Why They Hate Immigrant Workers, and Why We Love Them

On Tuesday, December 9, the anti-immigrant lobbyists at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) held a press conference in downtown Washington, DC to promote their “Immigration Reform Agenda for the 111th Congress.”

The press conference followed the new line that groups like FAIR have adopted since the financial crisis broke out last September.  Undocumented immigrants “played an important role” in the crisis, FAIR president Dan Stein insisted.  “[T]he recent economic downturn” has made the “fiscal cost of immigration . . . even more burdensome to the American taxpayer,” FAIR’s handout announced, warning that Congress needs to “take special care to protect the American worker by restricting the amount of cheap, foreign labor that is allowed to compete with U.S. workers.”1

The press normally lavishes attention on FAIR — an operation with professional PR people and an annual budget of nearly $7 million — but this time the coverage was sparse.  And the U.S. workers whom FAIR was seeking to distract seemed to be focused on a different aspect of immigration on that day.

On December 9, some 200 workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago were in the fifth day of a plant occupation.  They had decided to stage a sit-in after management shut the business down with no severance or vacation pay and without the 60 days’ notice required by federal law.  Overnight the Republic workers “became symbols for hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers facing layoffs,” according to Chicago Public Radio reporter Chip Mitchell.   Politicians, including president-elect Barack Obama, scrambled to support the workers, and by December 10 Republic’s owners and its main creditor, the Bank of America, had agreed to finance a package with severance and vacation pay, along with health insurance.2

The Republic sit-in may well be remembered as the first labor victory of the new crisis.  But the media coverage generally missed one important fact: the majority of the workers were of Mexican origin; the rest were mostly African Americans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans.3

This fits in with recent U.S. labor history.  Many of the organizing victories of the past two decades have been spearheaded by immigrant workers, from the great Justice for Janitors campaigns in Los Angeles and other urban areas to little victories in local restaurants and corner greengrocer stores.

The role of immigrants in these struggles reflects recent labor militancy in the countries most immigrant workers come from.  Over the last two years, for example, Mexico has witnessed a wave of strikes by mine and metal workers — strikes usually ignored by the U.S. media, except when they affect the price of copper and other metals.  Many teachers have been on strike as well, responding to parts of the Mexican version of “No Child Left Behind” that they consider harmful to both teachers and students.  Starting in August 2008, education workers in the state of Morelos shut down the schools and even some highways; whole rural communities joined them as they battled police at barricades.  The Morelos teachers returned to work in November, but the struggles have spread to Guerrero, Michoacán, and other states.4

By Latin American standards, the Chicago sit-in was a mild response to an illegal plant closing.

  • In November 2001, workers who lost their jobs in the closing of two Honduran maquiladoras (tax-exempt assembly plants producing for export) protested by taking over the Labor Ministry offices; they had protested previously by taking over a bridge.
  • In December 2004, laid-off workers, mostly women, held a sit-in in front of the closed Woo Chang apparel plant in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila.  They vowed to block any efforts to remove fabric and machinery unless they received the severance pay required by Mexican law.
  • In January 2007, dozens of former employees seized apparel and machinery from the closed Génesis Feliz Tex S.A. garment plant in Guatemala City when they didn’t receive their severance pay.  A unit of the National Civil Police dispersed the crowd with tear gas, but the workers started a fire before they left.  It took firefighters two hours to put out the blaze.5

Labor militancy moves at different paces in different regions.  The great upsurges that built the U.S. industrial unions in the 1930s had begun to ebb by the early 1970s.  Soon after that, labor struggles started to heat up in Mexico and Central America in response to the austerity programs of the “Washington Consensus” (which were formulated largely by the people that led the U.S. economy to its present situation).  Militancy can also spread from country to country.  Sometimes this is by example, as when sitdown strikes broke out in the mid-1930s in places as far apart as Yugoslavia, France, and Michigan.  Sometimes this is through the migration of workers.   The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organized many Mexicans working in the United States in the early 1900s; some of these Wobblies returned to Mexico and became activists in the 1910 Revolution and in the social movements of the 1920s.

Now, veterans of Latin American labor struggles can bring their knowledge and experience with them as they immigrate here.  And that — immigrant workers as potential links of transnational labor militancy — may very well be what really motivates groups like FAIR and their wealthy donors in their anti-immigrant campaign.  They say they are concerned about “cheap, foreign labor” competing with U.S. workers, but the feigned concern about labor-market competition is merely a ploy; some of their funding sources also finance assorted right-wing organizations working day and night to undermine the wages, benefits, and working conditions of all workers, including the native born.  Their “immigration reform agenda” is an effort to keep U.S. workers from uniting with militant immigrant coworkers to defend their rights.

Tensions between immigrants and the native born could have derailed the struggle of the Republic Windows and Doors workers.  During a period of layoffs a year ago, some African-American workers suspected they were being treated worse than the Latinos, Republic unionist Melvin Maclin told Chicago Public Radio.  “They felt that they were being discriminated against because they were black,” Maclin said.  “And at one point they were considering calling immigration, because they were saying things like, ‘This person that is working here still isn’t even a legal citizen.'”

The workers were represented by Local 1110 of the progressive United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).  The union’s executive board called a meeting of shop stewards to discuss and resolve these tensions.  In the end the Republic workers chose to unite — and win.6


1  “Immigration Reform Agenda for the 111th Congress,” Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), December 2008; “Hearts of Darkness: A Journey into the Nativist Lair,” Migra Matters, December 10, 2008.

2  Chip Mitchell, “Before Sit-In, Workers Beat Racial Tensions,” Chicago Public Radio, December 17, 2008; Lee Sustar, “Victory at Republic!”, Socialist Worker, December 11, 2008.

3  Esther J. Cepeda, “The Immigrant Story That Wasn’t: Laid Off Republic Windows Employees Just Regular Working Stiffs,” Huffington Post, December 9, 2008; David Brooks, “Hora de que los pequeños nos pongamos de pie,” La Jornada (Mexico), December 11, 2008.

4  “Mexico: Layoffs Up, Unionists Busted,” Weekly News Update on the Americas #969, December 7, 2008; “Mexico: Cops Repress Teacher Demos,” WNU #963, October 12, 2008; “Mexico: Teachers Win Some, Lose Some,” WNU #968, November 30, 2008.

5  “Honduras: Laid-Off Maquila Workers Protest,” WNU #618, December 2, 2001; “Mexico: Sit-in at Coahuila Maquila,” WNU #778, December 26, 2004; “Guatemala: Workers Burn Maquila,” WNU #885, January 27, 2007.  Republic unionists say they were directly inspired by workers’ struggles in Argentina and Venezuela; see Benjamin Dangl, “Firing the Boss: An Interview with Mark Meinster, Organizer of the Chicago Factory Occupation,” MRZine and Upside Down World, January 15, 2009.

6  Mitchell, op. cit.

David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of  The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers Monthly Review Press, July 2007).  Guskin and Wilson also edit Weekly News Update on the Americas (URL: weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com).