Apr 4, 2005
Wal-Mart made the news last month because some of its cleaning contractors had hired illegal immigrants. More than 200 immigrants were arrested and some were deported. Wal-Mart and the cleaning contractors paid fines. The eleven million dollar fine Wal-Mart paid is small change to a corporation that sells three times that much every hour. The fine certainly didn't go to the immigrants who were underpaid and misused, nor to the rest of the Wal-Mart workers. Because the government did not intervene against Wal-Mart in the interests of workers there, immigrant or native born.
Cleaning contractors are not the only companies that hire immigrant laborers, some of whom are illegal. The meat-packing industry today and big agriculture depend on a high% of immigrants to do these difficult and often poorly paid jobs.
In fact, the U.S. bosses have promoted immigration whenever there was a labor shortage. In the 19th century, immigrant labor built the country's railroads, bridges, and tunnels. In later decades, immigrants worked in auto, steel, textiles and food processing.
The bosses, then and now, did not care whether these workers were legal or illegal. What the bosses wanted were workers who had to put up with low wages and difficult working conditions.
Workers have made gains only in those time periods when they challenged the bosses and the divisions the bosses imposed on the working class. In the 1880s, workers, both native-born and immigrant, fought to change the 10 and 12-hour work day into the 8-hour work day (which has not been reduced further and is still often not respected). In the 1920s and 1930s, workers made enormous fights for union recognition. This upsurge led to a range of social improvements, one of which was Social Security.
In every fight, the bosses and their stooges tried to divide workers – native-born versus immigrant, black versus white. But the fights that succeeded were the ones in which the workers found the way to overcome the divisions inside their own ranks.
It will take new fights in the 21st century – not divided over the question of immigration – before we will see any improvement in wages, working conditions or job opportunities.