Monday, November 5, 2012

Who gains admission and who counts white? - Immigrants organize now and then (Part 2)

As second-generation immigrants, the DREAMers had a family and financial background that enabled them to complete a high school or even a community college. They are the "cream" of the undocumented immigrants. Obviously, there are huge class differences among undocumented immigrants. Those immigrants who enter the country with a tourist or work visa, then overstay after the time of admission has expired, are often in better financial shape and better educated. Those, who by risking their lives, cross the border illegally, will try to get a job wherever it is possible without a work permit, for example, in the construction industry, in the service industry (in restaurants) or in agriculture. They may do manual labor or work for an acquaintance or for a family member, so for those who already got themselves on firm ground, and with the help of others, it is easier to remain invisible to the authorities. If their employee does not pay their wage, or deducts undeclared expenses from their wage, or binds them with debts or commits sexual assault against them, they may risk their stay if they file a complaint. The employees who abuse their workers benefit from the large flow of undocumented immigrant workers, who can replace those who complain, organize or unionize. (Read Part 1 here.)

Working-class undocumented immigrants organize: César Chávez and the non-violent movement of farmworkers and their unions

Huelga - Strike. Source: Tavaana

In 2009, approximately 2.5 to 3 million people worked in the American agriculture, and 72 percent of them were immigrants, with the majority being Mexican (IPCNCFH). Their links to the U.S. are strong, some of them were born here. Their status can be manyfold. More than one million of them work undocumented (IPC). As a result of the strong agrilobby, federal laws that govern wages, overtime and benefits do not apply to farmworkers and they may be protected by state law (PCUN). Ultimately, the employer treats the illegal workers as they like. The U.S., in addition, allows 30 thousand people (3-5 percent of the agricultural workers) to legally work as a guest worker for less than a year in American agriculture. The growers, referring to the lack of a local workforce, can initiate their participation in the guest worker employment program after they cannot fill the jobs despite thorough job announcements. The H-2A visa, which provides legal status for these workers, theoretically provide some protection. For example, it determines that wages cannot be lower than the minimum wage, and it sets housing standards to some extent. However, because the workers are not in the position to change a workplace in case the employer does not meet legal obligations, and because by submitting a complaint they would risk their stay, or their possible renewal of employment in the next season, and because the state supervision of the implementation of this law is not comprehensive, abuse is not unusual. Many workers, in addition, arrive deeply in debt because they covered the transportation cost or paid recruiters for the opportunity to work. Transportation costs must be reimbursed by the employer for the worker if they completed at least half of the work contract period. As a result of the lack of proper protection, the workers are forced to stay despite unsatisfactory circumstances. It also happens that the employer avoids paying transportation costs back to the home country of the worker after their contract ends. On the other hand, those farmworkers who live in the country legally or without proper documents, or who may be citizens, are indirect subjects to the exploitative system: the employers, for the sake of greater profits, decide to employ those who they need to pay less (because, for example, they don't need to pay Social Security on the wages of the guestworker) (Working Immigrants).

In 1962, César Chávez started to organize among farmworkers. His parents immigrated from Mexico to Arizona, and he was born in 1927 in the U.S. His family lost their farm during the economic depression of the 1930s when he was a child and the impoverished family moved to California where they started to work as farmworkers. The situation of the Spanish-speaking population was in many aspects similar to the African-Americans living in the southern states. The education was segregated in many schools, it was forbidden to speak in Spanish, and the society fundamentally disdained people with Mexican origin. There were restaurants where only whites were served. Chávez worked as a farmworker, followed by two years in the military, then in 1952, he started to work for Fred Ross, a community organizer affiliated with Saul Alinsky, where he became the director of the organization in 1958. The Community Service Organization, however, did not commit itself to organize farmworkers, so Chávez quit his job in 1962 and started to organize with his allies.

Get out the vote campaign. Source: UFW
In 1960, in California a group of large-scale farmers emerged who carried out specialty crop and industrialized agricultural production. This system needed a lot of investment from different parties, especially because of the high number of dry regions, so stakeholders from banks, agricultural machinery and irrigation system production to the packing and transportation industry and wholesalers and retailers all had an interest in the maintenance of this agribusiness. As a result, the farmworkers, who were practically at the bottom of the capitalist pyramid, had to represent power not only against the growers, but a well-extended and influential network of business stakeholders, who successfully drowned all their organizing initiatives in the last few decades. (2003: Dalton)

Chávez aimed for unionizing a huge number of workers so that they can collectively bargain with the growers and the employees hire the workers through the union. His movement protected the interests of the settled-down farmworkers, often against the miserable guestworkers brought from Mexico for seasonal work under the so-called Bracero program. Under this federal program, which ran between 1942-64, the avoidance of paying the minimum wage to guestworkers was not too difficult, therefore the growers could torpedo the organizing efforts of settled-down farmworkers through their easy access to the cheap labor of several thousands of guestworkers who were admitted to the country in the 1950-60s.

The overall strategy of Chávez used was that he first built a mass base of workers, who could then put substantial pressure on decision-makers. In 1962, he founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta, where he offered modest benefits and support to members through a membership fee. However, the three-year long relationship building and recruitment went slowly, because NFWA hadn't had any victories which would have made the organization reliable to potential members. Finally, a 1965 strike gave impetus and helped the organization grow. A mainly Filipino workers' organization (AWOC) started a strike against grape growers in the Delano region in California and invited NFWA to join. As a result of the call and the three years of recruitment and relationship building, 1,200 families joined. A five-year strike started and the two organizations united to establish the United Farm Workers (UFW). In 1970, the grape growers in the Delano region, due to local, national and international pressure, signed a three-year contract with UFW, which brought enormous success to the movement. In 1968, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy also joined one of their actions.

A crop duster is spraying pesticides,
while farm workers are working
in the field in 1969. Source: UFW
After this, the UFW started a new boycott against lettuce growers, while, after the expiration of the three-year contract, the Delano growers signed a new contract with another union making lesser demands. As a result of this, new strikes erupted in 1973, which were put down by the law enforcement by violent means. The UFW responded with another grape boycott and 17 million Americans boycotted Delano grapes. The UFW managed to cause huge profit losses to the grape business stakeholders from production to sales, which led to the enactment of a new law by the governor of California in 1975, which secured the right of farmworkers to unionize. Due to the pressure from the supermarkets, the growers did not oppose. The membership of the UFW had grown beyond 40,000 by the 1980s.

The growers, as a response, supported the campaign of an anti-union candidate in the 1982 governor's race in California, who won the election and repealed the union law. The UFW then started another boycott and launched a campaign against pesticides, which caused serious health problems to workers and their kids. In 1992, UFW activists managed to get the wage of grapepickers increased.

Chávez passed away in 1993. One of the campaigns of the UFW now is the enactment of the so-called AgJOBS Act, which would legalize the status of undocumented immigrants and open the path for them to permanent residency.

Viva La Causa: organizing principles of César Chávez

Activists demand wage increase
for tomato pickers in front of a
Taco Bell fast food restaurant.

By the 1960s, the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement had been emerging. The Chicano Movement, which aimed for the elimination of discrimination against Mexican Americans, segregation at schools, economic exploitation, disdain of their culture and the need for meaningful political participation was strengthened by Chávez and his allies. The work of Chávez was based on the principles of non-violence, showed a strong religious pattern, and aimed for wide social cooperation. He thought the UFW would become strong against the agribusiness stakeholders if the members of the movement did not allow themselves to be pitted against one another along ethnicity and gender, and were able to build a wide support base.

Therefore, with women and Latino farmworkers, the movement had a lot of followers among students, the white middle-class, and the Latino working class. Chávez said, "If we nothing but farmworkers, we'd only have about 30 per cent of all the ideas that we have. There would be no cross-fertilization, no growing. It's beautiful to work with other groups, other ideas, and other customs." (2003: Dalton) This approach helped the movement gain national and international support in the frequently used boycott tactics.

Chávez went on hunger strikes and fasted several times throughout this lifetime. Masses and religious events closing the fasts meant a bonding among the members of the, ultimately, religious Mexican American movement. The first fasting took place in 1968 for the "purification of the union", when during the first five-year strike members started to lose faith in the non-violent tactics and started to become violent. The fasting was also a signal for the Catholic bishops, who were reluctant to stand by the poor and instead kept on acting as mediators between the workers and the growers. At the end of the 25-day fasting, Chávez organized a public mass, which was attended by more than 8,000 supporters, for example, by Senator Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he shared the communion. He went on a hunger strike against the Arizona law which banned strikes, and during the campaign against pesticides. The Catholicism of Chavez was rooted in liberation theology.

The UFW inspired and showed a perspective to several farmworker unions and organizations, for example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who conducted a successful boycott against Taco Bell (fast food restaurant) between 2002-2005 for wage increases for tomato pickers in Florida; or the PCUN Oregon's Farmworker Union, which built its membership base through providing legal services and then transformed into a union. Many of PCUN's founding members graduated from the Colegio César Chávez, a popular school, named after Chávez and founded to provide education to Mexican Americans. Chávez had primary education and throughout his life, he was a self-learner. Barack Obama dedicated a monument to Chávez this October in San Francisco.

The American middle class organizes: the Sanctuary Movement in support of undocumented immigrants

But how can you avoid being caught in the web of ICE if you are undocumented? You try to remain invisible. You don't go to a doctor if you are sick, you don't enroll into a school in case you are particularly vulnerable, you try to be inconspicuous, especially to the authorities. If there is a chance, you try to get at least temporary permits. And you try to find those who will employ you without a permit. In case of better-off immigrants, this may be a family enterprise, in case of the more vulnerable, this may be employers who hire undocumented people to make some extra profit. Forced labor, being bound by debt or wage theft or being a victim of sex slavery may also hide the oppressed from the authorities. Civil society organizations which advocate on behalf of or with the immigrants without endangering their stay in the country play a very important role. And the support of the society is also needed, whose members can provide help in everyday life, and give support in case of emergency to make the circumstances of immigrants livable. Initiatives (such as the Rural Organizing Project in Oregon), which aim for establishing welcoming communities, are therefore of great importance.

A good example for the outstanding support of the middle class is the Sanctuary Movement, which was a critical response of a part of the American society to the U.S. foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s. In the 1980s, due to the massacres and civil war in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and in El Salvador almost one million people sought refuge in the U.S.

Despite the fact that the actual U.S. administration aided those leaders who supported the neoliberal economic policy and the access of the American capital to these countries and who are liable for the death of the hundreds of thousands of people, the Reagan administration substantially restricted the asylum seekers in gaining refugee status. Gradually, a segment of the society became more and more aware of the consequences of the American foreign policy, and some of them started to take responsibility.

The religious Sanctuary Movement started to emerge in 1980. Several denominations took account of their faith and principles and first started to provide legal and financial aid to Central American asylum seekers who managed to cross the border. Then in 1982, John Fife, a Presbyterian minister in Arizona, declared that the church of his congregation is a sanctuary, justified by Biblical traditions. The posted banners said: "This is a Sanctuary for the Oppressed of Central America. Immigration: do not profane the Sanctuary of God." (wikipedia) Inspired by this, by 1985, congregations, non-religious organizations, families with almost 500 member-sites joined the movement. Besides the Bible, the movement was inspired by the Underground Railroad, which was a network of safe houses from the southern states of the U.S. to Canada, where fleeing slaves found safe haven in the 19th century. The network was built by the activists of the Abolitionist Movement.

The immigration office cracked down on the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. Several leaders were sued, and some of them were indicted on smuggling charges. The movement gained public support, and the trials incited public outrage and demonstrations. Social pressure contributed to the fact that the federal government provided temporary protected status to Central American asylum seekers in the Immigration Act of 1990. (wikipedia)

It is the business of all of us

In Portland, Sarah, a member of the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement, Sarah allowed me to stay with her. Sarah worked at a local organization in Santa Marta, El Salvador in the early 2000s, where she became politicized. She works with several organizations in Oregon, and she builds the local group of the Oregon New Sanctuary Movement and the welcoming community in Portland as an activist. She often travels back to visit friends in El Salvador, to gain energy and courage, but she knows that her job is in the U.S.; this is the country where she can do the most to support social movements and immigrant justice.

In El Salvador, she said, people seem more politicized or politically aware, and that political discourse is more common among a wide range of people. In the community where she lived in particular – largely because of its long and rich history of struggle during the 1979-1992 Civil War, but also out of necessity – organizing for basic rights and self-determination is much more integrated into communal life.

The political action, community organizing and organizing for social change start in our everyday life.

Read Part 1 here.

Further literature: Frederick John Dalton: The Moral Vision of César Chávez. Maryknoll, New York, 2003. Lynn Stephen: The Story of PCUN and the Farmworker Movement in Oregon. University of Oregon. Eugene, 2012. Ganz Marshall: Why David Sometimes Wins. In: David M. Messick and Roderick M. Kramer: The Psychology of Leadership. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005, pp. 209-238.
Documentary film: Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement - Part 2: The Struggle in the Fields. PBS Documentary, 1996.

Read it in Hungarian.

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