Asia that had been destroyed and impoverished by depression and war.

But this flow was not sufficient for the capitalists. In 1965, immigration was reformed to encourage, once again, legal immigration. The laws were also written in such a way as to assure that illegal immigration increased parallel to the legal immigration. Thus the 20th century began with the country in the midst of the greatest wave of immigration in its history, and it ended in the midst of another period of high immigration, greater in numerical terms, although smaller in its relative impact, than the immigration of 100 years earlier. From 1970 to 2000, the number of immigrants living in the country tripled to just over 30 million, bringing their share of the population to almost 11%. Among them are an estimated eight to nine million illegal immigrants.

For several years now, many trade associations, as well as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represent most of the capitalist class, have been pushing for a new immigration reform. Under the guise of "regulating" the situation of illegal immigrants, they want to funnel them into guest worker programs. Companies would have to apply to the government for permission to contract with the workers. In order for the workers to keep their legal status, along with the hope of eventually gaining permanent residency and maybe, eventually, citizenship, they would have to keep their jobs. Thus, the purpose of the reform would be to tie each guest worker tighter to his or her boss. If they lost their job, or quit, they would risk also losing their "legal" status. This is nothing but a modern version of the bondage, or indentured servitude, that existed in the past.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, this immigration reform to meet the needs of the bosses has been put on hold, at least for the time being. It would have been impolitic for Bush to push it at that moment.

Nonetheless, the project certainly shows what are the intentions of the capitalists and how little things have changed.

The supposed "city on the hill" for all people, especially for immigrants, referred to by Giuliani, is a fiction, as is the current slogan, "United We Stand." They are fantasies designed to dupe working people here into supporting the very bosses who are exploiting, dividing and oppressing them.