From Coast to Coast, Latino Immigrant Workers Fight Exploitation and Demand Dignity.

(La versión en español está aquí.)

They spied on us and bullied us, all because we are fighting for dignity.

Limber Herrera

-Warehouse worker

Warehouse workers at a Walmart distribution center march 50 miles to LA

The Obama administration issues statistics that in January 2011, there was 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the US. 59 percent of this group is Mexican, which is 6.8 million people. El Salvadoran immigrants are in a distant second position, with 660,000 undocumented residing in this country.In California, there are 2.83 million undocumented immigrants, in Texas, almost 1.8 million, in Florida 740,000, and Georgia 440,000 (doubling in numbers since 2000). Within the capitalist economy, some workers are located in position of work that is not central to the formation of value. Other workers are in workplaces that are central to value production. If workers at an independent bookstore would to go on strike, it would exactly threaten the capitalist. If we look at the non-union housing construction industry, it’s both linked with finance capital as well as dependent on undocumented cheap dispensable labor. A strike in this industry would have serious meaning. The independent truckers at the ports are majority immigrant drivers, mostly with some type of permission to work. US capitalism has adapted itself to immigrant labor because it is cheap and disposable. This labor dependency is linked with industries that are central to important components of capitalist production. In order for American capitalism to squeeze all the unpaid labor it can from the immigrant working class, it must vilify, criminalize, oppress, and control the work process. Xenophobic laws (anti-immigrant laws), racism, nationalism all feed into this process.

At the very heart of this exploitative relationship, we must ask isn’t there a breaking point, when is enough… enough? The films A Day without a Mexican and Machete are stories that capture potential forms of resistance to this reality. The Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, H.R 4437 spawned the largest immigrant upheaval in American history, May 1st 2006. The following years, a rising wave of workplace ICE raids took place. In 2012, we have been witnessing a revival of such a resistance. On February 17th 2012, Pacific Steel Workers publicly marched against the silent ICE raid they were subject to. This might have been the first time undocumented workers publicly denounced there firings conducted by ICE. On September 12th, 2012, non-union warehouse workers went on strike against unfair labor practices in Southern California. Warestaff contracts undocumented workers to unload commodities off trucks that pick up the goods at the port of LA and Longbeach. More than 85,000 workers work in warehouses in Southern California for retail stores like Walmart. Wages are around 8$ an hour and workers make around 12,000 a year. The value being produced is astronomically beyond the amount paid for such wages. The amount of unpaid labor, the source of profits, is very high in this work process. This is not even taking into consideration the 100 plus degrees of heat, lack of water, and lack of rights in general regarding such work. Most of the strikers are whats called “lumpers” who are manual laborers who load and unload the products from the trucks and containers. They have no benefits and reliable work schedules. Javier Rodriguez, one of the striking workers said,”Priority number one for me is the water. We don’t have clean drinking water. We don’t have the proper equipment to work with. The equipment is broken and that puts our health and safety at risk.” This strike is in isolation. Other workers in related industries have not expanded the strike. Due to a lack of not generalizing the strike, political isolation led such workers to do a march for justice. The striking workers will engage in a 50-mile, 6-day “pilgrimage,” which will end at a warehousing area in downtown Los Angeles. This is to bring attention to their conditions to Los Angeles proper.

In the Bay Area, workers, many undocumented, have been organizing the non-union supermarket Mi Pueblo. Its founder, Juvenal Chavez has oriented towards the Latino immigrant community as its prime customer base. He himself is a Mexican immigrant. As workers have made serious steps in organizing the supermarket into a major union, the supermarket administration has recently announced its participation in E-verify a program of Homeland security to check the accuracy of social security numbers. Some workers have already been fired. United Food and Commercial Workers Union local 5 will soon call for a campaign to boycott the some of the key stores. UFCW lost a critical strike in 2003-04 in Southern California. They attempted to lift pickets off one supermarket and keep picket lines on the other two. They were to use the boycott tactic and try to divide three supermarket companies against each other. It didn’t work. The 2004 UFCW contract created many tiers of workers, pushed out the older key worker organizers, dramatically cut health benefits, and broke up unfolding systems of rank-file militancy. Just recently, UFCW local 5 signed the worst concessionary contract, giving up time and half on Sunday’s, with whole host over other concessions. What is missing is rank-file UFCW workers at Safeway and Lucky’s, mostly who are citizens, to show solidarity with such attacks on immigrants, and be willing to organize and shutdown their own stores as a response to Mi Pueblo collaboration with ICE. This will give confidence to the Mi Pueblo workers to continue to organize within the stores, to elevate demands against exploitation and xenophobia.

On the East coast, we have a similar struggle.

New York City Hot and Crust restaurant, which is open 24 hours a day, paid their undocumented workers less than minimum wage and management would often engage in verbal and sexual harassment. 23 workers started clandestinely organizing in the workplace and starting reaching out to labor organizations and involving themselves in Occupy Wall Street. The workers successfully organized and formed an independent union, the Hot and Crusty Workers Association, and worked with the Laundry Workers Center. They won thousands of dollars of back pay, safer workplace conditions, and dignity as workers. Important to note, the majority of the present Hot and Crusty workers are undocumented and still engaged in this struggle to its victory. The union even has the right to control future hirings, a union controlled hiring hall. A union controlled hiring hall, and a rank-file control over the union, has been a central component of the workers’ movement since 1886 with rise of the 8 hour day as a central demand. Now many immigrants in unions are subject to E-Verify, silent ICE raids, with the union doing nothing. An interjected model against union complacency has been ILWU local 10 shutdown for Oscar Grant on October 23, 2010. Immigrants in the US were leaders for the fight of the 8 hour day in 1886. May first was dead for a long time, until immigrants once again brought this back into a living tradition on May first 2006.

The revolutionary left, many who shun the importance of defending union controlled hiring halls as reformist, are also divorced from the immigrant working class. In workplaces around the US, immigrant workers, with informal networks that often are used as a means of resistance against exploitation, and engage in short work stoppages or slowdowns. With serious workplace committees building working class power in the workplace, serious changes can be made against the system of exploitation run in unchecked ways. NYC Hot and Crusty Workers Association is a small example of this that could generalize within movements like May first 2006. The experience, strategy, and resilience of the 23 workers of Hot and Crusty Workers Association is something to transfer to all the workplace militants in this country, who do not feel equipped with an organizational force to take on the boss. All workplace struggles seem impossible at first. Who can afford to get fired in this day and age? Yet, how can our class afford to not develop a serious approach to workplace struggle? These signs show how immigrant workers could be a leading force in making such struggles come to life, modeling for the rest of the American working class. This would historically parallel the role Black people played in the 1950s-60s fighting for civil rights, unleashing a mass movement that went beyond civil rights. The Latino immigrant working class, located in strategic positions of food production, food and commodity circulation, is part of the struggle of the working class has to build the right to life. To quote a comrade, “We need to seize the means of life and liberate them so that we can share food, health care, shelter, learning,  and other goods equally.  We need to share with each other locally, and across borders  so that everyone will have what they need.”

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