Category: Uncategorized

How Reagan Started a Workers’ Civil War and How Biden Can Finally End It

From the Daily Beast: https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-reagan-started-a-workers-civil-war-and-how-biden-can-finally-end-it

In 1986, my father Grant Lee was one of the first million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who received amnesty under President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Having adopted as his first name the surname of the great Union Army general, my father firmly believed in the American Dream and he was sure that his days of being separated from his family, traveling from state to state to toil in restaurants, were about to end.

But IRCA, passed on a bipartisan basis, proved to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. While it ended up granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the country at the time, it also included a provision that criminalized undocumented immigrants for working. Unlike what its name suggests, the employers’ sanctions provisiondid not punish employers, but instead punished undocumented workers for working, creating an underclass of labor and dividing the working class in the process.

“The principal quid pro quo for the one-time amnesty provision was the other major element of IRCA,” Yale Law Professor Michael Wishnie explains in his essay Prohibiting the Employment of Unauthorized Immigrants: The Experiment Fails. “The AFL-CIO and NAACP supported employer sanctions, as did a variety of anti-immigrant and nativist organizations. Business groups, Latino organizations, and civil liberties groups, including the ACLU, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and National Council of La Raza, opposed employer sanctions. But even opponents of employer sanctions recognized that the prohibition on employment might be a reasonable price to pay for the IRCA amnesty provision, which led to the eventual legalization of three million people.”

Grant Lee spent his entire life in the restaurant industry, working his way up at times to be a restaurant manager. Within a decade of receiving his papers, he witnessed another influx of undocumented immigrants who, because they lacked the right to work under IRCA, restaurants were quick to hire. And this new underclass of super-exploitable workers meant that many recently legalized immigrants, like my father, and American-born workers were forced to accept similar sweatshop conditions for fear of not having a job or being fired.

Soon, $5 an hour became $2 an hour. Tip-stealing and wage theft became rampant. Restaurant workers went from working an average of 40 hours a week to 60 hours a week just to make ends meet. Without equal rights as workers to organize and fight to improve their conditions, this labor force, documented and undocumented alike, became immobilized, watching their conditions deteriorate year by year.

Anyone who’s worked in any low-wage industry knows that this is not unique to the restaurant industry. In the 1970s, 40 percent of construction workers belonged in unions, compared to 12.7 percent in 2020. Over this same time period, weekly wages for construction workers have fallen by $200. Some of that wage decline is because of declining union membership, but non-union workers make $60 less a week than they did decades ago even as health and safety violations on construction sites have become rampant due to employers’ intimidation tactics against undocumented workers who dare to speak up about unsafe conditions.

Whenever American, documented immigrant and undocumented workers attempt to come together to unionize or organize for better conditions, they are consistently divided and thwarted by employers who use IRCA as a union-busting tool. Trump, who continued to super-exploit undocumented immigrants working in the Trump Organization even as he pressed for ever more deportations and workplace raids, was an expert at this tactic.

And he was far from the only one. In one highly publicized case, Koch Food employers called in ICE, which arrested 680 Mississippi poultry workers after the workers engaged in union organizing and sued the company for a string of sexual harassment abuses. When documented and undocumented NYC food delivery workers won an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board to reinstate workers illegally retaliated against and fired for organizing, their employer began enforcing the employers’ sanctions provisionrefusing to reinstate the unionized undocumented workers even while hiring other undocumented workers who were not previously part of the organizing effort. During a unionizing drive of Fresh Direct online grocery workers by the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers, the employer called ICE, forcing many undocumented workers to quit and abandon others workers they had been organizing with. Even the government has benefitted from undocumented cheap labor through the subcontracting system—just look at how the city of New Orleans and Houston cleaned up after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey. The list goes on.

While the AFL-CIO, realizing the devastating blow that criminalizing the work of undocumented immigrants has had on the labor movement as a whole, reversed its position on the employers’ sanctions provision in 2000. Its then-executive vice president, Linda Chavez-Thompson, explained:

“Employers often knowingly hire workers who are undocumented, and then when workers seek to improve working conditions, employers manipulate the law to fire or intimidate workers. This subverts the intent of the law and lowers working standards for all workers. The law should criminalize employer behavior, not punish workers.”

But many liberals, including those at the New York Times, continue to promote stronger sanctions for employers that hire undocumented workers. This is extremely misguided. Those fines and penalties simply become priced in as a cost of doing business worth far less than the billions of dollars employers have stolen from this underclass of criminalized workers and a divided workforce, in the form of wage theft and denying unemployment, workers compensation insurance and other benefits to the undocumented. The only way to hold employers accountable to wage floors, health and safety standards and discrimination laws is for workers to have the right to come together to organize and hold their employers to account.

President Biden’s immigration proposal, which calls for a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented workers, is a positive step in the right direction. A pathway to citizenship is distinct from previous legalization proposals that still would disenfranchise and alienate immigrants deemed as “illegal” or “criminal.” But if Biden does not also repeal the law that criminalizes undocumented workers for working, his aims to unite the country and strengthen the rights of working people will be stymied.

To accomplish his stated goals, Biden needs to break with both parties’ rhetoric here. The liberal narrative that immigrants do the work that Americans will not do, only serves to fuel resentment among American workers who are passed over for more exploitable labor or who refuse to work in slave-like conditions, and reinforces nativist sentiments among conservatives. Both party’s rhetoric work to sow divisions between workers, while refusing to address the criminalization of a sub-section of the working class. This may explain why Trump gained so many votes among people of color in the past election. According to a 2018 Harvard-Harris poll, 85 percent of Black Americans favor reducing legal immigration, with 54 percent favoring the strictest policies available. If we do not shift the debate and demand equal rights for all workers to work and organize, workers in this country will always remain divided and set against each other.

My father passed away a few years ago at the age of 65. He had been working as a restaurant dining room manager in Chattanooga, Tennessee, living with 15 other workers in a small single-family home owned by his boss. Upon his death, we found him penniless, with only his American passport and citizenship papers in his bank deposit box. He carried to his deathbed his belief in the capacity of Americans to transform the society around them, and for his two daughters to live a better life than their parents and grandparents once did.

If that hope for all of us is to be realized then let’s bury the illusion that other workers are our enemies and work together to change the course of 40 years of a divided and weakened labor movement, the growing impoverishment of our communities, and a deepening wealth gap in the richest country in the world.

Election is Over—So Who is the Real Party of the Working Class?

Reposted from Concerted Activity: https://concertedactivity.work/party-of-the-working-class

Just as Joe Biden declared victory in the recent presidential race, the GOP suddenly claimed itself to be the real party of the working class. Right-wingers—from the White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere to Breitbart News—highlighted Donald Trump’s success in winning not just 48% of the popular vote but also the largest share of non-white voters of any Republican since 1960.

Senator Marco Rubio: “The future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working class coalition,” reacting to the election results.

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley Tweeted: “[…]the future is clear: we must be a working class party, not a Wall Street party.”

Truth is, none of us had really seen any future for the working class under either party’s leadership—be it with the Wall Street (Democratic) Party or the Main Street (Republican) Party. Conditions have plummeted for all workers both before—and after—Trump.

During this pandemic, mass unemployment has climbed up to higher than it’s been since the recession of 2008. Millions are unable to pay their rent. Many lost their health care when they lost their jobs. 200,000—especially Black and Brown working people—died from COVID-19. There’s job insecurity, rising costs of living and widening wealth inequality.

In wake of the current crises, the two ruling-class parties no doubt had to step up their game. But instead of addressing public atrocities, each party co-opted the notion of “working class”—to lull us to sleep.

Republicans, on the one hand, encouraged different groups of workers to rise up and point fingers at other groups as the culprit—the reason for their misery. “Working class” conveniently serves as a tool to pacify the mass grievances by fanning nationalist dignity and racist sentiments within a subset of workers, often defined by race.

This tactic already allowed Trump to tap into inter-ethnic divisions in the past 4 years, pitting citizens against immigrants, and everyone against Blacks. They flamed the xenophobia and competition that the system had already created among groups, lying and spreading rumors to generate more hatred among us.

Democrats, on the other hand, lean into progressive sloganism to “represent all Americans”, where the “working class” became only one among many identities. They then smugly promoted prioritizing the interests of other groups of more marginalized races, genders, etc, while using it as a cover to suppress real calls for change. In the past election, they indulged in vilifying White Trump supporters as, according to CNN’s self-righteous news headline, “once again showing who they are” for being racist and uneducated.

By contrast, they hailed Black voters for their loyalty in pushing for a Biden win in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia. They denounced Latinx voters for losing Texas and Florida. Albeit with a different tactic, the Democrats achieved the same effect as the Republicans of compartmentalizing interests among the 99% —to intensify  their capitalist extractions from every group, particularly people of color. As we became preoccupied with fretting about each of our own privileges, the Dems are able to deepen our infighting under the “all American” banner.

Here we are, in corporate America, baffled by having two parties both claiming to represent the working class, yet, both scheming to further divide the working class. If we allow ourselves to get caught in this limbo, we surrender to bipartisan interests to exploit all of us, regardless of race or immigration status.

But who is the real working class? 

Many working people say that we all have different interests, and that an analysis centered on “class” is outdated and meaningless. Some will say that middle-class workers benefit from the exploitation of immigrants—nannies, gardeners, home health aides. Tech workers, drivers, artists say they are not workers, but independent contractors, self-employed. Unionized workers say immigrant workers can’t be organized, because they’re “lucky to be here”, or better off here than where they came from. Unemployed workers and prisoners (who aren’t paid to work) say they’re not workers because they don’t have a job. 

No doubt there are specific differences among workers, but are they significant enough to keep our fights separate? In fact, both parties spread the myth of limited resources—scarce jobs and public moneys—that say, well, you all will have to fight among yourselves to get. Despite our different situations, we all still have to work to have a place to live, eat, and support our families. We all are being robbed by this system that enriches the big corporations and investors with the labor that we produce—whether what they’ve stolen is our pay, our time, our health, our public resources, or our communities.

The entire year of 2020 only goes to show that many of us are in the same boat—losing ground and struggling to make ends meet. Let’s not forget that during the largest health catastrophe, Democrats and Republicans bridged their divide in passing the CARES Act, sending a significant portion of the hundreds of billions to benefit millionaires and large corporations. Since April, the stock market has skyrocketed. Tax breaks for millionaires will cost taxpayers an estimated $90 billion this year alone.

Where did all that money come from? Us. What we often forget is that it’s us, working people, who produce the profits and the wealth that the system depends on—whether we are middle-class, immigrant, unionized, or unemployed workers. And we, in fact, have the power—if we also bridge our divides—to take back the wealth stolen from us. 

The 2020 Election result was undeniably a win for the working class—not because of Biden’s half-hearted promises to unite all Americans—but because of our successful mobilization and repudiation of Trump’s blatantly racist mantras, which widened the cleavages within the working class—especially with his criminalization of Blacks and immigrants. As a class, we boldly claim our victory: we used Biden’s opportunist unseating of Trump to successfully dispose one of the two ruling-class parties. That is, we used the nominal contradictions between the two parties—one vows to embrace everyone, and the other vows to cast down certain groups—to advance our mass interests. 

If we truly want our own “party of the working class,” our immediate task is to restore our shattered mass base politically. Do the next 4 years not serve as a good opportunity? Without Trump—the perfect villain who galvanized the Democrats—Biden can no longer depend on anyone in the White House to serve as his foil. Instead, with his own Party of Wall Street having a long history with tech businesses and elite corporations, Biden’s rosy promise of representing “all Americans” is doomed to fall apart… We must be ready to organize, hold him accountable, and prepare to take him down once he fails us.

This is how we will lay our groundwork. We bring together working people around demands that both benefit all of us and enable us to organize together with equal rights—starting with the eliminating the criminalization of Blacks and immigrants. These demands serve not only to build unity, but also to lay bare the true nature of our system. They enable workers to see why we need to come together now to push for more than what is deemed politically feasible. 

There’s No Unity Without Equal Rights for All Workers

Reposted from Concerted Activity: https://concertedactivity.work/theres-no-unity-without-equal-rights-for-all-workers

After winning the most contentious presidential election in U.S. history, Biden has pledged to unite our country. But what does that mean when the elite two-party system continues to exist and serve the ruling class? The Biden administration will rely on empty representational politics to prove unity, and will most likely fail to enact any laws or policies that will end the historic criminalization of Black and immigrant workers. This should come as no surprise since maintaining divisions between working people ensures the stability of the power structure that robs working people of their time and lives. We as working people can wait and see, or we can take up Biden’s pledge as an opening to organize for real unity of the working class to put forth our interests.

Dividing the working class is one of America’s oldest traditions. W.E.B. DuBois emphasized the role and agency of Blacks during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He believed a worker-ruled democracy would replace the slave-based plantation economy. However, he concluded, “So long as the Southern white laborers could be induced to prefer poverty to equality with the Negro, just so long was a labor movement in the South made impossible.” Decades later, César Chávez would fight against the collusion between employers and the government in exploiting immigrant workers, resulting in degraded conditions for all workers.

This American tradition persists into the present day. And, politicians and bosses maintain it for their benefit. During the eight years leading up to Trump, Obama encouraged the fissuring of the working class. Obama’s backers such as immigrant rights groups allied with big business calling for legalization, cultivating the image of the hard-working immigrant worker while downplaying the worsening conditions for all workers. This led to rising national chauvinism, as anti-immigrant sentiment put the blame on immigrants for the growing income inequality. The result? Obama bailed out corporate America, while workers who did return to work after the 2008 Recession worked longer hours for less pay.

Criminalization has long been used as the mechanism to super-exploit and divide the class. From chattel slave laws and the Black Codes to modern day mass incarceration and the billions-dollar prison labor industry, Black workers have been criminalized and been dealt a cycle of poverty, mass unemployment, and racism that excludes them from jobs, housing, and healthcare. Nearly two-thirds of the 2.3 million in prison are Black, Latino, or non-citizens where the work is compulsory for no or very low pay, e.g. $.23/hour. Criminalizing workers has become how the system deals with poverty, unemployment and maintaining social control. Black workers bear the brunt of brutal police violence as a result of this criminalization, and which ignited this year’s protests.

While Black workers are criminalized for not working, immigrants are criminalized for working. From European indentured servants, to Chinese railroad workers, to those who came as spillover to the Bracero program, to the modern-day undocumented immigrants, certain workers have been criminalized for working, and robbed of the wealth they produce. Big labor unions and civil rights groups helped Reagan pass the employer sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 that made it illegal for undocumented workers to work.

The crux of this criminalization casts Black workers as lazy and as criminals when they are shut out from good jobs, and, undocumented workers as the intruders who steal “Americans” jobs— even when they have been denied the right to work.

Biden has no plans to end this American tradition. Like the Democrats before him, he seeks to bestow a few benefits upon one group or the other, and then let us fight against one another. He will seek to grant amnesty to a few immigrants, but maintain an underclass of undocumented workers. He will prop up the small business and entrepreneurial class of the Black elite by addressing the racial wealth gap and reparations, but will leave most Black workers’ conditions unchanged. He will seek to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour.

But $15 an hour and closing the racial wealth gap means little when an underclass of undocumented Black, Asian, Latino and other immigrants can be forced to work long hours at sub-minimum wages, leaving millions of other workers underemployed or unemployed. The limited scope of any reparations, aggressive taxing of the rich, or any income redistribution will only intensify the divisions and criminalization of workers.

When workers see other workers as the enemy, it is easier for the 1% to loot the many. No wonder the U.S. is home to staggering inequality where the wealth of 640 billionaires is equal to 59 million Latinos and three-fourths of all Black wealth; and the top 70 billionaires’ wealth equals the total home equity of all Black and Latino households combined.

So how can Biden speak of unity when he does not plan on ending the criminalization of Black and immigrant workers? He should learn from the mistakes of his predecessors like Obama, whose fueling of divisions and bailing out of corporations created the conditions for Trumpism to rise. Let’s not allow a repeat of this. We should hold Biden to his call for unity but demand real unity that requires decriminalization.

Decriminalizing Black and immigrant workers—by measures such as repealing the employer sanctions provision—ensures that all workers have the equal right to organize. This will lay the foundation for us to fight collectively as a class. Only then can we reap the benefits of that organizing: to improve our working and living conditions by uniting against our exploiting bosses and developers who rob the wealth we make. United in interest and dependent upon one another for our success, working people can reverse the downward spiral of epidemic wage theft, declining wages, longer hours, and unemployment, and forge a fighting path to improve the lives of all of us.