The Spark

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

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride

Oct 6, 2003

The AFL-CIO and several of its affiliated unions, along with various church groups and community organizations, sponsored the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride. On September 20, over 900 people, mainly immigrant workers, documented and undocumented, in 10 different cities embarked on a two week bus ride across the country, with dozens of rallies and prayer vigils along the way. The bus riders converged first on Washington, D.C., and then they went on to rallies in New Jersey and New York City.

Officials of the AFL-CIO said that the purpose of the "Freedom Rides" was to protest the "unfair treatment" of undocumented immigrants and to pressure Congress to pass immigration reform legislation that would improve the plight of the millions of undocumented immigrants. And they compared the Freedom Ride for immigrant workers rights to the Freedom Rides of 1961 protesting the Jim Crow laws in the South.

Certainly, the plight of the millions of immigrant workers without documents is absolutely scandalous and inhuman. They live under a kind of apartheid labor system in this country with no legal rights. They are often forced to accept much worse pay and working conditions than other workers. And, as several union officials pointed out, these conditions are used as a wedge to push down the wages and working conditions of all workers. According to Maria Elena Durazo, the national chair of the Freedom Ride and President of Hotel Employee and Restaurant Employee (HERE) Local 11 in Los Angeles, "Our cause is broader than immigrant rights. Immigrants are also fighting for jobs, access to health care and rights on the job – the same issues all workers are seeking."

Certainly these are fine words. Workers do need to be united and organized to fight for their common interests. The problem is that the Freedom Ride organized by the AFL-CIO only provided an excuse to organize small rallies across the country that were usually addressed by Democratic Party politicians and clergy with some ties to the AFL-CIO bureaucracy. In Washington, D.C. the Freedom Riders spent a full day lobbying 100 politicians to pass a few bills, as if lobbying were the means for workers to win their rights.

In the past, immigrant workers were only able to win any rights through their own willingness and readiness to fight. This is what has changed their situation. For example, in Los Angeles in the 1990s thousands of janitors were able to organize a union through a series of strikes and demonstrations under the Justice for Janitors campaign. Also immigrant drywallers were able to organize a union through a series of strikes and confrontations with the police. Of course, once the janitors and drywallers organized their unions through their own struggles, the union bureaucracies moved in to try to squash the workers organization – even while the union officials continued to claim credit for what the workers had won.

Rather than base themselves on the organized activity of the immigrant workers, the Freedom Ride was more like a warm-up for the 2004 elections. Once again the AFL-CIO bureaucracy is preparing to lend its support to the Democratic Party, one of the two big parties of the bosses responsible for carrying out attacks against the rights of immigrant workers and unions alike.

There is little or no comparison between these "Freedom Rides" organized by the union bureaucrats to lobby Congress and the Freedom Rides of 1961. The Freedom Rides of 1961 were not exactly an excuse to hold polite rallies hosted by local and national politicians. The Freedom Rides of 1961 were part of a broader movement of the black population in the streets that directly confronted Jim Crow. This movement did force the government to pass certain laws, such as the Civil Rights reforms. But it was not these laws that made the difference, since most often the laws for equal rights were already on the books. What the movement did was force the ruling class to tear down the legal wall of segregation.

If today the officials at the head of the AFL-CIO wanted to begin a new kind of movement to mobilize millions of workers to fight for their rights, they have the means to do it. After all, they already head organizations with millions of workers throughout the country. They could address those workers, along with the millions more non-union workers. They could call on them to carry out a united struggle, not just for immigrant workers' rights, but the rights of all workers to a decent living. They could call for a movement to stop the layoffs and plants closings, the cuts in wages and benefits. They could call for an enormous counter-offensive against all the attacks of the bosses against all workers.

But the AFL-CIO officials did not even bother to inform the millions of workers in their own unions that there was any kind of campaign, any kind of Freedom Ride for immigrant workers' rights, not to speak of call for the workers to take any action.

Instead, the Freedom Ride of 2003 was just another one of the union officials' typical campaigns that mobilized no one, but only pretended that various supposed "partnerships" with bosses and government officials is a protection for workers. These partnerships protect no workers. They only grease the long slide in workers' rights and wages, as well as union membership.