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The Marikana Massacre: Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in South Africa

The Lonmin-owned platinum mine, 62 miles northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa had been at the center of a violent pay dispute for over a year, starting in May 2011, when the company sacked 9,000 workers after what it described as “unprotected industrial action”. On  August 16, 2012, a contingent of the police 500-strong  surrounded a koppie (hillock) outside the informal settlement of Nkaneng to quell a wildcat strike. During the preceding days, several thousand workers on the koppie had been involved in violent disturbances  that had resulted in 10 deaths (six workers who did not heed the call to strike, two policemen and two security guards). On August 16th, the striking workers, daubed with traditional medicine believed to make them invincible, were chanting and armed with knobkieries (short clubs with a knobbed end), pangas (broad, heavy knives), sticks, and iron rods. The strike was initiated mainly by the rock drillers who drive heavy pneumatic drills deep into the quartzite rock that encases the platinum. Paid $260 a month, they were demanding $833 per month, equivalent to what Lonmin pays rock drillers in the company’s Australian mine.  The strikers pelted the police with stones and refused to disperse. The police opened fire with R5 automatic rifles and killed 34 miners; 78 were wounded, and 259 were arrested.

The Miners Struggle

Historically, miners were mostly recruited from South Africa’s Eastern Cape, as well as from the countries of Mozambique and Lesotho. The men lived in single-sex hostels. The anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s put pressure on the mining companies to replace the hostel system. To escape the costs of providing housing for the workers, companies offered miners a “living out allowance” of about $120 a month and many accepted this opportunity to supplement their wages with the equivalent of about one- third of their salary. The unintended consequence was that in the 1980s thousands moved into informal settlements surrounding the mines without basic amenities. In contrast, housing for white mineworkers at Lonmin are in Mooinooi and Brits, areas that are serviced with road networks, sanitation, schools, and health facilities. In post-apartheid South Africa, the squalor of black miners’ living conditions and the disparate conditions of white mineworkers have not changed.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the squalor of black miners’ living conditions and the disparate conditions of white mineworkers have not changed.

Most miners visit their families once a year. Many start second families around the mines, a normal feature of the system of migrant labor. Hence, their salaries are split between two families and the massacre has resulted in two sets of widows, contributing to disputes between the two families for the right to compensation. Providing for two families on a low salary also results in wretched living conditions, high debts, and vulnerability to loan sharks. The migrant system is deeply entrenched in South Africa and has been a critical source of jobs for rural communities. The Eastern Cape is the main source for labor as it has no industries, high rates of poverty and illiteracy, and a single miner is on average the breadwinner for 10 people. When a breadwinner is lost, schoolboys often abandon the classroom to take his place.

These conditions contributed to the strikers’ view that their extreme exploitation  by Lonmin is integral to  the company’s strategy to reduce labor costs and maximize profit. Rock drillers are expected to perform quickly and efficiently, while at the same time having to accept the lowest of wages. They also work long hours to earn production bonuses at great expense to their safety and health. Mineworkers die on the job regularly. Most of the lowest paid miners are not unionized as they are migrant seasonal workers  employed for short periods during the year.

Union Rivalry

The conditions leading to the massacre of the strikers had been exacerbated by a rivalry between the two trade unions at Lonmin, with the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), a new group, seeking to challenge the dominance of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The NUM is seen as having close ties to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the two groups were allies in the fight to end white minority rule, although relations between the ANC and the unions have worsened in recent years. NUM’s membership declined from 66 percent of workers to 49 percent at Lonmin and lost its organizational rights and exclusive bargaining power allocated to the majority union. Miners accuse NUM of abandoning their grassroots concerns, focusing instead on politics. So the miners turned to an alternative union to fight in their corner. But—as so often happens in South Africa—this dispute turned violent.

Lonmin management considered the AMCU-led strike of about 3,000 workers to be illegal since procedures had not been followed by AMCU, and NUM was against the strike as well. The build-up to the massacre was marked by reports of intimidation and assault among the members of the two unions and evidence at the commission of inquiry noted that an NUM official gathered 30 union members in his office and gave them long knives and at least one gun. NUM enjoyed a cozy relationship with management and union officials were rewarded for their loyalty—shop stewards were taken out of the mine and given pay rises, cars, and cellphones—and they stopped speaking up for the people who had elected them. NUM wrongly advised rock drill operators that no negotiations with Lonmin were possible until the end of the two-year wage agreement, did not take the initiative to persuade and enable Lonmin to speak to the workers, and failed to exercise effective control over its membership in ensuring that their conduct was lawful and did not endanger the lives of others. On the contrary, NUM encouraged and assisted non-striking workers to go to the shafts under circumstances where there was a real danger that they would be killed or injured by armed strikers.

[National Union of Mineworkers] enjoyed a cozy relationship with management and union officials were rewarded [by Lonmin] for their loyalty.

The striking miners had chosen a hill as their gathering point and were discussing a truce with police officers. These discussions collapsed when mineworkers refused to disarm. Joseph Mathunjwa, the AMCU leader, dropped to his knees and pleaded with the strikers just before the police opened fire:

Comrades, the life of a black person in Africa is so cheap … They will kill us, they will finish us and then they will replace us and continue to pay wages that cannot change black people’s lives. That would mean we were defeated and that the capitalists will win. But we have another way. We urge you—brothers, sisters, men—I am kneeling down, coming to you as nothing. Let us stop this bloodshed that the NUM allowed this employer to let flow. We do not want bloodshed!

Mathunjwa, did his best before the shootings to persuade the strikers to lay down their arms and leave the koppie.

…[T]he AMCU leader addressed the strikers:]“Comrades, the life of a black person in Africa is so cheap…They will kill us,…and then they will replace us…

By contrast, Cyril Ramaphosa, the former NUM leader, anti-apartheid hero, and current Lonmin boss, would have been in perhaps the best position to ease the mounting tensions. Yet Ramaposa’s days as a labor advocate were far behind him. By August 2012, Ramaphosa, through his company, Shanduka, was worth some $700-million, with shares and directorships in numerous companies, including Lonmin. Ramaphosa’s company owned nine percent of Lonmin’s shares and he sat on its board as a non-executive director. Under Ramaphosa’s leadership in the 1980s, NUM had become the biggest affiliate to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), the powerful trade union federation that currently forms a vital part of the tripartite alliance with the ruling ANC. Instead of advocating for the strikers—as a chain of emails released to the Farlam inquiry disclosed—he argued for the police to move in. In a message to fellow directors, he wrote:

The terrible events that have unfolded cannot be described as a labor dispute. They are plainly dastardly criminal and must be characterized as such … There needs to be concomitant action to address this situation.

British-Owned Lonmin

The relationship between NUM and Lonmin, between a major union and multinational employer, is unnaturally cordial and the fact that Ramaphosa, a Lonmin boss, was once an NUM leader could be a reason for the intimacy. It was during the boom time preceding the Marikana massacre that labor was best positioned to fight for meaningful wage increases, but for the most part NUM adopted a compliant approach to relations with management.  Although the mines have said the $833 demand would mean a 40 percent annual increase, research shows that the average increase would be around 15 percent. Had the wage increases occurred during the era of high profits, they would have constituted a fraction of the average annual distribution to shareholders.  The ANC’s 2012 “State Intervention in the Mining Sector” discussion document includes resource rent taxes, but has been abandoned to benefit mining executives and shareholders at Lonmin.

Lonmin is one of the world’s largest primary producers of Platinum Group Metals (PGMs). These metals are essential for many industrial applications, especially catalytic converters for internal combustion engine emissions, as well as their widespread use in jewelry.  South Africa hosts nearly 80 percent of global PGM resources. Lonmin was granted a New Order Mining License by the South African government for core operations, which runs to 2037 and is renewable in 2067.  Lonmin earned an average of $6 million a day in 2012.  In 2007, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private investment arm, invested $50m in Lonmin; $15m of that was specifically earmarked to improve the lot of communities around the mine. Lonmin’s then CEO, Brad Mills, said that with the support of the IFC funds, Lonmin would ensure those living near the mine were made “comfortably middle-class” and would be assured of a prosperous life long after the platinum has been depleted. None of the funds were used for community development.

The last annual report before the Marikana massacre noted that Lonmin had resources of 175 million troy ounces of PGMs and 43 million ounces of reserves; had delivered a solid operational and financial performance for 2011; and net earnings attributable to equity shareholders grew from $112 million to $273 million. Of the current eight directors of Lonmin, five hold British citizenship, two are South African, and one Zimbabwean. It is significant that two decades after apartheid, Lonmin is still foreign-owned with shareholders, ironically, like the Church of England. Questions remain unanswered around the relationship between Lonmin and the government.

Lonmin maintained that the demand for an $833 “living wage” by the strikers was not affordable. A research paper by the Universities of the Witwatersrand and Manchester contradicts this claim, indicating that huge profits in the past decade were given to investors while workers benefited little. These enormous investor profits would have covered the pay increases sought by workers concomitant with an appropriate return to shareholders.  In 1999 platinum cost $350 an ounce. A decade later it was $2, 710 an ounce. The South African regulatory system allowed Lonmin to capture the lion’s share of the benefits, extracting enormous resource rents, which were distributed to shareholders. Apart from mining taxes, it is not possible to ascertain Lonmin’s contribution to the ANC coffers.

On the night before the massacre, Albert Jamieson, the chief commercial officer of Lonmin, wrote to the minister of mines, Susan Shabangu, urging her to “bring the full might of the state to bear on the situation.” Notoriously, and a chilling parallel with Marikana, in April 2008, Shabangu—then deputy minister of safety and security—had addressed a meeting of police officers with advice about dealing with offenders: “You must kill the bastards if they threaten you or your community. You must not worry about the regulations. That is my responsibility.” The militarization of the police became official ANC policy and resonates with South–African President Zuma’s war-song at rallies with his supporters: “Umshini wami” (Bring me my machine gun).

It was possible for Lonmin to close the mine in order to protect its workers, but it elected not to do so. It also did not respond appropriately to the threat of, and the outbreak of violence. Lonmin also failed to employ sufficient measures to ensure the safety of its employees and insisted that its employees who were not striking should come to work, despite the fact that it was not in a position to protect them from attacks by strikers. Lonmin’s record of social development of its workforce is dismal. It failed to comply with the housing obligations under the Social and Labor Plans. The labor plans refer to the deal made when Nelson Mandela’s ANC won the country’s first non-racial, democratic elections in 1994 and stipulated that mines commit to improving the lot of their workers and the surrounding communities in exchange for maintaining the mining rights they’d enjoyed under the apartheid regime.

The Role of the Police

Marikana is an emotional reminder that police brutality is still happening in post-apartheid South Africa. The police, instead of protecting the miners, have been implicated in the massacre. They circled the strikers with barbed wire without offering them an escape route, making it easier to trap the strikers and shoot to kill them. Although attempts were made by the strikers to negotiate with the police, for example, Mgcineni Noki (‘the man in the green blanket’ that became a symbol of the massacre and made famous by the documentary Miners Shot Down), the police were not amenable to negotiate. They promised Noki that they would not shoot him, but he was one of the first miners killed.

The decision to attack the miners was not taken by the tactical commanders on the ground, but by an extraordinary session of the police National Management Forum in a venue owned by Lonmin (further implicating Lonmin, the police, and the state). The minutes of this forum, the recording, and transcript are now missing. The Farlam commission revealed that the meeting ordered 4, 000 rounds of live ammunition and requested mortuary vans with berths for 16 bodies for the attack on the miners the following day.

The behavior and attitude of the police toward the workers is significant. The police treated the workers like the enemy in a war zone. It is difficult to understand why the majority of policemen, who were black, viewed the strikers with such high levels of antagonism. At the critical point of the first attack (scene one in Miners Shot Down), the police very quickly decimated the strikers through devastating firepower. From that point, it was apparent that the strikers presented no real danger to the police, were fleeing and that the weapons some of the strikers had were no match for those of the police. However, the police continued shooting and moved to the koppie for the second scene of the massacre.

It is difficult to understand why the majority of policemen, who were black, viewed the strikers with such high levels of antagonism.

The audio recording from Captain Ryland’s cellphone footage, the only piece of “real time” evidence of the mood of police, supports the idea that some of the killings were carried out in a mood of amusement. In the words of the lawyers for the families of the deceased miners “the SAPS members who killed Mpumza can be heard celebrating and bragging about having killed him.” Two police officers, Warrant-Officer Mamabolo and Colonel Gaffley, testified that police continued to fire after they shouted at them to cease-fire when there was no sign that the strikers were shooting at them.  The deployment of police armed with high velocity R5 assault rifles, was itself a recipe for grossly excessive force to be used against any threat, real or perceived.

The police did not provide medical assistance to the strikers injured at the scene; hence some of the miners could have survived if paramedics were present. In spite of the recommendation for a full investigation of the criminal liability of the police, the video footage identifying policemen that shot at the miners, and the testimony of senior officers like Colonel Naidoo that he killed miners with an automatic weapon, not a single policeman has been prosecuted. Instead, they were praised by Riah Phiyega, the National Police Commissioner, who immediately after Marikana commended the police: “You guys did very well; you behaved as you should”.

The Economic Freedom Front vs. the African National Congress

The rapid and unprecedented rise of AMCU, now the largest union in the platinum sector, has great political significance. AMCU threatens the three-decade dominance of NUM, with ramifications for the ANC. With the ANC losing support at each election, the COSATU-aligned unions play a pivotal role in mobilizing support for the ANC.

The police management wanted to prevent Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Front, expelled member of the ANC and Zuma’s arch-enemy, from intervening at Marikana. Malema intervened successfully at Impala Platinum earlier that year. The miners have great respect for Malema and he has courageously taken up the cudgels of protesters and strikers against the state. He has repeatedly called for the nationalization of mines as he seeks to tap into frustration among black voters at the slow pace of economic transformation. Complicating this politics is the fact that Malema was the leader of the ANC youth wing and vociferous in his support of Zuma.

With the ANC losing support at each election, the COSATU-aligned unions play a pivotal role in mobilizing support for the ANC.

The recording of North West provincial commissioner, Zukiswa Mbombo’s meeting with Lonmin on August 14, 2012, indicates Malema is an important concern. At the meeting, Mbombo emphasized that intervention by Malema would boost his credibility and that of the cause of nationalization of the mines that he represents. This meant that the situation “has a very serious political connotation … which we need to find a way of defusing.” Using words that came to be seen as sinister but primarily express her sense of urgency, she then said: “Hence … we need to act such that we kill this thing.” Even bolder, the transcript shows that Mbombo stepped outside the conventional role of a police chief, encouraging Lonmin to take a hard line against the mineworkers.

Hence, preventing Malema from addressing the miners was a key factor in the decision to open fire on the miners, a decision authorized at a politically senior level in the ANC. Ramaphosa’s loyalty lies with NUM; the act of rebellion by AMCU spat in the face of the ANC, and Ramaphosa is likely to have been concerned that the strikers did not recognize NUM’s authority. Also, a few months before the Marikana massacre, Ramaphosa had chaired the committee that suspended Malema from the ANC. Ramaposa remained concerned about Malema’s increasing popularity and wanted to prevent him from capitalizing on Marikana. Malema evoked enormous fear in the ANC that he might out-maneuver the Party by playing the populist card and Marikana might position him as a champion of workers’ rights in the platinum belt, a vital sector of the economy.  Hence, the subject of how to neutralize him is likely to have been a primary preoccupation of the ANC elite at that time.

The Farlam Commisssion

The Marikana Commission of Inquiry (chaired by retired judge, Ian Farlam) was appointed by President Zuma 11 days after the incident to investigate the massacre. The only positive finding noted by the Farlam Commission is that AMCU’s leader, Mathunjwa did his best to persuade the strikers to lay down their arms and leave the koppie. The version claimed by the police is that they had been under attack by a group of miners forcing them to open fire with automatic weapons in self defense into the crowd a few meters away. The Commission ruled that the overall response of the police was completely disproportionate; the conduct of the commanders was wrongful, negligent, and contrary to the law and policies. The police decision to shoot the miners breached the McCann principle (to minimize the risk that lethal force will be used), and was unreasonable, unjustifiable, and illegal.

The Commission noted that the evidence from the provincial police chiefs was a “disgrace” for being so slight. It was a damning criticism of the lack of transparency running through the national police hierarchy. Both Phiyega and Mbombo constructed a series of lies to be submitted to the Commission as the “truthful” version of events. Lies and obstruction characterized the police’s approach to evidence disclosure at the Commission. The Commission sent a list of questions to the provincial commissioners, enquiring whether the possibility of bloodshed during the operation was adequately explored at the forum. Phiyega told the Commission that she was not able to remember and “give those pedantic details.”

What Happens Now?

The strike at Marikana cannot be separated from the mass demonstrations and protests by the working class across the country. People’s level of discontent has risen around the government’s poor service delivery of houses, water, electricity, land and public infrastructure; and low wages and poor working conditions at workplaces. There has been considerable repression of popular protests by the police and they have not been held accountable for excesses and failures in public order policing during protests. Two of the famous cases are the death at police hands of Anna Nokele in a demonstration in 2010 and the death of Andries Tatane in a service-delivery protest in 2011.

Dennis Brutus, a political activist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games, noted at the 2001 International Anti-Racism Conference in Durban that,

It is pure hypocrisy for this government to parade around as if it is the champion of the anti-racist struggle. It is hypocrisy because its very own economic policies continue to hurt black people, in the most callous fashion.  And what’s more, the stance of the people with whom I broke stones on Robben Island or waved placards in exile, on international forums, is just as disgraceful. They make common cause with naked imperialism and oppose policies that could free the South from global apartheid.

Brutus’s insight into the nature and consequences of ANC policy are accurate. The new government abandoned a focus on the plight of the millions of victims of racism to concentrate their attention on financial profits and the creation of a black middle-class.

It is the gravest irony that the police should be re-shaped as the means of oppression against the working-class by the ANC government. Never since the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 had such brutal gratuitous force been used by the police against citizens. What made the Marikana massacre so depressing was that it was black capitalists who designed the police operation on black workers. The government also colluded openly with Lonmin and the police to end the strike.

            Frantz Fanon’s caution regarding decolonization and the struggle for a just post-liberation society is relevant to Marikana. The euphoria of freedom led South Africans to throw caution to the wind. The tripartite alliance formed by the ANC embodies a liberation movement that has sacrificed the people’s struggle for personal gain and raises serious questions around the complicit role of COSATU in the killing of workers. It is this state of affairs that has contributed to the impending formation of a new trade union federation in South Africa led by former COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, the National Union of Metal Workers in South Africa that was expelled from COSATU and several allies.

The workers still live in shacks in spite of Lonmin’s agreement to provide housing for the community in return for mining rights…

Ramaphosa and Lonmin represent capitalist power. The ANC has sold out the people and has not only militarized the police force, but used the police to brazenly kill workers, similar to the massacres of the Afrikaner regime. In November 2015, the ANC voted against a motion by the EFF for the adoption of a living wage. In the same debate, Ramaphosa refused to provide answers with regard to compensation to the families of Marikana, stating that the matter is under consideration. The Marikana massacre has not realized a living wage. The workers still live in shacks in spite of Lonmin’s agreement to provide housing for the community in return for mining rights from Mandela in 1994 and funding from the World Bank for this purpose. The continued silence on reparations for the miners’ families is cause for concern and enables the mining industry to abdicate their responsibility to workers. The powerful elite has neither heard nor reacted to the widows’ request: “ Go ask Zuma and Lonmin who will feed our children?


BBC news, ‘South Africa’s Lonmin Marikana mine clashes killed 34’, 17 August 2012.
Davies, N. 2015. Marikana massacre: the untold story of the strike leader who died for workers’ rights.
Desai, A. 2002. We Are the Poors, Community struggles in post-Apartheid South Africa. Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002.
Hoffman, P. 2015. Three years after Marikana the legal fraternity still bristles with accusations of bias.
Kings, S. 2014. Super profits, but not for mineworkers.
Mahala, J. 2015. We have now begun our descent. Cape Town: Jonathan Ball.
Marinovich, G. 2012. ‘The cold murder fields of Marikana’, Daily Maverick, 8 September 2012.
Maromo, J. 2015. ‘Marikana commission: Strikes used muti, believed they were invincible’, Mail and Guardian, 26 November 2013.
Nicolaides, G. 2015. Reporting from the frontline. Untold stories from Marikana. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.
Report of the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, 31 March 2015. Government Gazette, 10 July 2015.
Tolsi, N. 2015. ‘SAPS rot runs deep in Marikana cover-up’, Mail and Guardian, 2 July 2015.

The Ghosts of Ludlow, 1914-2014

A century of silence is violence.


That winter a blizzard, a cold that crawled over

the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and covered


the foothills with a crust of ice.

Everything whitened into bone.


The clothesline snapped like a branch.

A warning shot can be understood in


any language. The entrance to the coalmine dropped

open like the mouth of a skull without eyeholes.


Mining folk felt safest underground.

The pits were for protection from the chill


that had stretched into the spring. The pits

were for protection from the wind that kept the walls


of each tent shivering all night.

The pits were for protection.


And somehow the kettle still sang,

its burst of steam a prized distraction


inside the deadness of the tent.

In the moment it was the thing


with most life. It filled the small space

with breath—an exhale so far away


from the hour it would take

the first bullet in its lung.


The horses crushed the quiet.

Their nostrils flared and suddenly


they looked quite human

in their rage. One foot sunk its hoof


into the face of a doll—an act

so cruel it had to have been deliberate.


The baby limbs stretched out in shock.

No mouth, no throat—no sound.


The horse shook its tail like a shrug.


Few things gathered the bodies

in the camp—a game of baseball,


a marriage, a christening, a strike.

And war, which darkened the light


in the tents, shadow upon shadow.

The soldiers first, then the smoke,


and then the fall of

a smothering sky.


The pits, so womb-like, a refuge

for the lambs while the wolf


devoured the tents, so sheep-like in their

whiteness, so sheep-like in their bleating.


            The pits were for protection.


One evening the cook was making stew

in the cauldron. A witch’s brew, said


the children who dared themselves

to come near enough to toss


a pebble of coal in the pot.

The rocks bounced off the bellies


of both cauldron and cook. The man cursed,

which only made the children giggle.


He chased them with the spoon.

It made them laugh some more.


To teach a lesson, he grabbed a rabbit

by the ears. It kicked and splashed as he


submerged it under boiling water.

He trapped it with the lid.


The children screamed in terror,

imagining the bunny swimming


through the scalding soup

only to reach scalding metal.


Grief for a dead child sounds the same

in Greek or Italian or Spanish. Grief


for eleven children has no language,

only numbness—


it hardens even the land.


Fires dissipated. Battles ended.

The miners rolled their stories up


and left the town of Ludlow, 100 years

empty except for an abandoned row


of shacks. Near the baseball diamond, a

memorial as neglected as the playing field.


A memorial rings hollow—it’s for the solace

of the living. To reach the dead


walk to the structures still standing,

their windows still looking in.


Listen closely for the ghost of a woman

tucking into bed the ghost of her son.


Lean in. That blank sound you hear?

The weight of the ghost of her kiss


as it passes through his head—

the collapse of absence into absence.


Originally published in first Newton Literary Journal

God Goes Corporate

God and the free market, the dual fundamentalisms of U.S. popular culture, have come to resonate spiritually and emotionally with large numbers of people whose economic security has been undermined by the corporate order. A quarter century of right-wing organizing and concerted media manipulation has “re-enchanted” the corporate economy, reconnected it to deep-rooted American mythologies about the West, about manhood, and about the heroic, self-reliant individual.

Read more

What Are Labor’s True Colors?

Re-published from Spring 2004

Recent strategic proposals to rebuild the labor movement largely overlook the crucial need to build black-brown coalitions and labor-community ties in communities of color. It may strike some readers as odd that a discussion of problems in the labor movement should focus on ‘people of color’ and race, but the oddness of it is just the problem.  Capitalism and work have always been structured through race (and gender) in the United States.[1] The failure of labor unions to recognize this, and to support the struggles of people of color as people of color, puts them in the camp of those who argue that the American Dream is color-blind and that the only real exploitation is that of class.  From this point of view there is no reason, other than nostalgia or primordial tribalism, for minorities to emphasize race. From here it is a short step to the conclusion that black ghettos (there have been only black ghettos in the United States) are caused by the (tribal?) behavior of ghetto residents rather than by racial oppression.  Contrasting oneself to those “savages” in the ghettos, rather than identifying with them, is an important part of the construction of white identity.[2]  Nonetheless, some argue that supporting communities of color as communities of color needlessly fragments working people.  However, there are different kinds of black racial ideologies and struggles just as there are different kinds of white racial prejudice (i.e., mean-spirited and intentional racism versus inadvertent and embarrassing racial slights.)  Racial struggles that aim to transform economic conditions causing poverty, and racial movements that are open to dialogue and coalition building, should be distinguished from black racial movements that are interested in neither.

Historically, only radicals on the edge of the labor movement have taken the struggle against ghettos and slums to be central to labor’s mission.[3]  Today is not so different.  Roughly one in four African American men under 35 years are caught somewhere in the criminal justice system, while three quarters of all prisoners in the U.S. are black and Latino.[4] This is largely a consequence of the persistent unemployment of people most vulnerable to “deindustrialization,” yet the mass incarceration of black youth has not been seen as a “labor” issue.[5]  For this and other such reasons poor black communities (and most Latino communities) do not think about labor unions when they imagine a better future.  Nonetheless, this is no reason for relegating black and Latino communities to the periphery of strategies for rebuilding labor.  It is impossible, from my point of view at least, to imagine a robust labor movement without the central participation of black and Latino communities.  Yet there has been little thought given to how current strategies for rebuilding labor unions connect to the history and current reality of deep racial division among working people in the United States.  A popular idea that I address at the end of this article is that communities of color can be brought in as allies by labor-led movements to rebuild labor unions.  I doubt this.  Labor leaders may know how to support this or that black or Latino politician, but I see no evidence that many know how to build solidarity with black and Latino communities.  A recent exception to this tendency is the immigrant freedom ride, which indicates that at least some labor leaders are thinking differently.  Its organizers attempted to use the AFL-CIO’s organizational infrastructure to support a campaign focusing on important community issues, using symbolic images from the civil rights movement.  This is a promising approach. Labor unions have a better chance of growing as a part of black and Latino community movements for power, when the latter see labor unions as allies in their struggles, rather than the other way around.  This is because low-income communities of color are not, as some labor organizers arrogantly presume, unorganized blank slates.  Their participation in community civic organizations, from churches to hometown associations, is far more active than it is in labor. It should be remembered that black and Latino civic organizations exist in part because of residential segregation and their feeling of exclusion from white civic organizations.[6]   So, while many of these organizations are not explicitly political, and should not be expected to act like political parties, A seed of political awareness is built into their civic activity, that can be, and often has been, nurtured.

Beyond the Black-White Paradigm

In 2002, the foreign-born population of the United States reached an all time high of 33 million people.  This group represents over 11.5 percent of the total population (U.S. Census Bureau, 2003).  The two largest states, California and Texas, already have majority nonwhite populations.    The white share of the population in the 100 largest cities declined from 52 percent to 44 percent during the 1990s.  The top five cities in the United States (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia) alone lost one million white residents in the 1990s.  Cities in five Southern states (Mobile, Columbus, Montgomery, Norfolk, Baton Rouge, Shreveport, Augusta, Fort Worth), four California cities (Sacramento, San Diego, Anaheim, Riverside), Milwaukee, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston, and Rochester were among cities that went from majority white to majority-minority.  Nearly one in four residents in the largest U.S. cities considers themselves Hispanic, versus one in ten elsewhere in the nation.[7]  The fastest growing Latino populations are not the old destination cities such as New York or Los Angeles (although these are growing too) but Atlanta and Orlando.  Ninety-five of the top 100 cities also experienced growth in their Asian population during the 1990s.

These demographic changes are a potentially grave threat to conservative political power.  We will reach a point where many states will have nonwhite voting majorities.  It is the political majority in state governments along with Congress that are true centers of power.  As excited as minority activists sometimes get about electing mayors, city governments are not, under our Constitution, true centers of power.[8]  Cities cannot raise taxes without state approval; cities cannot dump garbage or even elect mayors without state approval.  The last time people of color were in a similar position to possibly control state governments was Reconstruction South Carolina and Mississippi.   This is a demographic turning point of potentially major significance, but it is not certain that blacks and Latinos (and Asians in some states) will use their power for progressive ends.  They may instead fight each other.

Increasingly, how and whether blacks and Latinos get to exercise power in the states will depend less on their relations with whites than on how they deal with each other.  There are at least two problems here.  One is that the way many black leaders talk about race tends to exclude other people of color, the very opposite of the global perspective on race embraced by African American movements historically.  Some Latino leaders have unfortunately amplified the narrow-mindedness and me-first attitude of black leaders.  Another problem is that leaders of color today are not preparing themselves or their followers for leadership responsibility in keeping with their increasing numbers.  They are often more willing to accept side-payments from the establishment to maintain  status quo arrangements.

I will address each of the above problems separately.  On the first point, many Latino and Asian scholars and advocates have criticized what they call the “black-white” paradigm.  They argue that scholarship on race has tended to exclude Asians and Latinos from the history of racial construction.  This is undoubtedly true.  Latino and Asian activists have further suggested that black leaders act as though African Americans were the only minorities in America.  This is also a well-earned criticism.  However, it is an error for scholars and activists to think that the history of black political thought, or the aims of popular black political movements, is actually captured in the concept of a “black-white” paradigm.  For example, Frederick Douglass did not view the black struggle in a “black-white” paradigm.  He called the 1846-1848 war against Mexico racist and expansionist, a war against freedom and the interests of working people in both countries, and an exercise of “Anglo-Saxon cupidity and love of domination.”  He noted that Mexico’s government, with “all of her barbarism and darkness” and lack of “devotion to republican principles” had nonetheless “wiped away the stain of slavery from her dominions,” but that after its conquest of Texas, “the enlightened, Christian United States had stained again what was washed.”  Douglass similarly strongly opposed efforts to restrict Chinese immigration during the 1870s, arguing that references to a “Yellow Peril” sounded much like “Black Peril.”[9] Douglass also was an outspoken supporter of Irish nationalists, whose support of abolitionists was returned in kind.

W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP and its leading publicist in the early 20th century, did not view the black struggle in a narrow black-white paradigm either.  The reason the NAACP is the association of “colored” people and not “black” or “Negro” people was, in the words of Du Bois’s preeminent biographer, “to promote the interests of dark-skinned people everywhere.”[10] Du Bois outlined his view of the relationship of black oppression with that of white workers and workers of color globally in his book Black Reconstruction:

…the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863.  The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over.  Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression.  And this book seeks to tell that story.

Du Bois’s perspective was hardly a ‘black-white’ paradigm.  As Robin Kelley describes in his book Freedom Dreams, black activists in the 1950s maintained global perspective on their struggle.  They were deeply inspired by anticolonial movements in the Third World and thought of them as allies.  Malcolm X, comparing Vietnamese anticolonial struggle with the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion in 1954, supported an allegiance of the African American struggle with anticolonial independence movements worldwide.  Similarly, the African American civil rights movement learned about nonviolent methods of struggle from their close observation and solidarity with the Indian movement against British colonialism.  The movement, including SNCC and Rev. Martin Luther King, strongly opposed the Vietnam war, in sympathy with Vietnamese peasants.  Huey Newton, the Black Panther leader, argued in the late 1960s that black Americans should view their struggle as part of a world revolution because, he emphasized, there were no longer national economies and national corporations but a worldwide economy.[11]

Given a rich history of black support for struggling peoples around the globe, and the black movements’ historical understanding of their own struggle as connected to people worldwide, we have to question how a narrowly domestic and ethnically bounded notion of black politics took hold.  It came after the success of the civil rights movement in passing the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.  With the ascension of African Americans into elected offices, and their success in securing some federal and foundation funds for fighting black poverty, suddenly there was turf to protect.  Quite a few black elected officials, and many Latino elected officials, learned from white conservatives that an easy way to stay in office was to mobilize the suspicions and prejudices that divide whites, blacks, and Latinos.  Many spread the idea that simply getting them elected was the key to solving black community problems.  It was easier to do this than to take on the challenge of eliminating poverty jobs and unemployment.  Instead of the election of black officials leading to an increasingly broad multiracial political mobilization of poor people, as the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements envisioned, black leaders frequently represented their own election as mayor, Congressman, or union local president as the grand victory and end of the journey for all black people.  Symbolic representation thus replaced substance.  For example, some leading black organizations and leaders have proclaimed that President Bush’s appointment of Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice—leading supporters of a foreign policy nearly universally opposed in the developing world—is a strong indicator of black progress.  Blacks who challenge this notion of civil rights progress are sometimes accused of trying to divide black people so that whites can take over, or so that Latinos can take over.  Whites who challenge this view are easily dismissed as racists.  Even so, it is preposterous to think that black people fought the civil rights movement to get 8,000 blacks jobs as elected officials, or to put a black face on imperial foreign policy.  They had much more in mind.

African Americans are today a demoralized and demobilized people, alienated from politics.[12]  They are a people who sacrificed a lot for the right to vote but now mostly do not vote because they see no leadership worth voting for.  Their anguish was evident seven years ago when a million black men marched on Washington, the biggest black demonstration in history by a factor of four.  The march had no political agenda, no list of demands; it was a gathering of people who knew they were in trouble and were desperate to gain a sense of purpose and direction.  What did they get?  The keynote speaker gave them a lecture on numerology!  The March on Washington was a dispiriting loss of political opportunity, and a step backward in recognizing the importance of black women’s struggles in changing U.S. society.  But this was not just Minister Louis Farrakhan’s fault.  Farrakhan was one of the few black leaders attempting to organize anything, accounting for the massive turnout.  Many black leaders seemed to have forgotten that the majority of black people have dead-end jobs, and that millions of black people are wandering in and out of welfare and prison.

The ‘black-white’ paradigm remains acceptable to so many black leaders because the only good reason to undertake the difficult work of building strong cross-racial, cross-ethnic political ties is to organize a broad political movementand few of them are interested in building a movement.  The black leaders who rebuff unity efforts with Latinos and Asians for the most part are not trying to organize black people either.  It does not take much insight to recognize that doing something about lack of health care, prisons, affordable housing, and the collapse of public schooling in America requires building broad solidarity among the people who most suffer these problems.

Unfortunately, black leaders are not alone.  I have not seen many Latino leaders, including critics of the ‘black-white’ paradigm, criticizing Latino anti-black racism, or encouraging Latinos to form coalitions with black people.  A lot of Latino leaders have cheered the U.S. Census 2000 findings of a burgeoning Latino population with rhetoric sounding a lot like, “Get back blacks, I’m going to be a big shot now!”  While I believe that the ‘black-white’ paradigm has contributed to this reaction, there is no cause for sanctimony on the part of its critics.

Black and Latino communities are politically divided.  Antonio Villaraigosa, a very progressive pro-labor Latino mayoral candidate in Los Angeles lost when large numbers of black leaders supported his middle-of-the-road opponent.  A lot of black leaders were subsequently upset when the victor, James Hahn, dismissed the city’s black police chief.  But why were they surprised?  Hahn accused Villaraigosa of being soft on crime, and ran Willie Horton type ads with an image of Villaraigosa surrounded by drug paraphernalia.  Latino communities have the same basic problems with the Los Angeles police as African Americans, yet many African American leaders choose to align themselves with a candidate actively appealing to whites’ racial stereotypes.  Where is the black community’s political future in California?  Is it with Latinos who also need affordable housing, good jobs, good schools, healthcare, and need help getting it?  Or is it with people who have all those things and do not want to share them?

Labor unions could play an important role in steering the demographic transition underway in the U.S. towards greater inter-group solidarity and a substantive focus on the poor.

To play such a role, labor cannot constitute itself as a separate interest apart from black and Latino communities.  By constituting a ‘separate interest,’ I refer to the decisions of some unions to endorse President Bush in the last presidential election and New York’s conservative Governor George Pataki in 2002.  Union leaders defend such actions as responsible political leadership on behalf of their members who need material gains.  Still, one must ask, where do such endorsements fit in an overall political strategy for power?  I am not one to argue that unions should never make deals on behalf of their members.  But if unions think that it is in their strategic interest to be in coalition with poor communities of color, they risk losing their trust by making separate deals excluding the participation of their community partners.   Further, if Bush or Pataki promise deals for certain unions, the union should take the extra step of making sure that they will not finance it by cutting services and benefits from the communities where its workers live or from workers in a different sector.

Labor unions should go out of their way to cultivate solidarity between blacks and Latinos in and outside of the union.  It does not help matters when labor leaders encourage its black members to support a Latino candidate in one election, but then encourages Latino members to oppose an equally progressive black candidate in another election.   Latino candidates have also been burned in this way.  This means that labor leaders interested in long-term labor-community cooperation should carefully consider whether their support for a candidate (or policy) will build or undermine black–Latino political unity.    Responsible political leadership in these times goes beyond making ghetto life a little easier for the residents of a particularly strong voting district, or for a handful of workers in a local union; it means building a broad coalition for real power–the power to move entire states towards eliminating ghettos and slum wages.

Reparations: A Compelling Labor Issue

Race continues to play a major role in structuring U.S. society. Whites in the South are poorer than whites elsewhere in the country because slavery undermined their wages, Jim Crow kept unions out, and wages for all workers suffered as a consequence.  But this is the tip of the iceberg.  When the Reconstruction governments were violently overthrown in the 1870s, and the Confederates regained control of the South, they installed a racial dictatorship.  Reactionary Southern congressman from plantation districts had no political competition and tended to have long stays in Congress.   Because Congress was a more important branch of government {prior to} Until World War II—when the nuclear bomb strengthened the presidency—and because Congress allocated power according to seniority, Southern representatives dominated both Congress and national legislation through WW II.  This means that {when the} modern U.S. corporation, labor laws, immigration policies, foreign policy, and social welfare structures were {took shape, the United States was} crafted largely by Southern Congressional anti-democrats.  This is a major reason why America did not become a social democracy.  {The suppression of democracy in the South under Jim Crow has hurt working and poor families across America, not just black people.}  During Florida’s last presidential election, it was the suppression of black voters{–from voters eliminated through felony disenfranchisement laws to registration irregularities–} that swung the presidential election for George Bush.  The South is still crucial to conservative political power.

Building a progressive multi-racial labor-community movement in the South would clearly deliver a powerful blow to racial division in the United States.  There appear to be two strands of thought about how to do this.  One approach is organizing around ‘bread and butter’ issues while avoiding racially divisive issues.  In this view, after trust is built up through personal ties established during ‘bread and butter’ struggles, racial issues can gradually be addressed.  Another approach is organizing black and Latino communities around whatever issues come up, racial or not, and imploring whites to join a self-consciously anti-racist movement from the beginning.  I lean towards the latter.  The first reason is that there are lots of black community-based organizations and activists in the South that already deal with racial issues, and who are likely to be wary of organizations working in black communities who suppress racial issues by arguing that it alienates whites.  A second reason is that avoiding race robs the movement, of a deeply compelling moral vision.  For example, the recent black movement for reparations owed for slavery could be a labor-black movement.  It is striking, in fact, that in the 21st century the U.S. labor movement still cannot grab hold of the slavery issue.  What greater labor exploitation has ever existed in America than the kidnapping of tens of millions of Africans, the slaughter of many millions of them on the passage across the ocean, the forced labor of these kidnapped slaves for 300 years, and the systematic rape of slave women to breed more slave children who could be sold at auctions for more profit?  How is it that a labor movement that wants to unite people around workers’ material interests cannot not be in the forefront of a movement that is demanding justice and recognition for such shameful treatment of working people–dead or alive?

The model of the old labor movement, as Du Bois pointed out, was that labor unions would protect organized workers while giving employers license to super-exploit workers of color in the United States and the developing world.  That model is losing its utility for workers as global capital breaks down the old geographic distinctions.  Low-income service workers in the United States increasingly are the ‘Third World’ (and Eastern European) workers, transplanted here.  They are the super-exploited workforce of color.  They are the degraded women laborers.  Labor unions that are organizing these workers are doing so at the bottom of the workforce.  There is no group beneath them to pay for a sweetheart deal for other workers.  If workers try to organize Wal-Mart in one place, it shuts down and moves somewhere else where workers are less organized.  If a government official offers a union a sweetheart deal in the healthcare sector, they are likely to pay for it by cutting funds for other services—such as from the schools of the healthcare workers’ children.  If an official offers a sweetheart deal in education, chances are they are financing it by cutting poor peoples’ health insurance.  To make progress in this situation, labor more than ever needs a strategy for organizing that does not have workers in different sectors working at cross purposes, and does not leave any worker unprotected and cut out of deals.  If not, those who are excluded will quickly become prey for new rounds of exploitation and undermining of the more organized and secure sections of the labor force.

Labor needs bold and radical thinking about how to represent economic justice.  This is what makes reparations a good labor issue.  The issue is not about writing individual checks to descendants of slaves.  The U.S. treasury could not repay blacks for their labor even it wanted to.  What the reparations demand does is begin to expose the immorality of the entire economic structure in the United States at its foundation.    

Immigrant Rights

There are other articles in this volume devoted to labors’ work on immigrant rights, and I will not belabor the issue.  But I would be remiss to highlight justice for African Americans while ignoring the plight of low-income immigrant workers.  An issue that deserves particular attention is immigrant voting.  From the Colonial Era until the 1920s, immigrants voted in state and local elections in many states.  Since then, the vast majority of immigrants in the United States have been prohibited from voting by state restrictions imposed a century ago to weaken labor and community movements by Southern and Eastern European immigrants.  Immigrants now pay taxes and serve in the military yet they have no voice in politics.  It is a major mistake to think that immigrants are the only victims of their disenfranchisement.  Immigrants tend live in cities and inner ring suburbs with other poor people.  Because noncitizen immigrants cannot vote in state elections, all poor people in urban areas lose voting power.  Voters in wealthy suburban areas, with fewer immigrants gain disproportionate power in state budget contests.  The immigrant vote could aide low-income citizens in poor urban communities to win state and local political contests, and to fund needed services in their neighborhoods.

The issue of voting rights for immigrant taxpayers usually elicits the same response most people give to the black reparations issue.  It is too hard to sell politically; it is too controversial.  However, this is largely because the labor movement is decades late in fighting for these issues.  These will be uphill battles, but they would be the right battles, announcing a deep labor commitment to democracy and fairness for America’s most downtrodden people.  Perhaps this matters more than quick victories.  Moreover, immigrants are a large part of the bottom of the labor market, where labor hopes to establish a good reputation and grow.  Immigrants will no doubt bear in mind who supports their incorporation and who does not when defining their allegiances.

Models for Community Organizing

There have been spirited debates in this journal about how labor unions should reorganize.  I have little expertise to offer on this score; however, the debate seems to be too narrowly cast.  If organizing in low-income communities of color is seen as strategic for labor, as I argue it should be, then attention needs to put on organizing problems in those communities as well.  Building community-based unions, or community unionism, is an interesting approach.  However, there are community-based organizations (CBOs) in local areas struggling to survive, and adding a new labor-backed organization to compete for dues and loyalty may not always be well received.  Labor unions might consider, alternatively or conjunctively, supporting existing CBOs while convincing them to support labor initiatives.

Helping CBOs to become financially independent and self-sustaining is also the most important thing labor could do to win strong black community support (at least) and overcome a pervasive distrust of labor unions built over generations.  This is an entirely different approach than offering CBOs donations in exchange for their help in a campaign.  Rather, it is helping CBOs solve their structural problems in order to become strong institutions, just like unions are trying to be stronger institutions themselves.  It is also providing a way for CBOs to become independent political voices.

The area where labor unions can be of most help to CBOs  is in transferring their economic bargaining skills honed in production relations to consumer relations in communities.  The reasons are twofold: CBOs need economic liberation to free them up to pursue labor and political organizing, and communities are thoroughly disorganized as consumers.  CBOs need “liberation” because they are typically non-profits dependent on government or private foundation funding.  These are patronage relationships,  and the need to keep patrons happy explains why, despite the development of what is virtually a community building industry providing locally based social services and affordable housing, political participation in the low-income communities of color they serve has declined to abysmal levels.

One way to break free of this dependency  would be  to utilize their social networks and organizations in communities as the starting point for establishing cooperative purchasing units for utilities that all communities need.  Community bargaining units could negotiate prices and exact rents in intensively competitive telephone, internet, and energy markets.  There are already hundreds of cooperatives around the country that do this, but many are small and rural.  Dense urban populations are prime territory for consumer organizing, and they often have pre-existing organizational (and social capital) networks established in churches and CBOs.  There are also large concentrations of union members in many different kinds of communities, although these “densities” are seldom calculated, that could be supported by unions in their role as community leaders and participants.  As in labor organizing, the bigger the bargaining unit, the better.

There are literally thousands of cooperatives and community-owned enterprises in the United States.[13]  The vast majority are not involved in politics, however, some are.  Cooperatives were active in lobbying Congress to protect credit unions when conservatives targeted them for extinction a few years ago.  However, I am not arguing that a politicized cooperative movement already exists.  I am suggesting that labor unions are well-positioned to help develop such a movement.  This is because of the concentrations of union members residing in certain urban neighborhoods, the potential of labor-backed capital investments to support community economic investments, and the infrastructure of community development corporations and finance institutions that can partner with labor unions.

Inherent in this approach, is respect and a commitment to labor’s community partners.  This approach begins to deal with the structural inequalities between white and minority-led movements—labor and community respectively—and carries more weight than a thousand apologies or whipping sessions about racial inequality.  Lastly, this approach provides an organizational  mechanism for building ties within and across urban communities, as well as between urban/suburban communities with significant labor concentrations.  The powerful urban community movements of the 1960s and early 1970s could not sustain themselves financially, and they fell into the trap of patron-client relationships.  If they can climb out of that trap, I think that labor unions will have trouble keeping up with the pace of their organizing initiatives, and not the other way around.


[1] Jones, 1998. 
[2] For example, police harassment of blacks who were found “out of place” in predominantly white neighborhoods is common.  Sociologist Joe Feagin wrote that in his interviews of black men, many reported aversive reactions from whites when they walk down the street.  Feagin also noted that race continues to play a large role in white (’s) self-concepts, including the concept of a good family.  He quoted a white father and business person who responded to a hypothetical question about an adult child dating a black person, “I’d be sick to my stomach.  I would feel like, that I failed along the way…I’d feel like I probably failed as a father.”
Gerstle, 2001. 

[4] Mauer 1999. 
[5] As Zygmunt Bauman noted, the urban poor are not seen as a political agent, “…poverty is no longer associated with organized labor.  It has become much less romantic and politically interesting.  It is now a suffering that does not entail redemption but calls for more bureaucracy–if heeded– this call would only strengthen the oppressive grip of the capitalist state.” Wilson 1996; James H. Johnson 2000. 
[6] Williams 2002. 
[7] Alan Berube, “Racial and Ethnic Change in the Nation’s Largest Cities,” in Redefining Urban and Suburban America, edited by Bruce Katz and Robert E. Lang, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), p. 140. 
[8] Frug 1999, p. 140. 
[9] Waldo E. Martin 1984, p. 216-218.  
[10] Lewis 1993, p. 405. 
[11] Brown 1992. 
[12] Gilliam and Kaufman, 1998. 
[13] For an example of a community organizing approach to community enterprise, see the Market Creek project in San Diego, “”.

Not in Our Generation

For the past few years, the United States has been in the midst of a heated emotional and polarizing debate over immigration reform.  The loudest voices in this debate have come from the extreme right, whose favorite slogan has become,  “What part of illegal don’t you understand?”  They have quite successfully been able to frame the immigration policy debate in “moral” terms, getting the media to focus on the “legality” of the undocumented, and opposing any legalization program as an undeserving “amnesty.”

The leaders of this side of the debate have a simple solution: close the borders.  We’re being invaded, they argue.  Mexicans are trying to “reconquer” the United States.  Foreigners are displacing American workers, or, as Lou Dobbs likes to say, breaking into our country and stealing our jobs.  According to them, any more immigration threatens not only our culture, but the entire American way of life.

At the other end of the debate are supporters of lifting all border restrictions: if capital can flow freely across man-made borders, then why not people?  What’s keeping immigrant workers in exploitative conditions is their immigration status, they contend.  If employers did not have the ability to threaten immigrants with deportation, then immigrant workers would freely be able to exercise their labor rights, including their right to join and form unions.  The ultimate goal should be to ensure that workers who are coming into the United States are doing so through legal channels, and given that we cannot stop illegal immigration, the only way to accomplish that is to open the borders, which makes “legal status” moot.

In the view of the AFL-CIO, neither policy adequately protects workers’ rights, and therefore neither is the right answer.  The closed border position has only received support from marginal, extreme groups like Borders USA, VDARE, and FAIR commands little support among the general public.  It is a policy based on fear, ethnic stereotypes, and xenophobia, which divides workers and communities and is the enemy of solidarity.

The current conditions in the low-wage labor market—both immigrant and native-born, authorized and undocumented—make clear to us that an open borders policy is not the answer.  The U.S. government’s failure to enforce workplace standards has created a de facto open border in the United States, enabling corporations to reach around the globe and encourage workers to come to this country in search of jobs.  Formalizing an open borders policy would only play into the hands of corporations that would like nothing better than to treat workers as commodities.

The AFL-CIO’s answer to the “immigration crisis” is to reform immigration law in a way that places workers’ rights at the forefront and embraces traditional American values of fairness, equality, and opportunity.  Our approach has five core principles: (1) the law must provide a swift, practical, and inclusive mechanism by which all undocumented workers can regularize their status; (2) enforcement of labor laws must go hand-in-hand with enforcement of immigration laws;  (3) foreign workers must hereafter come into the United States with full and equal access to workplace protections, which means that future flow needs should not be met by temporary worker programs; instead, Congress should reform the employment-based permanent visa system to tie the number of visas available to real economic indicators; (4) all workers should be entitled to equal social protections; and (5) civil liberties must be preserved and protected.

Rather than simply open the border, we believe that the current immigration system should be restructured to reflect economic realities.  The number of people allowed to immigrate lawfully to United States was set by Congress more than ten years ago, and is based on a system of arbitrary caps that are the product of political compromises.  Under the current employment system, the United States allows 140,000 workers into the United States every year, including 5,000 unskilled workers, 10,000 religious workers, 40,000 professionals with advanced degrees, and others in equally random numbers.  Instead of these arbitrary caps, we propose linking the number of visas available to real economic indicators.  If the meatpacking industry could show a long-term labor shortage in a particular year, for example, and a meatpacking employer could show that it has been unable to find workers—despite real recruiting efforts—then that company should be able to hire the demonstrated number of foreign workers it needs.  The key to protecting U.S. labor standards is that the new foreign workers should come in with full rights.

An open borders policy does not guarantee workers full rights.  While all new workers would be “legal,” those workers would face the same obstacles that prevent workers today from exercising their rights, and which are continually lowering labor standards: the absence of a viable system of labor inspection, legal, and practical barriers that workers face when trying to exercise freedom of association, and the erosion of the social safety net, especially for immigrants.  Removing the disability caused by being “unauthorized” alone does not guarantee that labor standards will be preserved.

Advocates of open borders ignore this part of the equation, often pointing to the European Union (EU) experience as evidence that easing border restrictions does not necessarily lead to the lowering of wages and other standards in receiving nations.  That experience, in fact, makes clear that the United States is simply not ready for an open borders policy.  Before creating the single market and providing for the free movement of people in that market, the EU countries created strong social safety nets. The United States has moved in the opposite direction.

I believe that a discussion about open borders has to be based on reality.  By that, I do not mean the political reality of whether an open borders policy is likely to become law any time soon, because that would be the end of the analysis.  Rather, I suggest that an open borders policy must consider the reality of what it would mean for workers, both foreign and native born, if it were implemented today.

First, if we assume that workers arriving in the United States under an open borders policy would mirror the current “illegal” flow—which is an assumption that the proponents of open borders do not dispute—we can safely conclude that workers are going to find jobs in the growing low-wage sector, which includes agriculture, construction, child care, health care, retail, building services, hospitality, meatpacking, and poultry, and that most workers will come from Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America.  The presumption of open borders advocates is that workers coming into these sectors will be able to work in decent conditions, unlike the current immigrant worker population, because the new workers will not be “undocumented.”

Unfortunately, however, the reality for workers in the low-wage labor sector generally is that the issue of immigration status is just one of many factors keeping them in substandard conditions.    Even if employers lost the ability to hold workers’ immigration status over their heads, the hundreds of thousands of new workers would surely face the same type of exploitative conditions that all workers in the low-wage labor sector face today.

Of course I am not suggesting that the issue of immigration status should be ignored.  To the contrary, the AFL-CIO has been strongly advocating for a swift, practical and inclusive legalization program for the current undocumented population and for reform of the current immigration law in a way that guarantees full labor rights for future workers.  It is important to recognize that exploiting immigration status is just one of the ways that employers repress worker rights.

To begin with, jobs in the low-wage sectors have long been defined by systemic violations of wage-and-hour and other employment laws.  The last time that the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) conducted an industry-wide compliance investigation, in 2000, it determined that the poultry industry was 100 percent out of compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  DOL investigations in the garment sector, agriculture, and construction also revealed massive, across-the-board violations of wage and hour laws.

Instead of implementing any viable mechanisms to remedy these systematic violations, the DOL simply ignored them.  Over the past three decades,  and especially in the past six years, the number of businesses covered by the FLSA has increased significantly, while the DOL’s budget for wage and hour enforcement has decreased significantly, as have enforcement actions.  Today, there is one labor inspector for every 110,000 workers covered by the FLSA.

The reality is that there is no viable system of labor inspection in the United States today.  The Bush DOL has essentially abandoned its enforcement role.  That is no accident.  In fact, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has openly abandoned random audits and other affirmative enforcement programs in favor of “compliance assistance” programs, which consist of educating employers about their obligations under the laws that the DOL enforces.               The situation of workers in the Katrina reconstruction effort is instructive here because it serves as a blueprint for what new workers who arrive after we open borders are likely to face.   The Gulf Region has been flooded with new workers who are laboring in substandard conditions.  As soon as the Bush administration let out billions of dollars in contracts for the effort, tens of thousands of men and women, mostly immigrants, from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil arrived in the Gulf Coast, lured by advertisements of abundant work.  Workers, both documented and undocumented, migrated to the Gulf coast from Maryland and Mexico and points in between.  Mary Bauer, director of the Immigrant Justice Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Alabama, estimates that there are at least one hundred thousand foreign-born workers now working in the Gulf region, as compared to a few thousand before Katrina.

What workers found was work at substandard wages, performed under a maze of subcontracting schemes.  As Cynthia Cooper explained for In These Times,  “Corporations with government contracts hide behind layers of invisibility, hiring subcontractors who hire other subcontractors—a frayed rope ladder reaching down to the workers.”  The result has been massive and systematic worker exploitation.

Not surprisingly, the DOL has looked the other way.  Its Gulfport Office’s wage and hour division has only two employees for the entire region, only one of whom speaks Spanish.  The agency has failed to pursue litigation against joint employers  that is, all employers in the contracting chain  even though the FLSA plainly allows it to do so.  In the small number of cases it has pursued, it has often accepted minimal settlements (in the hundreds of dollars), on behalf of individual workers (refusing to file class actions), a disgrace given who is ultimately controlling the work: KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, and Bechtel, Inc., who have each received billion dollar contracts.

Enforcement of labor standards in the Gulf Coast has been left to workers themselves, which has led to what Jennifer J.  Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, calls “chronic retaliation.”  As Ms. Rosenbaum testified before the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last summer:

When workers have requested their unpaid wages or complained about conditions, they were threatened or worse.  Our office has spoken with dozens of workers who suffered retaliation when they simply asked to be paid: some were physically assaulted; some were threatened with guns; some were threatened with deportation; some were fired from their jobs; and some were blacklisted from future employment.  Contractors routinely told workers that if they were to participate in a complaint or lawsuit, those workers would never work for the company again.

It is important to note that the threat of deportation is just one of the many threats that employers have made in order to keep workers from exercising their rights.  With the greater supply of cheap labor, and the present lack of labor rights enforcement, employers could be expected to continue to threaten physical assault, firings, and blacklisting if we simply opened the borders.

Given the absence of a viable system of labor inspection, workers are left with two established mechanisms of enforcing labor standards: complaint-based enforcement actions and collective bargaining.  Under current conditions, neither option is within the reach of the workforce that is likely to arrive into the United States as a result of an open borders policy.

A workers-complaint driven system has proven particularly ineffective for foreign-born workers, who face serious barriers to complaining to DOL or accessing the courts, including language and lack of knowledge about U.S. labor and employment laws.  Private lawsuits are simply not an option for most workers in the low-wage labor market because they lack access to affordable legal representation.  Simply opening the borders (and thus removing “undocumented status” from the list of obstacles) does nothing to remove the multiple other barriers.

The other option available to workers is collective bargaining.  Many have argued that “legalizing” workers, no matter what the conditions of that legal status, including by opening the borders to all, will encourage labor organizing.  That argument ignores reality, which is that even native-born workers in the United States right now do not have the ability to form and join unions because the law,  in both theory and practice, strongly deters freedom of association.  It is certainly unlikely that new workers would be able to overcome the barriers to organizing that workers face in the United States today.

The United States’ hostility to unionization is nothing new.  Over twenty years ago, Theodore J. St. Antoine, one of this country’s most noted labor law scholars, observed, “The intensity of opposition to unionization which is exhibited by American employers has no parallel in the western industrial world.”  John Logan, an expert on labor relations at the London School of Economics, observed, “No other country in the world has spawned a thriving union avoidance industry, whose mission is to crush workplace organizing campaigns through employer harassment, intimidation, and reprisals.”

According to Human Rights Watch, “Workers’ rights violations in the United States are widespread and growing.  The NLRB used to devote most of its work to running elections for workers to choose or reject representation.  Now the bulk of the agency’s work involves unfair labor practices, most having to do with employers’ violations of workers’ rights.”

Official government data paint a stark picture of the obstacles American workers face when they choose to exercise their right to freedom of association.  James Brudney, professor of law at Ohio State University, said of NLRB statistics:

“[they] demonstrate that discriminatory conduct against employees increased at an astounding rate between the late 1950s and 1980; this remarkable pattern of employer misconduct persists in robust form today.  By 1990, there were incidents of unlawful termination in fully 25% of all organizing campaigns: one out of every fifty union supporters in an election campaign could expect to be victimized by such conduct.  A more recent study estimated that by the late 1990s, one out of every eighteen workers who participated in a union organizing campaign was the object of unlawful discrimination.  It is also notable that over the past two decades, employers’ unfair labor practices have become more heavily concentrated in mid-size and larger establishments, where union election win rates remain substantially lower.”

Intimidation and threats of deportation are just two of the many tools in the union busters’ arsenal.  Most union avoidance mechanisms have nothing to do with abusing workers’ immigration status: threats of a full or partial shutdown of the workplace if the union effort succeeds, illegal changes to wages, benefits, and working conditions, bribes to those who oppose the union, and electronic and other means of surveillance to spy on union activists are all too common.  Even after workers successfully form a union, in one third of the instances employers do not negotiate a contract. These statistics make clear that simply opening the borders will not bring either new or existing workers any closer to freedom of association in the United States.

Another significant barrier to implementing an open borders policy at this time is rising anti-immigrant sentiment, which has been shaping public policies for more than a decade, long before the September 11 terrorist attacks.   Until 1996, U.S. public policy was designed to provide equal social protections for legal immigrants and native-born citizens alike.  In 1996, two pieces of legislation were signed into law that stripped the protections of our social safety net for immigrants.  The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) made lawful permanent residents arriving after the act’s enactment ineligible for all federally funded means-tested benefit programs for five years.  It thus cut off millions of workers from the social safety net.  The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) is a collection of harsh reforms: it bans Social Security benefits for undocumented workers and authorizes states to limit public assistance to immigrants. Professor Rogers M. Smith of the University of Pennsylvania notes that “these policies made it more likely that aliens would take any sort of employment on any terms offered.”   In other words, restricting benefits to an entire class of persons has put downward pressure on wages and other working conditions.  It follows that substantially growing that class of workers (as an open borders policy would do, by definition) would exacerbate those negative effects.

The recent debate over the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) makes clear that anti-immigrant sentiment is very much alive, even in the mainstream.  Among other things, that program would restore benefits to children who are U.S. citizens who were left out of the system after Congress added onerous documentation requirements— namely, a certified U.S. birth certificate, that many U.S. citizens simply could not produce.  The anti-immigrant right wing, led by Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, led an attack on the program claiming that the SCHIP would allow “illegal aliens” to receive public benefits.  Even though Republicans were unable to substantiate their claims that undocumented persons have been claiming public benefits, and despite the fact that their claim that SCHIP provides benefits to undocumented persons is patently false, the program was nonetheless derailed, largely because of the immigration issue.

Taken together, these factors—the lack of a system of labor inspection, barriers to private enforcement of labor and employment laws, lack of freedom of association, and an increasingly hostile attitude toward immigrants—spell disaster for the workers who would be arriving across our open borders.  In short, an open borders policy would simply feed workers into an unregulated labor market with no safety net.  That policy benefits no one but the multinational corporations who would finally be able to treat workers as they have been fighting to do: as commodities.

It will take at least a decade, some say a generation, to reverse the U.S. economic, labor, social, and immigration policies that have left all workers in the United States in peril.  Until we have made substantial progress, it is simply irresponsible to advocate for an open borders policy.

If Not Now, When?

Open Borders exists as a popular sentiment and an unspoken ideal among immigrant rights activists and segments of the labor movement. It is expressed in the widely used slogan sin fronteras (without borders), and the massive demonstrations of 2006 saw the appearance of a new motto, No person is illegal, a phrase that suggests that we should reject the inhumane laws that govern borders and migration policy. Many of us feel that borders and walls, midnight raids on homes, and roundups at workplaces are immoral and unjust.

The idea of Open Borders arose through cross-border organizations and international solidarity movements that, since the 1970s, have reached across national frontiers to join hands with unions, women’s groups, and environmental organizations abroad. Labor unionists speak of our “sisters and brothers” in other countries to indicate that workers are part of the same family of international labor—a movement without borders. We see the slogan of Open Borders begin to take shape as a strategic conception, an alternate global route to worker power and a more just world.[1]

Closed borders are out of date, passé. It is a policy based on the defense of a national economic model that has been outmoded for thirty years. Around 1980, manufacturing, once concentrated in Europe and North America, became global thanks to innovations like computers, containers, fiber-optic cables, and satellite communications. Corporations now manufacture globally and market around the world. The result was the beginning of a new restructuring of global investment, global industrialization, and global labor.

Since the 1980s, the gap between rich and poor nations has widened and workers from poorer countries increasingly migrate to find jobs and higher wages in wealthier ones. With global manufacturing, national solutions to economic and political problems, especially to labor problems, no longer suffice. To survive, American unions must organize immigrants at home and work with unions abroad to confront global capital. Our path to alliance with workers in other countries lies through Open Borders.

Some fear that Open Borders means inundation by low-wage workers who will drive down our wages and weaken unions. Most economists, however, believe that immigration actually creates more jobs and raises incomes even if it threatens those with the very lowest education and skills.[2] Even on that point there is much debate, however, and there is no agreement among economists and sociologists that immigrants lower wages or threaten the well-being of specific groups of workers.[3] The real issue is not the increase in immigrants, but labor’s ability and commitment to organize them.

While welcoming immigrants is clearly important, the U.S. labor movement needs to protect low-wage, native-born workers and the 12 percent of our labor force without a high school diploma. We need to support teachers’ unions to fight for more money for public schools, smaller class size, and more programs to stop students from dropping out. Labor must also fight for government training programs for low-skilled workers. Just as we have created workers’ centers to reach immigrants and other marginalized workers, we need labor-sponsored centers for the organization of the unemployed and the poor to help them fight for social programs and jobs that pay a living wage.

Nine Arguments for Open Borders

I argue here that the American workers’ movement should adopt a position of Open Borders not simply because it is the only morally defensible position, but also because it opens up an alternate strategy to workers’ power. Today, American unions are failing to organize enough workers to change the balance of power with American capital. The failure results in large measure from an inability to confront capital on its own terms, which have long since become global. Corporations manufacture and market products around the globe, while the international rules of the game are set by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. National unions have proven unable to respond to the international challenge.

Despite NAFTA, U.S. labor unions have not even been able to build a meaningful alliance with labor unions in Canada and Mexico so that they can confront capital on the North American continent. The failure results in part from the narrow nationalist and protectionist view still held by much of the labor movement, and central to that view is the notion of closed borders. We need to change labor’s strategic outlook from one that is national to one that is international. We can begin to implement an international policy and strategy here in North America by creating a genuine alliance of all workers on the continent, an alliance sin fronteras, without borders. I offer here nine arguments for Open Borders.[4]

I. The Humanistic Argument: One Race, One World

Humanists, secular and religious, have long argued that we are one race, the human race, that must share its common home, the planet earth. The world’s natural resources and produce should go to shelter, heat, clothe, and feed all of us on this planet. We should enjoy the right to travel this planet as our common home.[5]

At present, under agreements like NAFTA and the rules of the World Trade Organization, human beings do not have equal access to the planet’s wealth, nor can we move about the world as we wish. Multinational corporations move their money, factories, and products around the world, and corporate executives, professionals, and high-skilled workers migrate around the globe to carry out the corporations’ wishes. The wealthy can travel virtually anywhere they want and even the merely comfortable of the Global North can tour the world. Yet, working people may not move in search of jobs, higher wages, or a better life, because borders are closed. Closing borders violates the ethical principle of our common right to life on this planet.

II. The Responsibility Argument: Why Punish the Migrant?

Many in the immigrant rights and labor movement argue that closed borders unfairly penalize workers, denying them the right to find work to support their families when they were forced by economic or political developments to migrate. While governments and corporations have caused the dislocations that lead to migration, it is workers who suffer the consequences.

Modern migration began in the nineteenth century with the spread of industrial capitalism and the destruction of pre-capitalist agricultural and traditional societies from Ireland to China. Railroads siphoned dispossessed peasants off the land and hauled them to the harbors, where steamships could carry them cheaply to the United States, Brazil, or Argentina. This process took 150 years and continues today in Mexico, where NAFTA and globalization are finishing off the dispossession of the peasants, leading to millions of Mexican migrants coming to the United States.

Capitalism and corporations are not entirely to blame for migration. U.S. foreign policy and military intervention also set workers in motion. The CIA’s coup in Guatemala in 1954, for example, led to a series of dictatorial governments, civil war, and eventually the murder of over 200,000 Guatemalans. U.S. military intervention in Central America in the 1980s destroyed political, economic, and social structures and set millions in motion toward the United States, not only from Guatemala but also from Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

Most people do not choose to migrate. Most would prefer to live in the countries they love with the families and friends to whom they are connected by deep ties of affection. Most move because they must. Given that U.S. corporations and U.S. foreign policy have generated these mass migrations, shouldn’t workers from the affected countries have the right to come here seeking jobs? Why should workers in other countries have to pay the price for U.S. corporate and governmental policies?[6]

III. The Historical Argument: Borders Are Past Violence Congealed.

Historically speaking, it is difficult to justify the legitimacy of the world’s borders. Borders have been created by states through conquest. The U.S.-Mexico border was created by the War of 1847, an American war of aggression in which the United States took half of Mexico and forced 100,000 of its citizens to become U.S. citizens.[7]

The United States should not be singled out here. Borders almost everywhere have been created by the same process. The Berlin Congress of 1884 divided up Africa among the European powers and after World War II these divisions became the boundaries of the new African states. The new states’ borders seldom reflected the desires of the African peoples; they were simply foisted on them by the great powers. Similarly, Great Britain and France created the borders of the Middle East when they gave up that region to the United States following the end of World War II. The new boundaries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe resulted from power grabs by former Communist bureaucrats, while in Asia, China took Tibet and the Cold War divided Korea. Everywhere, borders have been the result of power plays and aggression, of wars of conquest and occupation. Such borders, including our own, can hardly demand our respect since they represent only congealed violence.

Why should borders created in such a way govern migration? Shouldn’t international relations, among them the rights of migrants, have a more rational, fair, and democratic basis?

IV. The Internationalist Argument: Borders Promote Nationalism and Warfare.

Internationalists—humanists and socialists—have argued for at least 150 years that economic competition and nationalism lead to war. While the nation-state supposedly fights its wars to defend the nation, internationalists argue that in reality most are wars to enrich capitalists and expand the power of government.

Borders bind together all social classes in the common venture of the fatherland. Capitalists and workers of one nation are to be united against capitalists and workers in another. We have to defend our own markets while we fight our way into the markets of other countries.

The internationalists call upon the world’s people to unite as one, rejecting patriotism and its wars. Working-class internationalism argues that workers of any country have more in common with each other than they do with the bosses of their own nation. If other workers are our sisters and brothers in a common struggle against capital, then we cannot close our nation’s door to them. We have to open the border and welcome them into our country, our workplaces, and our unions.

V. The Inequality Argument: Borders Reinforce Inequalities on a Global Scale.

Since the 1980s, European Social Democrats have argued that the world’s wealth is distributed in a way that is unequal, unfair, and ultimately unsustainable.[8] Similarly, since 2001 the antiglobalization movement gathered in the World Social Forum has argued that the world’s trade agreements exacerbate the situation: the wealthy nations of the Global North are getting wealthier, while poor nations of the Global South are becoming poorer. This unequal division of the world’s wealth is maintained and enforced by borders.

Corporations, employers’ associations, and some legislators in both the Republican and Democratic parties do wish to change immigration policy. Many would be willing to regularize at least some of those who are now here without documents in exchange for creating a system for future flows that would assure cheap labor, particularly to agriculture, but also to services, construction, and industry. Employers want consistent access to cheap immigrant labor, for example, through guest-worker programs. They have historically used the presence of such immigrant workers with limited or no rights to lower the wages of other workers and to divide workers along ethnic lines to prevent unionization. The answer is not to close the border, but to open the border, thus giving all workers rights to residency and work, and some citizenship rights. Justice demands Open Borders.

VI. The Race Argument: Borders Keep People of Color Out of White Peoples’ Countries

One hundred years ago, W. E. B. DuBois wrote that the “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”[9] Since that problem was not resolved by the end of the twentieth century it continues to plague us in the twenty-first. Today, the color line is a border and the border is a wall. Most of the world’s wealthy nations are made up mostly of white people (Japan is the exception), while most of the world’s poor nations are made up mostly of people of color. Borders maintain that reality.

Nations and peoples have found it hard to simply keep the people of color out. They must also create reasons to fear and hate them. So throughout history we see that the argument for closed borders is bolstered by calls to keep out the yellow, brown, or black people who are racially inferior to whites. Or sometimes the other who must be kept out is Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

When nations develop such racial attitudes, it becomes impossible to confine the fear and hatred of people of color or those of different faiths to those who are on the other side of the border wall. Racism also expands within the country. Advocacy of Open Borders represents a stand against racism and bigotry.

VII. The Feminization of Poverty Argument: Borders Contribute to the Increasing Poverty of Women

Borders also penalize women disproportionately. We have a global crisis that has been called the feminization of poverty: throughout the world, the poorest of the poor are women and their children. National borders are meant to keep women in their place. The woman who would move from the one-dollar-a-day income she has in Honduras will not be permitted to cross the border into the United States so that she can earn enough money to feed her children. Borders enforce the economic, social, and political subjection of women.

Yet, driven by the poverty of their countries, women will nevertheless seek to migrate, and half of all migrants are now women. The conditions under which they migrate create sexual abuse in the migration process and intense labor exploitation when they arrive, as well as a netherworld of traffickers in sex workers and mail-order brides.

There is a great irony here. The women of Africa, Asia, and Latin America give years of their lives and their miserable incomes to raise the children who grow up to become workers in the United States and Europe. Mexico, especially its women, pays the costs of social reproduction for the 10 percent of its workforce that works in the United States. Mexicans pay for the food, clothing, education, health care, and housing to raise the children to become working-age adults. The United States then reaps the benefits of their labor in their productive working years. Later, many of those workers return to Mexico in their older years, where they need more care. Much of the care at every stage is given by the often unpaid labor of women.[10]

VIII. The State versus Society Argument: To Defend the Border You Must Expand the Power of the State

To have closed borders you must have a stronger state. We will have to build walls at the border. We will need more border patrol agents, jeeps, helicopters, planes, and boats. We will have to deploy the National Guard and perhaps the army to back up the Border Patrol.

The border, however, is not only at the border. The border is everywhere. We have to ferret out the “illegal aliens” amongst us. We must have an immigrant identification system, so we will also need a national identity card for all citizens. We will need not only fingerprints, but also biometric devices to scan our faces, our hands, our eyes, and our DNA. We will need more surveillance and wiretaps.

Closed borders augment authoritarian tendencies within our country and undermine democracy. Historically, everything that strengthens the repressive apparatus of the state weakens the power of citizens and workers. The repressive measures taken against immigrants today will be taken against citizens and workers tomorrow. The forces mobilized to protect your border will also be used to break your strike.

IX. The Economic Power Argument: Open Borders Build International Solidarity

The principal reason that we should adopt Open Borders is that it will strengthen the power of the workers faced with the new global structure of capital.

What will it take for labor to respond to the new shape of capital, to be able to follow the actual chains of supply, production, and distribution? We are all aware that labor can only do this if it creates international alliances that allow us to take concerted economic action simultaneously across international borders. To build such international alliances against capital and the corporations, we have to prove ourselves to be loyal first to our fellow workers.

What does an Open Border policy have to do with an international solidarity policy? Think of it this way: Can we make an alliance with the unions and workers of Venezuela if we support a U.S. coup or invasion in that country? Similarly, can we join forces with Mexican or Guatemalan workers if at the same time we support stronger immigration enforcement, more Border Patrol, more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, raids, and deportations? Will Latino workers believe in us if we permit guest-worker programs where the guests are slaves without civil or political rights? If we want an international labor alliance, then we must put ourselves on the side of immigrant workers here and foreign workers abroad rather than on the side of our employers and our government.

A Continental Workers’ Alliance

The time and place to begin the Open Borders process is here and now, by creating a continental workers’ alliance. Some might argue that labor has no need to build a continental workers alliance because we have the International Trade Union Confederation and the International Trade Secretariats responsible for coordinating international labor action. While the secretariats serve some useful purposes, most have not shown a commitment to building the kind of international movement necessary to challenge capital. We suggest here an alternative approach based on building real grassroots worker connections. Key to the success of all such joint campaigns would be the building of worker-to-worker meetings that would come to involve tens of thousands of workers, gathering in many meetings in various countries and sitting down to discuss their lives, work, and goals face to face.

We might construct such an alliance around common needs and concerns. First, and most important, would be to focus organizing and bargaining efforts on certain corporations with a presence in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. General Electric, for example, has major investments in all three countries. Several unions in the United States and Canada have had some level of cooperation in dealing with GE and could reach out to the Mexican unions.[11] Unions should support organizing efforts at GE plants in all three countries and look for opportunities for simultaneous, concerted action across borders. Several industries and companies such as longshoring, mining, and telecommunications already have some level of international cooperation within North America and beyond.

Second, public employees in the same sector could be brought together around common concerns. For example, teachers could be brought together to defend public education at all levels. In fact, the Trinational Coalition for the Defense of Public Education in Canada, the United States, and Mexico has already laid the groundwork for such an alliance.[12] One can imagine bringing together health workers from both the public and private sectors and government employees from the local, state (or province), and national governments of all three countries.

Third, workers in all three countries could come together in joint campaigns around issues of common concern. Several years ago, the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladora attempted an international campaign for a living wage in all three North American countries. While that campaign fizzled for lack of resources, it was a good idea and should be taken up again. One could imagine similar campaigns to win or defend national health care, to shorten the work week, and to protect retirement benefits. A continental workers’ alliance could also promote international meetings of migrants and immigrants as well as of the unemployed and the poor.

A continental alliance could also be built around common tactics that arise from the very issues that have divided workers. One can imagine a series of actions built around causing delays or blocking international borders. Telecommunications workers are obviously in a strategic location to shut down global communications. Dockworkers have demonstrated the power to bring the entire worldwide movement of goods to a standstill. If we are to be able to exert such potential economic power for workers, we need to build a powerful grassroots movement to drive forward the existing unions and any future continental workers’ alliance.

Support for Open Borders would begin to show our Canadian, Mexican, and Central American sisters and brothers that we are on their side. We have to be careful, however, not to replicate at a higher level the government-capital-labor alliance that now exists at a national level. We do not want to create a kind of Fortress North American locked in an economic war with Europe and Asia. We want rather to create a continental labor alliance that allows labor to shape the politics of this continent while promoting a global labor alliance.[13] We have to strive at every level to replace competition with cooperation. North American workers must reach beyond the Americas to workers not only in Latin America, but also in Europe, Asia, and Africa. By opening our borders while building international solidarity we have a world to win.\


[1]Today very few unions and federations in any country take an Open Borders position, but some do. The French Union syndicale Solidaires (Solidarity Labor Union) made up largely of public employees and the second or third largest federation in France, calls for Open Borders. In its pamphlet “Immigration: A Cynical Politic at the Service of the Boss” Solidaires calls for the right to “free movement and immigration” not just for European Union members, but for all immigrants. They also call for the abolition of all laws affecting immigrants’ civil and labor rights as well as for the right of immigrants who are not yet citizens to vote in local elections and have access to government jobs and social welfare programs. Union syndicale Solidaires, Immigration: Une politique cynique au service du patronat (Paris: Union syndicale Solidaires, Jan. 2006), 16. My trans.

[2]Richard Lowenstein, “The Immigration Equation,” New York Times Magazine, June 9, 2006, summarizing the debate between George Borjas and David Card. He writes, “The consensus of most [economists] is that, on balance, immigration is good for the country. Immigrants provide scarce labor, which lowers prices in much the same way global trade does. And overall, the newcomers modestly raise Americans’ per capita income. But the impact is unevenly distributed; people with means pay less for taxi rides and household help while the less-affluent command lower wages and probably pay more for rent.” The National Research Council (NRC) found in 1997 study that “immigration produces net economic gains for domestic residents.”

[3]Martin Oppenheimer, “Does Immigration Hurt U.S.-born Workers?” New Politics, (Winter 2008), 50-59, reviews all of the most recent literature. See also, David Bacon, “The Political Economy of Migration” at:

[4]I have been surprised to find few systematic arguments for Open Borders, though some for more liberal or humane policies. Some free trade economists, libertarians, anarchist, socialists, and communists have made open border arguments and some Catholic thinkers arrive at positions tantamount to Open Borders. Liberal theorists have sometimes argued for Open Borders based on a right to freedom of movement, though that may come into contradiction with other liberal notions of state sovereignty, property, and entitlements. Consistent conservative free-trade advocates also assert the right to freedom to migrate. An excellent comprehensive overview of philosophical discussions of immigration theory can be found in Veit Bader, “The Ethics of Immigration,” Constellations, Vol. 12, No.3, (2005), 331-361. He argues for “fairly open borders.” Shelly Wilcox, “Immigrant Admissions and Global Relations of Harm,” Journal of Social Philosophy (Vol 38, No. 2, Summer 2006, 274-291, argues in that the global harm principle, not to do harm to others, not to create a human rights deficit, would create a “just and comprehensive liberal immigration policy.” Another approach to the problem is taken by Jennifer Gordon, “Transnational Labor citizenship,” Southern California Law Review, 80 S. Cal. L. Rev. 503 (March, 2007), who argues that workers permitted to enter the U.S. even in guest worker programs might enjoy certain kind of “transnational labor citizenship,” perhaps even without the participation of the U.S. government.

[5] While the Catholic Church itself does not hold an Open Borders position, some Catholics have developed Christian humanist positions which are tantamount to Open Borders. Summing up the Social Forum on Migration held Jan 23-25, 2005 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Father Thierry Linard de Guertechim, S.J. said, “The construction of universal citizenship demands going beyond the demonization of others, especially of the migrant, who should not be considered a problem but rather a solution, because (s)he is the agent of transformation and the bearer of a universal human consciousness, a global citizen, symbolized in the concrete universal of the house-earth habitable by all persons.” Serviço Pastoral dos Migrantes, Travessias na De$ordem Global: Fórum Social das Migraçoes (São Paulo, Brazil: Paulinas, 2005), 409. My trans.

[6]Harry Van der Linden and Josh Clark, “Economic Migration and Justice,” International Journal of Applied Philosophy 19(1): 45-61, 2005, argues that the U.S. has a duty of justice to adopt an Open Border policy with regard to economic migrants because it is significantly responsible for the unjust social and economic conditions that bring such migrants to its borders. The article condemns President George W. Bush’s “guest worker” proposal as morally objectionable because it responds to business interests rather than meeting the nation’s responsibility to migrants created by its policies.

[7]See the discussion of the Mexican-American War in William Appleman Williams, Empire as a way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press) 89-93. The Mexican-American War of 1847, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, and current Iraq War all have their origins in the attempt of rival capitalist nations struggling to control, divide and re-divide the world’s territory, populations, resources and markets. The victors draw the borders for political and economic interests, irrespective of the peoples’ desires. Recently there has arisen a whole new body of literature discussing the American empire: Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006); Gregg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006); Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2004); Ellen Meiskins Wood, Empire of Capital (New York: Verso, 2003).

[8]Brandt Comission, North and South: A Program for Survival (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1980); Brandt Comission, Common Crisis: North-South: Cooperation for World Recovery (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1983).

[9]W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (New York: Bedford, 1997), p. 42, opening line of Chapter 2, “Of the Dawn of Freedom.”

[10]Nancy Folbre, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values (New York: New Press, 2001) makes arguments along these lines.

[11]GE Workers United, Coordinated Bargaining Committee, at:

[12]Dan Leahy,The Trinational Coalition for the Defense of Public Education in Canada, the United States and Mexico, 1993-2007: A Brief History,” Mexican Labor News and Analysis, January, 2007 Vol. 12 No. 1, at:

[13]The International Labor Organization (ILO), a tripartite organization of government, business, and labor federations is not such an organization. (International Labor Organization at:–en/index.htm) While the International Trade Union Confederation pretends to be one, it frequently functions as a collection of rival national labor federations each of which is aligned with national capital. (International Trade Union Confederation at: )What is needed is an anti-capitalist international labor alliance.


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Informal Workers in the Developing World: Organizing in the Global Economy

Informal employment is back on the policy agenda. Not only is it rising steadily in developed countries—it also already represents the majority of the workforce in most developing countries. Adding to policy concerns are the lingering impacts of the Great Recession on employment and the global crisis of youth unemployment. In all parts of the world, the reality is that the majority of informal workers are poor, and the majority of working poor are informally employed. Historically, labor law, labor statistics, and labor organizing have all centered on the notion of a recognized employer–employee relation- ship. But in addition to self-employed workers, increasingly, many wage or salaried workers are no longer in a clearly recognized employer– employee relationship. These two groups are generally referred to as “informal workers” in developing countries and “nonstandard workers” in developed countries.

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Yiantian International Container Terminal,

Wal-Mart’s Tale of Two Cities: From Bentonville to Guangdong

A globalized world of commerce and labor has existed for centuries. The Vanderbilts and the Victorians knew all about the China trade. But today’s globalization differs radically from that of even a few decades past because of the contemporary role played by the corporate king-makers of our day, the big box retail chains that now occupy the strategic heights once so well-garrisoned by the great manufacturing firms of the Fordist era. At the crux of the global supply chains stand the Wal-Marts, the Home Depots, and the Carrefours of our time. They make the markets, set the prices, and determine the worldwide distribution of labor for that gigantic stream of commodities that now flows across their counters.

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