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The Rise of the Migrant Workers’ Movement

James Petras
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006

Between March 25 and May 1, 2006, close to five million migrant workers and their supporters marched through nearly 100 cities of the United States. This is the biggest and most sustained workers’ demonstration in the history of the US. In all of its fifty-year history, the AFL-CIO has never been capable of mobilizing even a fraction of the workers convoked by the migrant workers’ movement. The rise and growth of the movement is rooted in the historical experience of the migrant workers (overwhelmingly from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean), the exploitative and racist experience they confront today in the US, and a future in which they face imprisonment, expulsion, and dispossession.

The migrant workers’ movement is engaged in an independent political struggle directed against the local, state, and particularly the national government. The movement’s immediate objective is to defeat congressional legislation designed to criminalize employed migrant workers and a “compromise” designed to divide recently arrived workers from older workers. The key demand of the migrant workers is the legalization of all workers, new and old. The choice of direct action methods is a response to the ineffectiveness of the legalistic and lobbying activities of established middle class-controlled Latino organizations and the near-total failure of the labor confederation and its affiliates to organize migrant workers in trade unions or even build solidarity organizations.

To understand the dynamic growth of migrant labor movement in the US and its militancy, we need to analyze the structural changes of the 1980s and 1990s in Mexico and Central America.

Proxy wars and free markets

Beginning in the 1980s, the US, via the IMF, and its client presidents in Mexico (Salinas, Zedillo, and later Fox) promoted a “free trade” policy codified in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This policy opened the door to the inflow of heavily subsidized US agricultural commodities, undermining local small and medium size farmers. Large-scale foreign investments in retail enterprises, banking, and finance led to the bankruptcy of millions of small businesses. The growth of free trade industrial zones led to the decline of protective social and labor legislation. Foreign debt payments, corrupt privatizations, and large-scale growth of precarious employment led to an absolute decline of wage levels, even as the number of Mexican billionaires multiplied. Huge profits and interest payments accruing to US corporations and banks flowed back to the US, as did billions of dollars from corrupt politicians, money laundered by US banks like Citibank.

Displaced and impoverished rural and urban workers soon followed the outward flows of profits and interest. The reasoning, according to the “free markets,” was that free flows of US capital to Mexico should be accompanied by the free flow of labor, of Mexican workers, to the US. But the US did not practice the “free market” doctrine: it pursued a policy of unrestricted entry of capital into Mexico and a restricted policy on labor migration.

The free market policies created a vast reserve army of unemployed and underemployed Mexican labor while the legal restraints on free migration forced the workers to migrate without legal documents.

The second major structural feature determining migrant worker movements from Central America consisted of the US imperial wars of the 1980s. The US military intervention via proxy armies in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras destroyed the possibility of social reform and viable economies throughout Central America. By financing death squads and promoting scorched-earth counterinsurgency activity, the US drove millions of Central Americans out of the countryside and into the squalor of urban slums and abroad to Mexico, the US, Canada, and Europe. The US “success” in imposing corrupt right-wing rulers throughout Central America closed off all options for collective or self-improvement in the domestic economy. The implementation of neoliberal measures led to even greater unemployment and a sharp decline in social services, forcing many to seek employment in the empire: the source of their misery.

Labor militancy

During the 1980s, in the aftermath of the neoliberal shock and the military terror, the first wave of immigrants sought any kind of work even under the worst conditions. Many hid their militant past but did not forget it. As the flow of migrant workers gained momentum, great concentrations of Latino workers settled in major cities of California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. This led to the creation of a dense network of social, cultural and sports clubs, and informal organizations based on previous family, neighborhood, and regional ties. New small businesses flourished, consumer power increased, children attended school with clear Latino majorities, and numerous radio stations were directed to the migrant workers in their own language. Quickly, the sense of solidarity grew from the strength of numbers, the facility of communication, the proximity of fellow workers, and above all from the common experience of unregulated and unmitigated exploitation at the hardest jobs and the lowest pay, accompanied by racist attitudes from employers, white workers, police, and other public authorities.

The decision by the US Congress to add the further threat of imprisonment and mass expulsions came at the same time as the social networks and solidarity within the Latino communities were deepening and expanding. The earlier militancy carried over from the mass popular resistance to the death squads in El Salvador, the taste of freedom and dignity during the Sandinista period in Nicaragua, and the multiple militant peasant movements in Mexico came out of the closet and found a new social expression in the mass migrant workers’ movement.

Participation included whole families and entire neighborhoods, and it crossed generational boundaries: high school students joined construction workers, gardeners, garment workers, and domestics to fill the streets of Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles, California, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators.

Central American and Mexican labor migration is a direct result of the victory of the US-led counterrevolution in the region. The emergence of the mass movement of labor migrants, in a sense, is the replay of the earlier struggles between US capital and Mexican and Central American labor on the new terrain of US state politics and with a new set of issues. The continuity of the struggles, in Central America and Mexico and now in the US, is found in the common demands for self-determination and the common methods of struggle, direct action. This is reflected in the strong working-class composition of the struggle and the historical memory of class solidarity.

The emergence of the mass migrant workers’ movement opens a new chapter in the working-class struggle both in North America and Central America. First and foremost, it represents the first major upsurge of independent working-class struggle in the US after over fifty years of decline, stagnation, and retreat by the established trade union confederation. Secondly, the movement reveals a new class protagonist as the leading sector in the labor movement—the migrant worker. While the previously dynamic sectors of organized labor in the private sector (autoworkers, teamsters, steelworkers, and longshoremen on the West Coast) have lost over two-thirds of their members and now represent only nine percent of the private labor force, millions of migrant workers demonstrated and manifested a kind of social solidarity unseen in the US since the 1930s. Thirdly, the movement was organized without a big bureaucratic trade union apparatus and with a small budget on the basis of voluntary workers through horizontal communication. In fact, one of the key factors accounting for the success of the mobilization was that it was largely out of the control of the trade union hierarchy, even as a minority of workers were members of trade unions. Fourthly, the leadership and strategists of the movement were independent of the two major parties, especially the deadly embrace of the Democratic Party.

The mass migrant workers’ movement has served, to a certain extent, as a “social pole,” attracting and politicizing tens of thousands of high school, community college, and even university students, especially those of Latin-American origins. In addition, a minority of dissident “Anglo” trade unionists, middle class progressives, and clerical liberals has been activated to work with the labor struggles.

The movement demonstrates the proper approach to combining race and class politics. The emergence of an organized mass labor-based socio-political pole has the potential to create a new political movement. The dynamic growth of the migrant workers’ movement in the US can serve as the basis for an international labor movement (free from the tutelage of the AFL-CIO) from Panama to the US. Family and ethnic ties can strengthen class solidarity and create the basis of reciprocal support in struggles against the common enemy: the neoliberal model of capitalism, the repressive state apparatus, and legislation in both the South and North.

The positive developments of the movement face political obstacles to growth and consolidation. Numerous employers fired workers who participated in the first wave of mass demonstrations. Latino workers who were trade unionists received little or no support from the labor bosses.

Furthermore, after the mass success of the movements, numerous traditional Latino politicos, social workers, professional consultants, non-governmental organizations, and clerical notables jumped on the bandwagon and are active in deflecting the movement into the conventional channels of petitioning Congress or supporting the “lesser evil” Democratic Party politicians.

The movement also faces the problem of the uneven development of the struggle within the working class and between regions of the country. Most Anglo workers are at best passive while a majority probably perceive migrant workers as a threat to their jobs, salaries, and neighborhoods. The general absence of any anti-racist, class-based education by the trade union bureaucracy makes working-class unity a difficult task. There is also the pressure from the leaders of the capitalist parties to divide migrant workers by passing legislation that favors “legal” versus “illegal” workers, “long-term” versus “short-term” workers, literate versus less literate workers, and skilled versus unskilled workers.

Finally, there is the need to confront the new wave of large-scale Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids at workplaces and neighborhoods, where hundreds of Latino workers have been rounded up and expelled. The ICE has escalated their mass round-ups at work sites trying to provoke a climate of intimidation. On April 19, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, directed the arrest of over 1,100 undocumented IFCO Services workers in 26 states.

Despite these challenges, the migrant workers’ movement is in the ascendancy: on March 25, hundreds of thousands demonstrated; on April 10, over two million marched; and on May 1, millions more joined marches and workers’ strikes. While the politicians are holed up in Congress, scheming of new ways to divide and conquer the movement, millions of Latinos are in the streets for their rights, their self-determination, and their dignity.


James Petras is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). His new book with Henry Veltmeyer, Social Movements and the State: Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina, will be published in October 2006.