Fractured solidarity and immigrant workers

Labor’s strength on the job, in our communities, and in our everyday political and economic actions comes from our ability to collectively act and mobilize. To act, we must cultivate solidarity and find common ground. Now, as in many other historical watershed moments, our solidarity is being fractured. A precise attack on labor and all working people is well underway, funded by interests that profit from exploitation. These same interests have waged a similar war against the most vulnerable of the US working class: immigrant workers and their families.

According to the Applied Population Laboratory (APL) nearly 6 percent of Wisconsin residents are immigrants. An additional 7% are native-born citizens who have at least one immigrant parent. Immigrants compromise nearly 6 percent of Wisconsin’s total workforce and are present in most of our state’s major industries. The APL also reports that the foreign-born “had a slightly higher rate of labor force participation and slightly lower rates of unemployment than native-born Wisconsin residents.” All this is to reiterate that most of today’s immigrants are members of the working class. It follows that attacks on immigrants are attacks on workers.

We are currently witnessing a xenophobic campaign being waged from the highest echelons of our country’s leadership. As the world watches, immigration law enforcement imprisons workers and their children, separates families, and disrupts the lives of immigrants through spectacular workplace raids. Plants where immigrant workers have started to organize are often the targets of these latter actions. The devastating results of these actions are never far from the public eye. At the same time, antiworker and antilabor policies and directives spew forth from national bodies like the NLRB and the Supreme Court. These orders make it easier to dismantle and weaken organized labor. Here in Wisconsin, workers are still reeling from the defeats of the Walker years. All these attacks have their ideological components. Walker used narratives of greedy, lazy, socialist union workers to make Wisconsinites resent state employees. The administration in Washington spins stories of dangerous, invading immigrants to make us all resent our newest neighbors.

These attacks and the false stories that support them are happening at the same time for a reason. They are two prongs of one assault on working-class power. Our responses have sometimes been inspiring, other times disappointing. At all times, however, we have tended to treat assaults on immigrants and assaults on organized labor as separate problems. We are all complicit in this fractured solidarity, and it’s up to all of us to build genuine solidarity by bringing the struggles together. This means moving forward in conscious, collective effort, educating ourselves about the problems we share. For centuries working people have striven to democratize workplaces. Our struggles have faced challenges from within the ranks of organized labor and from bosses and the state. There are ample historical and contemporary examples of fractured solidarity and the impacts it has had on all working people and communities.

There are also local examples of ordinary people coming together to overcome fractured solidarity and build real solidarity. Recently, some unions in the building trades have begun to diversify their ranks by recruiting immigrant workers and admitting them as apprentices to training programs. The Labor Temple in Madison has hosted celebrations organized by Mexican immigrants. On November 12th thousands of youth walked out of their classrooms all over the country. In Dane county students from East, West, La Follete, Middleton, and De Forest High Schools participated in this action. Their act of disobedience was simple. To stand in solidarity with “DACAmented” people and all immigrants in general. These youth organized on their own with direct guidance from Voces de la Frontera and support from organizations like MTI. Local labor leaders and some members of local unions were present at the rally in the Capitol. These inspiring examples give us a taste of what can happen when we all start organizing together in earnest.

We urge all union workers to join their foreign-born sisters and brothers in these campaigns. We heal from fractured solidarity by enacting continuous solidarity. Only in this manner can we move forward a working-class agenda that builds labor power while engaging in a movement that includes all working people.

Collaboratively authored by:
Peter C. Haney
AFSCME #2412 and Voces member
Armando Ibarra
AFT-UFAS #223, Voces member, and School for Workers Associate Professor