US: Which way forward for the immigrants’ rights movement?

A socialist strategy

In the wake of the massive demonstrations the question naturally arises: which way forward for the immigrants’ rights movement?

Numerous organizations have called for May 1 to be a national “Day without immigrants,” meaning no school, no work and a boycott of all economic activity – effectively a national strike.

May 1 could be an enormous demonstration of the strength immigrant workers have and our seriousness about standing up for our rights. If big business, which wants cheap immigrant labor, won’t allow us to have equal rights and wages then we should shut them down.

Already, beginning with the huge March 10 demonstration in Chicago, the protests have included thousands of workers who walked out of their jobs. The bosses have begun to fear that the movement will threaten their profits and their ability to ruthlessly exploit immigrant workers.

An article from Market Watch on the April 10 demonstrations noted that some meatpacking plants had to close because of work stoppages and that other “industries that depend heavily on immigrant labor and [are] thus potentially hard-hit by an organized work stoppage include restaurants, construction, hotels, and building cleaning and maintenance.”The U.S. economy is dependent on immigrant workers. At the rallies, the speakers who have gotten the best responses have stirred the crowd with questions such as: “Who watches the children of this country? Who runs the restaurants? Who builds the buildings? Who maintains and cleans them?”

A successful national strike would allow workers to feel their collective power and should be taken as an opportunity to begin the struggle for unionization of key immigrant-heavy workplaces and industries. By entering the labor movement in their hundreds of thousands, immigrant workers can play a crucial role in revitalizing social struggle in the United States and in launching a desperately needed fight for real gains for all working people.

Debate

However, the call for mass strike action has opened up a debate within the movement. The more conservative wing – Latino business organizations, leaders of the Catholic Church, and those elements most closely linked to the Democratic Party – has strongly opposed the May 1 call. They are afraid of alienating their supposed allies in the Democratic Party and fear a strike could embolden Latino workers to make more radical demands which threaten the profits of the Latino businesses owners.

“This is something we need to take very seriously, and consider all the repercussions of not doing it right or of creating a backlash,” said Jaime Contreras, President of the National Capital Immigrant Coalition and chairman of Service Employees International Union Local 82. “It’s premature to do the boycott May 1, given that the Senate doesn’t get back in session until the week of April 23. We want to see what comes out of the Senate and what compromises [with the House] emerge before we do that.”

This is a mistaken approach. Big business and its politicians are relentless in fighting for their interests – why shouldn’t we be? The key to winning immigrant rights is not courting corporate politicians, but by demonstrating our social power and compelling them to respect our rights. The momentum and mood among immigrant workers exists for powerful strike action, which if properly prepared would dramatically strengthen the movement.

The other main argument raised by many union and immigrant rights leaders is that a strike would lead to many workers being fired. But we can’t allow the bosses to succeed in intimidating us. The movement – particularly its leaders – must be absolutely clear that we will not tolerate any victimization of protestors. Companies should be warned that if they fire any workers for participating in strikes they will be met with a massive campaign of protests and pickets demanding the reinstatement of all workers.

The labor movement should put itself at the forefront of the struggle for immigrant rights. It should launch a massive educational campaign by distributing millions of leaflets, holding workplace meetings, and organizing mass rallies to convince tens of millions of workers that immigrant rights is an issue that is vital to all U.S. workers. It should mobilize massive solidarity for the May 1 strike and other actions, and broaden it to include immigrant and native-born workers alike.

Victory will require the full mobilization and support of the wider working class. That is why the movement should link the struggle for immigrant rights with living wage jobs and healthcare for all working people.

Break with the Democratic Party

The conditions faced by the bulk of immigrant workers – systematic racism, police brutality, widespread poverty and the worst jobs and working conditions – call for far more than just a defensive struggle against HR 4437.

At protests, a popular slogan has been, “Today we demonstrate – tomorrow we vote.” It is correct that the struggle will not be won alone through mass protests or even strikes – a political strategy is needed. But who should we vote for? Both parties represent the interests of Corporate America and share a right-wing, racist agenda. Both parties oppose unconditional amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.

In recent years, the Democratic leadership has been mainly notable for supporting Bush’s war in Iraq and a large part of his viciously anti-working class domestic agenda as well. They completely support the big business agenda of keeping the bulk of immigrants in the U.S. but as highly exploited second class workers with very limited rights.

Immigrants, workers, and the oppressed need our own political voice so we can bring our power to bear on the political plane. We need to build a new political party in this country of workers and the oppressed – immigrant, Latino, black and white.

Those who consider such a development impossible might have said the same thing several months ago about a nation-wide strike on May 1. They can be proven wrong.

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