Latino immigrants and the labor movement

Juan Gonzalez is a two-time winner of the George Polk Award for commentary and is former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is the co-host of the nationally syndicated television and radio show Democracy Now!, and he is a columnist for the New York Daily News. He has written several books, including Harvest of Empire, out in a new edition in 2011, Roll Down Your Window, and (with Joseph Torres) News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, just published by Verso. He spoke with ISR editorial board member Anthony Arnove.

YOU OPEN the new edition of Harvest of Empire with the remarkable upsurge of immigrant rights protest in the United States in 2006. Could you talk about how that upsurge came about and what has happened since?

THE REASON I started with the protests of 2006 is because they really do represent sort of the coming of age, in my view, of the Latino population of the United States as a whole. And before that time, there were all of these disparate Latino ethnic groups or nationalities in different parts of the country that had developed their own narrative or their own sense of themselves. It was really with the immigration protests of 2006 that the entire nation began to realize that there was a whole new force in American society. I say often on Democracy Now! and I say in this book, these protests between March and May of 2006 were the largest social protests in the history of the United States. More people poured out into the streets in more cities than had ever been seen before in the country.

Most protest movements in the United States have centered on a few major locations. Washington D.C., New York City, San Francisco, with smaller offshoots in other cities, but what is startling about the immigration protests is that they were so widespread. In city after city and state after state, the protests that spring represented the largest activity of its kind in the history of those states. A few hundred thousand people in Dallas, Texas. As many as half a million to a million people in Los Angeles, California. Some fifty thousand people marched on a couple of occasions in Denver, which were largest protests in the history of Colorado.

In Nashville, Tennessee, 20,000 people, mostly Latinos, marched. It was so widespread, in small towns, in large cities, across the country. No one had ever seen anything of this magnitude before. And of course these were organized, largely, at the grassroots level. Individual community organizations had developed in these cities and these towns, forming a loose network across the country, with no major national organizations to speak of involved in the demonstrations. And so they appeared to most Americans spontaneously.

I remember being in the newsroom at the New York Daily News in March 2006 when I heard that a protest had been planned in front of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. I went to our immigration reporter and I asked her, “Have you heard anything about an immigration protest being planned for Saturday?” She said, “No, there’s no protest planned for Saturday. The big protest by all the national immigration rights groups is going to be April 10 in New York.” And I said to her, “Well, I keep hearing about something that’s happening this Saturday in Brooklyn.” And she said, “No, you must be mistaken.”

Now she’s the immigration reporter. So then I called up State Senator Rubén Díaz, who I had heard was one of the organizers of the march. I said, “Senator, what’s this I hear about a protest?” He said, “There’s going to be thousands of people coming to the front of the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. We’re going to march over the Brooklyn Bridge.” And I said, “Well, Ruben, why didn’t anyone say anything about this?” He said, “Well, we’re doing it through the Pentecostal churches, and through the Spanish-language Christian radio stations. We’ve been getting the word out, and I guarantee you there’s going to be a lot of people there.”

So I went there Saturday morning, and, sure enough, suddenly thousands of people started coming out of the subways, most of them clearly Mexican or Central American immigrants with their families, and their strollers, and before you knew it, the entire Cadman Plaza area was filled with people. There were no police because the police didn’t even know it was happening. The only organizers of the march were Rubén Díaz and his son. With one bullhorn, no marshals, no nothing, total pandemonium, everybody just said, “Let’s go over the bridge.” Sure enough, people marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to Foley Square in Manhattan.

It took hours for the number of people who were walking over the bridge to get there. And eventually the police arrived and tried to figure out how to control the crowd. But largely it was a protest that suddenly sprang up out of nowhere. This happened in countless cities across the country. The nation was totally caught unaware of this incredible upsurge of people who were saying, “You’ve got to do something about our situation.”

This was something extraordinary. Even today, I don’t think the country has fully grasped what happened. It was really the coming of age of an entire generation of young Latinos. But it was also the culmination of decades of organizing of other generations of Latinos, as I try to explain in the new edition of Harvest of Empire. You had some of the old Chicano and Puerto Rican activists of the 1960s. You had the people who sort of came of age during the Central American solidarity movement of the 1980s, and the attempts to gain a temporary status for Central American refugees. You had a younger generation that came of age in the battles against Proposition 187 in California, and student leaders who by this time now were young professionals. And now you have the entire new young DREAM Act generation—all of these tens of thousands of young high school and college kids who we are suddenly seeing because either their parents are undocumented or they themselves are undocumented and face total uncertainty about what their status is in the United States.

So you had a series of generations of Latinos who came together around this one issue, and that’s what made these protests so extraordinary. That they were grassroots, that they were some of the most marginalized and unrecognized people, and they were so huge in number and so widespread across the country.

AND WHAT happened next?

I THINK the nation was really startled. Not only were the more conservative groups in the nation startled, but even some of the so-called progressives. I think you really need an entire book on what happened in that period of time, but what happened between March and May 2006 is that there was a huge maturing of the movement. All of the national organizations that had initially supported the movement were taken aback by their inability to control it. So they began a process by which to reign in the movement. And so you had the Catholic Church, you had many of the national labor unions, you had the major national immigration groups in Washington, DC, suddenly try to pull the movement back into a political deal for comprehensive immigration reform.

Yet all of the grassroots organizations that had really been the driving force of bringing out all these folks said, “No, we want to be treated as human beings. We don’t want to be lumped in with a militarization of the border as part of the deal by which we accept a relatively long period of legalization.” So they moved forward to the May Day protests, “A Day Without Immigrants,” and the May Day boycott. And that’s where you had the break. Suddenly all of the organized national groups refused to back a May Day protest because they felt that it was too radical, that it was going to alienate even more the conservative forces in American society. But the result was astonishing. Some of the May Day protests were even bigger than the protests in March or April. Grassroots leaders showed that they were much more in tune with where the population was politically.

As a result, May Day of 2006 officially resurrected May Day in the United States. Now, it’s almost routine to have May Day protests. They vary in size, but the one this year in New York City was actually pretty large. And labor unions, which had seen their own Labor Day quickly decline and plummet in importance, suddenly discover that on the International Workers’ Day they could bring out tens of thousands of workers on May Day protests. The immigrant rights movement of 2006 actually brought back May Day in the United States as a day for workers to express their concerns and their needs within the larger society. So in that sense they had an important impact, as immigrant workers have always had in the United States, in pushing the labor movement forward. Whether it was the Russian workers in the early twentieth century who survived the 1905 revolution, whether it was the Italian anarchists of the 1920s, or the Latin American immigrants of the 1990s and 2000, they injected new life into the American labor movement.

IT SEEMS that much of this energy of this movement was directed away from protest and into electoral channels.

IT’S CLEAR to me, although again I don’t think it has been given a whole lot of credit, that the protests of spring 2006 laid the basis for the electoral changes that same year. When the Democrats captured the Congress in 2006, they did so in large part because of the huge upsurge in the legal Latino vote. I show in Harvest of Empire that the number of Hispanics that cast ballots in 2006 jumped by nearly one million over the previous election, from 4.7 to 5.6 million. And the percentage of Latinos who cast their votes for Democrats increased sharply, from about 62 percent to 70 percent, over the 2002 mid-term elections.

So, you had not only a sharp increase of the vote, but an increasing percentage of the vote that went to Democrats, and I think in a large part that’s what gave the Democrats the ability to recapture Congress. And that move continued in 2008 in the election of Barack Obama. Two million more Hispanics cast their votes for president in 2008 than had in 2004. And again there was a sharp increase in the percentage of Latinos who voted for the Democratic candidate, Obama, compared to the percentage that had voted for John Kerry when he ran against Bush. So you had both an incredible numerical increase and you had a shift in the percentage of the vote. So I think that together with the huge African American turnout, and the increasing Asian American turnout, this really marked the first truly multicultural election in our society. And I think that’s why Barack Obama is president today.

YET WITH Obama in the White House we have seen a doubling of de­por­tations of immigrants and intensified community raids targeting undocu­mented workers.

IT IS clear that there has been a huge letdown because of the difference between what Obama promised and what he has delivered. There has been a reduction in the workplace raids since the upsurge in the workplace raids that occurred after 2006. It was in direct response to the demonstrations. The forces of reaction felt that “no, these immigrants are getting out of control, we’ve got to put them in their place.” So they started these massive raids in all of these factories around the country, as well as the community raids.

The only difference between the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration is that Obama has ratcheted down the workplace raids, but has increased the community raids. And so you really have, in many parts of the country, Latinos living in total fear in their homes, their neighborhoods, of suddenly being surrounded in the middle of the night by hundreds of immigration agents, of local law enforcement pushing their way into people’s homes, dragging people out of their homes.

This is not what people expected. As a result I think you’ve seen a diminution of support for Obama. We saw, for example, in the 2010 elections a sudden upsurge of Latino Republicans being elected. The major states where you’ve seen a political shift most dramatically have been Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, and Nevada. These are states where the Latino population is increasingly playing a dominant role, really, in shaping voting patterns. You had Susana Martinez, the new Republican governor, replace Bill Richardson in New Mexico in this last election. You have Brian Sandoval, the new Governor of Nevada. You had for the first time, in Idaho of all places, a Republican Latino elected to Congress. And you had Marco Rubio winning the Senate seat in Florida. We are seeing the beginning of a potential swing back to the Jeb and George W. Bush era. Jeb and George Bush were both very good at courting Latino voters, and they were able to get about 40 percent of the Latino vote.

WHILE SOME of the demonstrations you write about have changed the nature of the discussion on immi­gration, we have also seen an escalation of immigrant-bashing legislation and scapegoating.

I ARGUE in Harvest of Empire that there’s a difference between what happens short range and what happens long range. If you take a long-range view, the United States, like all of the advanced industrial countries of the world, has a labor shortage. All the countries that fought in World War II and have huge baby boom generations are facing the reality that the bulk of their population is aging and they don’t have enough young workers. It’s true in France, it’s true in England, it’s true in Italy, it’s true in Germany, it’s true in Russia, and it’s true in the United States. The United States needs more young workers. The most likely place, the easiest place to get young workers from—the place where they can not only be drawn from but then sent back when they are no longer needed—is Latin America. So that the reality is that over the next hundred years, Latin America will continue to be the main source of migration into the United States. That is not going to change.

No policy of any group of politicians will change the demographic reality of the world right now. So there are projections that a majority of people living in the United States will trace their origins not to Europe but to Latin America by the end of this century. Certainly by 2050 it will be about a third, but by the end of the century, it could be over 50 percent. Those are the unmistakable trends. Now because there’s this long-term reality, that doesn’t mean that shortsighted politicians won’t attempt to change it in one way or another.

So you had now several upsurges since the 1980s in these attempts to clamp down on migration from Latin America, and especially from Mexico, because that’s 60 percent of all the undocumented population of the United States comes from one country, Mexico. It’s an essentially a Mexico-U.S. problem more than it is an international problem. There have been several attempts going back to the 1950s and “Operation Wetback,”1 then you had in the eighties, proposition 187,2 then you have in the middle of the last decade, the Sensenbrenner Bill.3 There’ve been several attempts to stop the flow of Mexican migration.

Recently, there was a front-page story in the New York Times reporting that, for the first time in decades, Mexican migration seems to have slowed dramatically. But it is not slowing as a result of U.S. enforcement policy. It’s slowing as a result of the fact that there is some degree of economic progress in Mexico. Fewer Mexican workers feel the need to come to the United States to be able to survive. Mexico has the dubious distinction of having sent more of its people outside of its borders to work than any country in the world, including China. Over the last 30 to 40 years, we have seen a massive exodus of Mexicans, mostly to the United States, but other countries as well, because Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, far bigger in population than Spain is, and it is also the only Third World country that has a contiguous land border with an advanced industrial country. Therefore you have the meeting of the First World and the Third World at the Mexican border.

It’s a unique situation in the world and because of that, essentially Mexico has been part of the US economy for many decades. Yet you have this artificial wall that says “if you’re in this part of the economy, you get paid this much, and you have these rules and regulations and these pollution controls and these environmental rules, and if you are in this other part, you have these other rules.” That is why Mexican workers have been trying to escape from South to North and that’s why American companies have been trying flee from North to South.

The same logic that leads a factory owner to ask, “Why should I stay in Ohio or Illinois and pay $30 an hour in wages and benefits when I can go to Mexico and pay $10 a day?” is the same logic that leads a Mexican worker to ask, “Why should I stay here and make $10 a day when as soon as I cross that border I can at least make the federal minimum wage?” The same logic that is causing capital to flee south is forcing labor to flee north. How do you change this? You equalize the living conditions. You reduce the disparities. And I think that’s beginning to happen, not because of US policy, but because increasingly Latin America has disconnected itself from the dictates of Washington and is charting its own economic course. As a result, Mexico has not suffered as much from this last depression as it had in prior situations. Neither have many of the other countries in Latin America. Latin America has disconnected itself from the Washington Consensus. And, as a result, there is economic progress, there’s hope, there are popularly elected democratic governments, and people do not feel the same need to flee to the North.

COULD YOU discuss the title of your book Harvest of Empire?

THE CENTRAL theme of the book is that you cannot understand this enormous movement of peoples that has occurred in the world since World War II unless you understand what the colonial powers of the West did prior to World War II. In effect, what has happened since World War II is that the Third World has come to the West. The peoples of the colonial countries have migrated in unprecedented numbers to the advanced industrial countries—and usually they have come to the country that used to be their colonial master.

So the reason that there are so many Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans in France is that France was the colonial power in those countries. The reason why there are so many Indians, Pakistanis, and Jamaicans in England is that England was the colonial power of those countries. And the reason there are so many Latin Americans and West Indians in the United States is that Latin America and the West Indies were the original American Empire.

Of course, the empire has expanded since then. And so, as a result of the trade routes that were established, personal ties and personal relationships between servants and masters and workers and owners, people migrated to the countries of their former colonial masters. In the process, the people of the Third World have been changing the very demographic composition of those countries. The colored populations of these advanced industrial countries are the harvest of the original empire. They are the human harvest of the empire. The empire thought it was only going to get gold and diamonds and sugar and tobacco, but they ended up getting all these people, as well. And now those people have been living for generations in the former colonial metropolis and they feel they are a part of it. So the countries are changing.

And of course as capital continues to be more mobile and easily moveable, now you’re seeing all kinds of other migration patterns. Because as I say in the book, the migratory flows of the empire did not only go from the colony to the metropolis. When the United States built the Panama Canal, it imported 30,000 English-speaking Protestant West Indians to Panama and, in the process, changed the very religion and demographic character of Panama. Suddenly you had English-speaking Protestant blacks from Jamaica and Barbados who were living in Panama, confronting the Spanish-speaking, largely Indian population of Panama, and you had other cultural conflicts that developed in Panama as a result of the US need to build a canal through Panama.

The American sugar companies in the Dominican Republic and in Cuba would import Haitian workers to work in their sugar fields. They were changing the cultural compositions of those countries just to meet their labor needs. Now it gets replicated because you have thousands of Filipinos working in the small Arab sheikdoms of the Middle East, and you have increasing migration flows to meet the needs of capital all around the world.

COULD YOU talk about the important role immigrants are playing in the US labor movement?

THE UNION that is probably best known for having many immigrant workers is the Service Employees International Union, the fastest-growing union in the United States. But I’ve often pointed out that many of the activist Latinos in their unions were not trained and developed in this country. In fact, they are former Salvadoran trade unionists, Colombian trade unionists, Dominican trade unionists, who came to this country and already had a certain political consciousness when they came here.

The campaigns of Justice for Janitors in California, SEIU Local 1199 here on the East Coast, the Immokalee Workers in Florida, a lot of the strongest labor struggles in the United States have occurred not just among immigrant workers, but among Latino workers whose leadership developed in the labor movements of Latin America. So, in that sense, the Latin Americans have not only broken away in their home countries from US domination, increasingly they have come here and brought a new sense of class solidarity and more imaginative tactics than a US labor movement that had become ossified and comfortable.

The best of the Latin American movement has really sort of humbled the labor leadership of the United States. Now it has not reached the point that you have Latinos in top leadership positions in the labor movement. That’s still an area where there has not been any serious breakthrough. But it’s coming. I think that’s good for the labor movement because in so many places now, the most difficult work is being done by immigrant workers.

I remember one time I reported on a waste processing plant in Brooklyn. The workers there, about 200 to 300 workers, had been on strike for several weeks. I went out there one day to Williamsburg to interview the workers and I found out, first of all, none of them spoke any English. Second, I discovered that they were striking not only against the company, but also against their union. Their union was a non-AFL union that had a sweetheart deal with the ownership of the factory and was not doing anything for them. So despite the opposition of the union, despite the fact they spoke no English, despite the fact that the company was willing to fire them all, they were all out on strike.

So I started interviewing the workers. And I asked them, “Who is your leader?” They finally pointed out one guy to me. Now the workers in this plant were from Ecuador and Peru. There were no Dominicans, there were no Puerto Ricans, and there were no Mexicans. But their leader was a Colombian. When I began to talk to him, I realized he was a very skilled organizer. I asked him, “How long have you been in this country?” He said, “Ten years.” I said, “What did you do when you were in Colombia?” He said he was a mechanic for Occidental Petroleum at a petroleum refinery. He was a skilled worker at what must have been one of the best paying labor jobs in Colombia. He just happened to have landed in this country and found an unskilled job in a trash recycling plant. And then he told me, “The reason we’re all out on strike against our union and the company is because we had three workers killed this year in this plant. I can’t tell you how many have lost fingers and hands, and no one is doing anything about it.”

And I asked him, “Three workers killed? Why have there been no news reports of that?” He told me they were in three separate accidents and I could verify it. So when I got back to the office, I called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to see if they had any reports. Sure enough, OSHA had three separate reports in the past year of accidents in that plant in which workers had been killed. How is it possible that in one little plant in Williamsburg, three people are killed and no one reports it? And nothing was being done by either their union or their company? So I wrote a column on it. It turned out that New York City, the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, had a $26 million contract with the company to recycle all the household trash of the Bronx in Williamsburg. Only then was some attention given to this strike and the conditions that caused it.

These struggles are occurring every day, and it’s immigrant workers who are leading these fights. They never get any attention. No one even understands how politically aware these workers are, their level of consciousness. I think that’s going to continue to grow, and I think that the effect will be felt not right away, not next year, but ten years from now, fifteen years from now. You’ll see the effect in what happens in the overall direction of the labor movement. All these people will become more seasoned and more able to exercise better leadership.

YOU HAVE called for a Freedom Summer to target the crackdown on immigrants in Arizona.

I BELIEVE that the weak link in the chain of oppression for Latino immigrants in the United States is in Phoenix, Arizona. It’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio has instituted total terror in his county. He has his own air force. He recruits as many as 200 armed vigilantes to go with him on his raids to terrorize the Latino community. Arizona is today the new Alabama, and Joe Arpaio is the new Bull Connor. So therefore the way you get the nation to deal with immigration reform is you confront Joe Arpaio. You bring 20,000 or 30,000 young kids to Arizona next summer, in 2012. You surround his jail. You sit down in his streets. You force him to arrest everybody, and then, as the Democrats and the Republicans head to their conventions in the summer of 2012, you make that the story, not their conventions. You force the Democrats and the Republicans to deal with the question of the legalization of all the young people and their parents who just want to work here. And that’s how you solve the problem. You don’t solve it by convincing a few swing votes in Washington to make a less palatable bill. You create a social movement that centers around a clear target and a clear timeframe, and you change the narrative.

COULD YOU give an overview of your new book with Joseph Torres, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media?

NEWS FOR All the People is basically my attempt, along with my coauthor, Joe Torres, to come up with a theory of how our news media got to be where it is today and why it’s been especially bad on issues of race and ethnicity. And one of the things I’ve discovered is that this has been a problem from the beginning. The first newspaper in what is now the United States was Public Occurrences in 1690. It had only one issue. It was shut down by the governing council of Massachusetts Colony because of some of its articles were considered provocative.

But even from the first newspaper, the template was set. The bulk of the articles in that first newspaper, only three pages long, were about informing white settlers about what the “savages” were up to. There were five separate articles in that one newspaper dealing in one way or another with the Indians of the Massachusetts Colony or Canada. Only one of them was positive in nature, and that was a little story about how the Christianized Indians of Plymouth were celebrating Thanksgiving for the first time. Everything else was all about the “barbarous savages” that were “lurking around” some of the settlements and committing atrocities against the French or the English.

And then it continued with John Campbell’s Boston News-Letter, which was the next paper, and goes on and on. There’s been a white racial narrative in the American press from its very beginning. It was only after the early 1970s that there was even any attempt at racial integration of the nation’s newsrooms, and that has stalled in recent decades. So what ended up happening was that, for close to 200 years, the country’s racial minorities were forced to create their own press because they were excluded from the existing press. So, you had this heroic example of the development of the Black press, the Native American press, the Latino press, and the Asian American press around the country. There’s been a continual battle between the establishment press and these new media about how to portray the events in the country. And you find an extraordinary number of actual vicious acts perpetrated by the mainstream press to provoke racial violence. We give numerous examples where publishers consciously used their newspapers to provoke racial violence, massacres of Indians, attacks on Mexican communities, race riots, lynchings, and so forth.

But I think the most important thing that we try to go into is how government policy affected the development of our media system and how that related to whether marginalized groups had access to the press. I think the most important theory that we’ve come up with in the book is that there’s been a consistent battle throughout American history over the nature of our media system. The central battle has been between whether we are going to have a centralized or a decentralized media system. And what we’ve discovered is that it is precisely in the periods when the media system is most decentralized that racial minorities have the greatest opportunity to be heard. And when there is centralization of control and ownership, that’s when racial minorities are most oppressed within the narrative of the American news media.

So therefore it’s in the direct interest of the African American, Latino, Native American, and Asian communities to support a decentralized media system and to oppose centralization of media. And yet white ownership is increasing in all the major media companies. And of course the big story that has yet to be documented is how the same racial disparities that existed in commercial television and commercial radio are being replicated on the Internet now with the major Internet news providers, from the left to the right. From the Huffington Post to CNN Online, it’s an overwhelmingly white world that has developed. There are new ways you can find a way to be heard, but how many people will hear you is the issue.

  1. Operation “Wetback”: A 1954 operation by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to deport undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexican nationals, from the southwest.
  2. Proposition 187: A 1994 California ballot initiative to establish a state-run citizenship screening system and prohibit undocumented immigrants from using health care, public education, and other social services.
  3. The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, also known as the Sensenbrenner bill, was a draconian anti-immigration bill which, under mass protests in 2006, failed to become law. Among its provisions were mandating employers to verify workers’ legal status through electronic means, the building of hundreds of miles of border fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border, and three years in prison for harboring a “removed” undocumented immigrant.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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