Center for Labor Renewal Statement on Worker Migration


The Center for Labor Renewal was conceived in 2005 when the national U.S. labor union leadership was engaging in a ‘debate’ which largely ignored the fundamental crisis of our nation’s working class.  It was launched in the Spring of 2006 following a meeting of activists from unions, worker centers, educators, and working class organizations who issued a Call for the CLR.

Our nation is debating immigration in a climate of fear, mass workplace raids, and political backlash against the rising movement for immigrant rights.  Many workers are responding to the rhetoric of division which blames disappearing job security and downward mobility on immigrants.  Some unions are struggling against the odds to organize immigrants without working papers while others are simply giving up, saying it’s impossible.

Against this backdrop, Congress is taking up an immigration package that is unacceptable for working people.  It may include an expanded guest worker program that ties migrants to a particular job, putting them at the mercy of their employers and effectively stripping them of their rights and power.  The Bush Administration is raiding workplaces and deporting undocumented workers in order to stampede a formal guest worker program through Congress.  But guest worker programs will legally split the US workforce into free and unfree workers and worsen racial, class, and gender inequality.

The Center for Labor Renewal offers this position paper on migration in the hope of contributing to a principled discussion of a better path based on rights, dignity, and respect for all workers.

Global Capital Has Created a Global Workforce

In the past 30 years, corporations have torn down national barriers and created a single world economy with a global labor market.  Workers in one country now compete with others around the world.  No worker is safe: factories are leaving Western Europe for Eastern Europe and Mexico for China.

In opening up the entire world for trade and investment, transnational corporations are displacing hundreds of millions of workers.  One example among many is NAFTA, the US-Canada-Mexico free trade agreement.  In 1994 NAFTA opened Mexico to massive imports of US corn, driving an estimated two million people off their land.  Looking for work, peasants flooded into Mexico’s cities and factories along the US border.  There they were joined by urban Mexican workers displaced by US companies including Wal-Mart, which took over or bankrupted Mexican companies.  Many of these displaced workers kept traveling north and crossed the border, at least half a million a year.  The money Mexican migrant laborers send home now subsidizes the low wages paid in Mexico by Delphi, General Electric, Hyundai, and Levi Strauss or their suppliers.  Those “family remittances” outpace all sources of foreign income for Mexico, and the same is true for El Salvador, Palestine, the Philippines, and a growing number of countries.

Today’s globalization is creating social chaos. In the poorest countries rural workers and peasants are displaced by corporate agriculture, driven out of business by U.S.-subsidized agricultural exports, and starved as their governments cut food subsidies and services on orders from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  US military intervention also creates millions of refugees who then become migrants.  For example, Central Americans started emigrating north in large numbers during the US-sponsored wars of the 1980s. Today, the devastation in Central America imposed by those imperialist policies leaves the poor and working class no choice but to migrate to the US for survival.

According to the United Nations, nearly 200 million people work outside their countries of birth, and an equal number are migrants inside their own countries.  Global worker migration has provoked a global backlash.  The backlash is led by nativists who fear a rising tide of brown-skinned workers.  Their vision is symbolized by the wall on the US border with Mexico.  They spar with a business lobby that seeks to keep cheap labor flowing, if not through undocumented workers then through vastly expanding guest worker programs.

Nativists blame immigrants for flat wages, scarce jobs, and our declining labor movement.  However, the responsibility lies with corporations that launched an all-out assault on wages and unions in the 1970s — well before today’s wave of migration began.  Industries like meatpacking destroyed solid union jobs in the 1970s and replaced them with low-wage jobs in places far from the centers of union power.  The Reagan and Bush administrations busted unions and shifted the tax burden from corporations and wealth-holders to middle class and working families.  The IMF and World Bank reproduced this scenario around the world, driving down wages and worker rights in at least 90 countries under IMF “structural adjustment programs.”  Immigrants aren’t destroying the “blue collar middle class;” corporations are.

On our next trip around that circle we’ll encounter guest worker programs.  Guest worker programs tie a worker to a particular job and employer.  They are a key component of the World Bank’s new development policy, which uses migrant workers’ family remittances to keep their native countries from collapsing.  Current trade negotiations in the WTO (World Trade Organization) would establish a global guest worker program through GATS, the General Agreement on Trade in Services. GATS lays out all the ways companies can find cheaper workers in the global labor market.  GATS Mode 1, “move the work,” means that healthcare companies (for example) get their x-rays read overseas.  GATS Mode 2, “move the client,” is reflected in ‘medical tourism,’ where patients go overseas for operations where the labor is cheaper.  Mode 3 applies to investment abroad and GATS Mode 4, not yet adopted, would establish a guest worker program for the entire world.  If it succeeds, virtually all workers in the US will be exposed to competition from guest workers who have been stripped of fundamental human rights.

Today many workers and some unions think that penalizing employers will help solve the problem of global wage competition. However, workplace enforcement of immigration law is used to break up organizing drives, intimidate workers, and keep them from organizing.  Employers are rarely prosecuted vigorously for hiring undocumented workers and almost never criminally charged for abusing them.  On paper, immigrants with or without documentation have the same labor rights as all other US workers, including the right to form unions.  However, the recent Hoffman Plastics decision (ruling that employers don’t have to pay back wages when they illegally fire undocumented workers organizing unions) took the enforcement teeth out of those laws.

Foreign-born workers don’t send factories overseas, freeze wages, cut benefits, deskill jobs, or bust union organizing drives in this country.  Corporations do. Attacks on immigrants will not save US workers from the labor movement’s long decline.  We’re all part of the same labor force now. If we fight among ourselves, we will just make it easier for employers to pit us against one another.  US labor history is filled with the wreckage of exclusionism. We must learn to advance our collective interests.

Some Principles to Guide Our Search for Solutions

The Bush Administration and Congress propose immigration “reforms” that will not solve the crisis of the working class.  They include:

  • More security forces on the US-Mexico border. “Heightened border interdiction” has been eaten up billions of dollars.  It has pushed migrant workers into deserts where many die; expanded the cost of smuggling across the border from a few hundred dollars to many thousands; and kept foreign-born workers from returning home to rejoin their families — thus increasing the number of undocumented immigrants in the US.
  • Expansion of a guest worker program that will benefit business by binding workers to employers, stripping them of labor rights and power while dragging down everyone’s wages and work rights.
  • A slow, expensive, and punitive path to legal status and citizenship.

We need worker-centered solutions that respect the following principles:

  1. All workers are legitimate members of the workforce, regardless of their immigration status.  All should have full labor rights including the right to organize.  Those rights must be fully enforced, and if they are, most of the immigration “problem” will disappear — at least from workers’ point of view.
  2. No human being is illegal.  All people were born with inalienable human rights, and real immigration reform must decriminalize migrant workers.  It must allow reunification for immediate families and establish a clear path to citizenship for those who wish to stay permanently.
  3. Guest worker programs are inherently a contract labor program that is a form of servitude.  The right to work should belong to the worker, not the boss.  No real immigration reform can tie workers to particular employers or jobs.
  4. People should be able to work and survive in their own countries. We need to build solidarity with workers, labor organizations and movements around the world, end IMF austerity programs, and replace them with true development.  Trade and development policies should create internal markets and jobs that provide for the basic needs of the world’s population.

Tasks for Labor

The AFL-CIO took a huge step in 2000 when it supported legalization, full labor rights, and an end to employer sanctions.  Now its member unions need to talk about that with their members.  Some are still mired mentally in the 1950s, when trade unionists collaborated with imperial wars and corporate exploitation in the global South to gain a small slice of the pie for a shrinking portion of the US workforce.  Labor relied on exclusion, and exclusion is still much of our culture and practice.  With only 12 percent of US workers in unions, we can’t afford to limit our numbers.  We need to draw our strength from unity with migrant labor and solidarity with workers throughout the world.

These objectives require organizational work.  Our top-down, no-room-for-debate, no-time-for-education culture resists change.  Our movement must devote time and energy to educating bottom-up on immigration, globalization, and rebuilding a powerful workers’ movement.  CLR believes in a labor movement creative and open enough to unite US-born and foreign-born workers with workers around the world.  We need a debate that will lead to alliances with new organizations and welcome workers into a new labor movement.

The Long Term and the Short Term

There’s no quick fix to the declining strength of labor.  Therefore we call for long-range solutions while addressing urgent tasks and needs for foreign-born workers.

Capital has gone global.  So must labor.  Until it does, corporations will evade us where we are strong and whipsaw us where we are weak.  If capital can open borders to trade and lower tariffs, so too must labor fight to have the right to cross borders — and organize unions that can force corporations and governments to respect full labor rights and raise regional and global wages.  To accomplish this goal, we must build worker power by constructing egalitarian and democratic global unions and cross-border solidarity.  The US labor movement must oppose US imperial power and support sister labor movements in the global South.

As for immediate demands and needs, many immigrants live in constant danger of job loss and deportation and have waited years to unite their families.  We must support a clear, prompt path to citizenship and visas for family reunification. Unfortunately, citizenship is being offered as part of a package that also includes guest worker programs.  We must push Congress to oppose expanded guest worker programs.  If Congress enacts them as part of a compromise, we must continue working together — in our unions, worker centers, and immigrant rights organizations — to stop guest worker programs from driving down wages, worker rights and leverage.  We must monitor conditions, protest the inevitable abuses, and lend support to guest worker union organizing.  We must start now to build a movement to reduce and abolish this renewed form of servitude.

CLR supports full civil rights, equal legal protection, and labor rights for all foreign-born workers and their families.  Hoffman Plastics must be overturned so that unauthorized workers may exercise their rights to organize unions.  We also oppose government laws that permit incarceration of entire families and divide recent arrivals against long-term immigrants, thus pressuring them to become guest workers.

Part of our long-term job is changing popular consciousness.  In advancing a thoughtful discussion on migration within the working class and the labor movement, we should counter the fantasy that all workers wish to migrate and live in the US.  We should address the mass poverty that drives people to emigrate and call for the abolition of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, NAFTA/CAFTA, other neoliberal institutions and so-called free trade agreements and discuss real solutions for economic development.  We should establish labor standards for workers across the world based on basic indicators of healthcare, housing, education, and the cost of living in a particular region or country

Finally, we need to stress what all workers suffer in common: an absence of the right to organize to raise wages and improve conditions, inadequate education and opportunity, the loss of good jobs, the incarceration of millions of able-bodied youth in our prisons and their diversion into the military.  Whether you’re US or foreign-born, whether you have documents or not, all workers share a common goal of dignity and respect and this should be the way we frame the issue.

The Center for Labor Renewal (at is an ever expanding circle of activists and ideas dedicated to combining different threads of working class organizing and activism for the transformation and renewal of labor as a progressive social movement in this country and internationally.  CLR endorsers list available on site “About Us.”

Some excellent recent articles that go into more depth on these issues include:

Kim Moody, “Harvest of Empire: Immigrant Workers in the United States”

Richard Vogel, “Transient Servitude: The U.S. Guest Worker Program for Exploiting Mexican and Central American Workers,” Monthly Review, January 2007

The Center for Labor Renewal

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