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by GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE
Sunday, Oct. 19, 2003 at 6:16 PM
LA NUEVA CARA DE CONSTRUCCION...how mass immigration has changed the American building trades
LA NUEVA CARA DE CONSTRUCCION...how mass immigration has changed the
American building trades
By Gregory A. Butler, local 608 carpenter
For some strange reason, a lot of union carpenters belive that
residential construction will always be non union.
Although that side of our industry was largely union as recently as the
1960's, in the view of many folks in the business, new construction and
home improvement work on single family homes is now, and always will
be, a 100% non union sector of the industry...
Apparently, somebody forgot to tell this "fact" to the
in the suburbs of New York City.
Journaleros ["day laborers"], of course, are the folks who hang out on
corners or Home Depot parking lots to shape up for construction jobs in
the home improvement and light commercial renovation sectors.
They are predominantly illegal immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador or
Guatemala - although in Philadelphia, Nantucket and Martha's Vinyard
they have Brazilians in the mix as well - and here in New York City we
have Poles - and even US citizen Latinos, White Americans and Amercan
Blacks - in that side of the industry as well.
Just a couple of years ago, the day rates these self employed workers
charged were as low as $ 40 bucks and a sandwich for a day's
work...with "day" often extending into 10 or 12 hours.
Apparently, that's changed....drastically.
According to reports from homeowners in Long Island and Orange County,
the day laborers in those areas have organized, and set a wage floor.
Now, nobody works for less than $ 10 an hour, or $ 80 bucks for an 8
That pay scale, while far below union wages, and less than half of what
non union tradespeople are normally paid, still amounts to a 100% wage
Apparently, these workers have managed to do this on their own..with
absolutely no assistance from the construction unions.
There are a number of Catholic Church-linked social service
organizations and state-subsidized day laborer hiring halls that
operate among these workers, but it's not at all clear how much they
had to do with these workers managing to establish - and enforce - the
$ 10/hr wage floor.
Also, one of the problems that these workers face is the fact that
these "workers centers" that serve them are 1) not run by workers
themselves and 2) tend to maintain their segregation from the
mainstream of the American workforce, rather than fighting to integrate
Beyond that, to put that $ 80 bucks a day in context, we need to look
at the standard of living these folks left behind when they came
For instance, while union carpenters in the New York District Council
of Carpenters make $ 38.78/hr...and most non union carpenters in the
New York City suburbs make $ 150 a day...union carpenters in the
Sindicato de Trabajadores de Construccion ["Union of Construction
Workers"] back in Mexico only make $ 74/day... and Peons ["laborers"]
only get $ 55. The Mexican Ministry of Labor's minimum wage for non
union carpenters is only $ 59.30/day, and for laborers, it's $
43.65..in pratice, wages can be, and often are, considerably less.
By that standard, the Journaleros are actually ahead of the game....
You see, that's the new reality of the building trades in this
country...Third World-level pay rates now establish the wage floor in
our industry. You see it especially in major cities like New York,
where mass immigration, and employer superexploitation of those new
immigrants, has led to a drastic decline in non union construction
Although the building trades has long had a largely immigrant
workforce, the 1990's saw a massive increase in the number of immigrant
workers in the trades. The industry's workforce greatly
expanded....which, just to be very clear, did NOT mean that there were
more jobs..just more people chasing after the same number of jobs.
Most of those immigrant workers were undocumented..and most of them
come from the United States of Mexico. Tradespeople from that country
now make up 10% of the entire American construction workforce.. (about
600,000 workers out of a total building trades workforce of around 6
Most of America's new construction workers were Mexican, but by no
means all....as I mentioned above, there are large numbers of
Guatemalans and Salvadorans among the Spanish speaking immigrants, as
well as large pockets of Brazilian workers in and around Philadelphia
and on the Massachussets resort islands of Nantucket and Martha's
And, of course, here in New York City, there are still large numbers of
illegal immigrants from Ireland, Poland and other European countries in
the business, as well as small but significant numbers of immigrants
from Fujian Province, China and the largely Sikh Punjab/Khalistan
region of India and Pakistan.
Sikh workers here in New York are largely concentrated in the masonry
In particular, most of the city's non union brick pointers [bricklayers
who specialize in waterproofing and repairing existing brick walls on
apartment buildings] come from that background, but there are also
large numbers of Sikhs doing bricklaying and concrete work also.
Needless to say, almost all of these Sikh masons are non union..and the
non union contractors they work for dominate the brick pointing
industry here. Also, a lot of the brick and concrete work on public
schools, in particular the new federally financed "Field of Dreams"
program to install Astroturf on school playgrounds, is done by non
union Sikh contractors.
The massive HUD financed luxury housing construction program in Harlem
also has a large number of illegal immigrants among their workforce.
Of course, many of the carpenters, masons, painters and laborers on
these jobs are U.S. Citizen minority workers; African Americans, West
Indians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Many of those workers come from
the neighborhood..and, many of them are actually union members, who got
tired of waiting on the union out of work list for a job and had to go
get a scab job to survive.
But, alongside the Blacks and US Citizen Latinos, there are large
numbers of Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Indian, Sikh and even
Polish workers on those jobs..
But, irregardless of race, everybody on these jobs gets paid "immigrant
level" wages...generally, the skilled workers get $ 80 a day, with
laborers and helpers often getting as little as $ 40. By contrast, non
union contractors working on luxury housing in Downtown Manhattan and
other Davis Bacon jobs for the NYC Housing Authority, Dormatory
Authority, State of New York and the NYC School Construction Authority
usually pay between $ 100 and $ 150 a day for their skilled labor.
I've written about these non union Davis Bacon housing jobs on GANGBOX
In the South, the change has been most dramatic, with Mexican
tradespeople rapidly displacing Black workers from an industry that had
been largely African American since slavery times.
Case in point, Washington DC, where the construction sector was
predominantly Black from the days when African American engineer
Benjamin Bannacker and a force of slave carpenters, stonemasons,
bricklayers and laborers built the city in back in 1800 right up until
just about a decade ago.
As recently as 1990, Blacks were 75% of the Washington building trades
workforce, with Whites making up 20%. Latinos and workers of other
nationalities combined were less than 5% of the Washington DC
Today, by contrast, Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and other
Latinos are 70% of the industry. Whites still make up 20%...but Blacks
are down to less than 10% of the building trades workforce in DC.
In DC's overwhelmingly non union residential construction sector, which
was all Black just a decade ago, today the workforce is virtually 100%
Latino. Contractors routinely (and illegally) refuse to hire Black
workers who shape up these jobs, and then turn around and hire Latinos.
And the same thing happened in every other major city in the
South...Memphis, Atlanta, Houston (where the construction workforce is
now 80% Mexican) ect.
It basically amounted to "ethnic cleansing" aimed at Black workers in
the industry..and, along with the exile of the industry's traditional
workforce, wages sharply declined.
And, of course, the door slammed shut on the best paying private sector
job available to the average non college-educated Southern Black male.
The Southwest didn't experience the same harsh ethnic cleansing that
the South did, but the construction workforce's ethnic composition
changed just as dramatically in places like Phoenix, Denver and Las
Now, as I pointed out above, there have been attempts to organize these
I've written about some of these construction organizing efforts, and
other issues relating to building trades unionization, on GANGBOX
before, at :
A few of these organizng drives have been by mainstream construction
unions, like the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of
America, the Laborers International Union or the United Union of
Roofers and Waterproofers.
Unfortunately, unlike the sucessful effort by Mexican immigrant
residential sheetrockers to organized themselves into the Carpenters
Union in Los Angeles in 1991, these have NOT been sectorwide organizing
campaigns, have not, for the most part, been led by immigrant workers
themselves and have mainly focused on signing up one particular
A good example of this would be the Roofers Union's campaign to sign up
a residential roofing contractor in Phoenix, Arizona..while leaving the
rest of that industry unorganized.
In an industry like construction, one contractor at a time organizing
means that that particular company, if organized, ends up not being
able to compete with it's competitors who've remained non union. So,
they either continue paying non union wages under the table to stay in
business..or, they pay union wages, get underbid by their competitors
who remain non union and go bankrupt.
Of course, in Los Angeles 12 years ago, the workers led a sector-wide
organizing drive..they struck all the contractors for 6 months, and
turned them union at the same time, which is the only logical way to
organize non union tradespeople.
The Laborers International Union did just that in the asbestos
abatement industry in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey.
Of course..in that case, it helped that the contractors needed union
cards for their laborers, so they could do work on all union Davis
Bacon school jobs...
And, the Laborers Union agreed to substandard wages for these largely
Latino and Polish laborers, many of whom are women, only $
23.85/hr.....as opposed to the $ 26.55 that American born laborers in
building construction earn..even though they work in a far more
dangerous sector of the business.
The same thing happened when the Laborers Union organized demolition
workers in New York City, most of whom are illegal immigrants from
Poland, Mexico and Ecuador. They got signed to a substandard wage deal,
where most of them were paid "B Man" scale of $ 16.25/hr rather than
the $ 26.55/hr that other laborers are paid.
Worse yet, according to some accounts, some of these newly unionized
asbestos abatement contractors continue to pay non union wages under
But, at least these immigrant workers ended up integrated into
mainstream unions. In some cases, they were able to get jobs in other,
higher paying, sectors of the unions.
More often, the immigrants have been segregated within the unions. In
the Carpenters Union, newly organized resdiential carpenters (who tend
to be largely Mexican) are frequently segregated into special locals
with lower pay scales, such as local 1506 in Los Angeles.
In Las Vegas, the newly organized Mexican residential carpenters are in
local 1977, the same local as the largely White commerical carpenters
who work on the Las Vegas Strip..but, they get a lower pay scale, and,
according to some reports, they even attend seperate union meetings in
a different building than the regular union hall.
Here in New York, when the Laborers Union organized many non union
laborers, demolition workers and asbestos abatement workers a few years
ago, the asbestos workers, who were all Polish or Latino immigrants,
were set up in a seperate local, LU # 78. Demolition workers and
building laborers were allowed into the regular laborers local, LU #
79..but, the union has three seperate out of work lists - brick work,
demolition and building laborers.
The newly organized laborers, almost all of whom are Poles, Mexicans or
Ecuadorians, are overwhelmingly concentrated on the demolition work
list. Many of these workers are sent out as "B Men" on demolition
jobs.. As I pointed out above, those laborers only get paid $ 16.25,
instead of the regular $ 26.55 laborer scale.
The mason tender (bricklayer and plasterer helper work) list tends to
be largely Black, Puerto Rican and Dominican, with some Irish and
Italian American workers as well.
Bricklayer and plasterer tender work is paid full laborer scale, but is
far more demanding than building laborer (cleaning) work...which is
also paid at full laborer scale. Building laborers also get a hell of a
lot of OT, with some laborers on hirise jobs bringing home over $
As it happens, most building laborers are White Americans or immigrants
from Ireland or Italy.
It amounts to a racial heirarchy, with the easiest and highest paying
jobs (building laborers) mostly going to American born and Western
European immigrant White laborers, with the harder and more dangerous
brick tender jobs going largely to Blacks and US Citizen Latinos, and
with the hardest, most dangerous and lowest paying jobs in the
business, the demolition jobs, going to immigrants from Eastern Europe
and Latin America.
Also, generally speaking, these campaigns, while TARGETING immigrant
workers, have not been LED by immigrants. In may cases, the organizers
on the ground are immigrants, (this may be due to the crudely simple
fact that the American born union officials don't speak Spanish or
Polish)..but, the union heirarchy remans predominantly American born or
Western European Whites. This has proved to be the case even where
workers have ended up in what amount to segregated locals.
Of, course, unions making special "deals" with contractors...deals
which result in members getting screwed out of pay and benefits they
deserve, are nothing new..nor are immigrant workers the only ones who
get hurt. I've written about that on GANGBOX, at:
Nor are construction unions the only labor organizations that hurt
immigrant workers :
Most immigrant worker organizing done outside the mainstream unions has
been even worse, even more racially segregated than the unions efforts.
And, immigrant workers are even less likely to be in leadership
In the last decade, there have been a number of day laborer workers
centers that have emerged, functioning as non union "hiring halls" for
Or, actually, "labor exchanges" or "labor bazaars" might be a more
Typically, homeonwners and contractors come into the centers, and offer
jobs to the workers waiting inside. The consumers and bosses can offer
any wages they want, as they are not bound by any kind of collective
And, since this is a totally "underground economy" oriented setup, it
goes without saying that these employment transactions are totally off
the books, with no withholding taxes, social security or workers comp
The only thing that keeps wages from falling to rock bottom levels is
the efforts of the workers to persuade and/or coerce each other to
refuse to work for less than a certain minimum pay level..in the New
York area, that floor is at the $ 10/hr level.
That's one thing that you can say for these day labor centers..they
have enabled the workers to at least set some kind of minimum wage.
Unfortunately, at $ 80/day, that wage floor is, as I pointed out above,
about $ 70/day below what non union tradespeople usually earn around
here..and far far lower than union scale.
Many of these hiring halls have been organized by local dioceses,
charitible organizations and/or religious orders of the Catholic
Church, and many of them have been financed by subsidies from local and
Now, it's kind of odd that governmental agencies finance these
centers...considering the fact that, to this author's knowledge, none
of these centers have tried to do anything to stop the tax evasion,
minimum wage law violations and other illegal pratices that are an
integral part of day labor employment.
Usually, most of the counties and cities that have gotten into the day
labor business are very explicit that they are doing so to help local
merchants, homeowners and contractors get cheap labor..and, to keep
Latino workers from creating a so-called "quality of life problem" by
standing around on the street looking for work on their own
Generally, these workers centers are run like social service agencies,
controlled by professional staffers, with the actual workers allowed
little to no input in agency policy.
These day laborer also tend to be monoethnic...that is, the workers are
from one particular racial background, usually Mexican.
Now, there's nothing wrong with workers of color organizing their own
caucuses and organizations... In fact, if it wasn't for minority
workers organizing independently, America's unions would probably still
be racially segregated.
Here in New York City, the 60 or so minority construction workers
groups (collectively known as "The Coalition") are what forced the
unions to let Black, Latin and Chinese workers join back in the 1960's,
70's and 80's...and, to this day, the coalitions keep the business from
I've written about the coalition experience on GANGBOX, at :
But, there's one big difference between the coalition and the immigrant
Despite the fact that the coalitions were minority-only organizations,
their main goal was racially integrating the industry, and forcing the
predominantly White unions to allow Black, Latin and Chinese workers to
join, and work on the same sites with the White workers, for the same
On the other hand, the immigrant workers centers, generally speaking,
do not at all challenge the racial heirarchy that emerged in the
industry during the 1990s, where residential construction became
overwhelmingly the preserve of low wage immigrants, while higher paying
commercial jobs remained largely White.
Nor have the immigrant workers centers struggled to achieve wage
pairity with commercial construction...or even to maintain the wage
levels that prevailed in non union residential construction just a few
In other words, while the coalitions fought to integrate tradespeople
of color into the American construction mainstream, the immigrant
workers centers basically function as what used to be called "Jim Crow
unions"...seperate, and unequal, segregated labor organizations, who's
members are isolated from the mainstream building trades and earn
Now, why is that?
Well, one possiblity might be the fact that the immigrant workers
centers and the coalitions had different kinds of leadership.
Generally speaking, most of the coalitions were run by ACTUAL
CONSTRUCTION WORKERS. The earliest coalitions back in the 1960's were
run by Black communists. The more recently set up coalitions wern't
quite so radical, but, at the very least, the workers who ran them were
militant Black, Latino or Chinese nationalists.
That's probably why these groups focused on the goal of waging a
militant struggle for integration on the job, to force both contractors
and unions to let Black, Latin and Chinese tradespeople have the same
wages, working conditions and union member status as the White workers.
The coalitions militantly fought for integration (and, to a lesser
extent, continue to struggle to keep the building trades desegregated
to this very day). Their tactics often involved sending busloads of out
of work Black, Latin or Chinese tradespeople (often armed with baseball
bats and chains) driving around the city, stopping at non integrated
jobsites and forcing the contractors to hire workers of color.
By contrast, as I pointed out above, most immigrant workers centers are
run like not for profit social service agencies, often adminstered by
white collar professionals who've never actually worked in the trades
in their lives. Occasionally, the centers are staffed by Whites, even
though almost all day laborers are Latin. And, as I pointed out above,
typically, the entities that manage these day labor hiring halls are
affiliates of the Catholic Church, with the financing provided by local
or state governments.
Due to their financial dependence on government funding and patronage,
the day laborer centers are politically allied, for the most part, to
the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, and are far to the right of
the radical nationalism of the coalitions..
Typically, as I pointed out above, the groups that operate these
centers are inclined towards social service paternalism towards the
workers, who are viewed as "clients" who passivly recieve "services"
from the centers.
This is very different than the coalition's view of their members as
active participants a militant struggle-based mass organization.
Tactically speaking, the day labor centers shy away from any kind of
militant struggle that might alienate the archbishops and state
senators who pay their bills. Certainly you will never see a day
laborer center sending a busload of workers to try and integrate an all
White commercial jobsite..
To this writer's knowledge, no day laborer center in the entire country
has even rasied the issue of fighting to integrate immigrant day
laborers into commercial construction.. Apparently, that radical idea
just is not on the workers center's radar scope.
Nor would you likely see a day laborer center organizing any kind of
collective resistance, non violent or othewise, to raids by agents of
the US Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Immigration and
For the most part, the day laborer centers rely on lobbying and..let's
be blunt..begging. Hat in hand, meekly and non violently, they plead
with the politicians and the princes of the church for more funding and
an end to deportations, and beg the homeowners and contractors to be
nice and pay "living wages".
Just about the only struggle that happens in these centers is the
efforts organized by the workers themselves to keep wages at above the
starvation levels, by persuading each other to not work for less than $
This failure to struggle against segregation is why the day laborer
centers are actively supported by much of the business
community..unlike the coalitions, who've faced years of repression.
The day laborer centers are praised by the corporate media, tolerated
by union bosses, financed by the government and generally get the full
support of Corporate America.
Just about the only folks who condemn the day laborer centers are a
handfull of workers and, unfortunately, some White Supremicist
The racists, despite their claims to be defenders of "American workers"
(by which they mean WHITE American workers, of course), have their own
bigoted reasons for opposing the workers centers..they want to preserve
America as a White majority country, and wish to keep Latino workers
out of largely White suburbs and small towns. The White Power folks
honestly don't give a damn about the wage issue..they'd be happy to see
WHITE workers subsisting on poverty level wages.
Of course, not all opposition to day laborer centers comes from the
fascists of the White nationalist movement...in one case, in College
Park, Maryland, the opposition to day laborer centers came from Latino
The coporate media have their own reasons to be sympathetic to the
agencies that run the day labor centers.
And I don't think it's anti racism....
More likely, the positive media image of these day laborer centers is
due to the fact that the media have strong ties with the real estate
and banking interests, and, of course, those folks want to have
construction wages as low as possible. The existance of a large pool of
day labor helps the financiers push down skilled trades wages.
By contrast with the high profile support for the day labor centers,
the coalitions have been harassed by the police and the FBI for the
last 38 years, condemned by the press and the leadership of the
construction unions and are, generally speaking, viewed as a threat to
institutional racism in the building trades.
Despite their stated anti racism, objectively, the day laborer centers
serve as an obstacle to resistance developing against racial
segregation in construction...and help push wages down for construction
workers of all colors.
They fit right in with Corporate America's plan to import unlimited
numbers of workers from Third World countries (in particular Mexico) to
force down service sector wages in the same way that runaway shops and
maquiladoras have been used to push down industrial pay scales.
The AFL-CIO..and, in particular the New Unity Partnership unions (the
Service Employees International Union, Union of Needletrades,
Industrial and Textile Employees, Hotel Employees and Restaurant
Employees Union, Laborers Union and Carpenters Union)..actively support
this corporate effort to deflate the wages and living standards of all
American workers..and to keep Mexican and other immigrant workers at a
stavation-level standard of living, by allowing unlimited immigration.
Sadly, these efforts are presented as "progressive" and "anti racist".
Which is really strange, considering the fact that the AFL-CIO, in it's
entire history, has never gone out of it's way to fight racism...
Think about it, have American unions ever staged any kind of civil
rights demonstration? (other than all Black unions like the Brotherhood
of Sleeping Car Porters or all Latin unions like the United Farm
Hell, some unions, like the Plumbers, openly barred Blacks from joining
as late as 1968...
Even today, have the unions done anything to fight around
discrimination against the Black community? Has the AFL-CIO said even
one word about the government's racist prison policies that have locked
up over 1 million African Americans? Have the unions lifted a finger to
fight against racial profiling, or the housing discrimination that
locks Blacks out of most suburban communities in this country? For that
matter, when have the unions called a demonstration to defend
When it comes to Latinos, have the unions ever called a demonstration
to fight for bilingual education? And, of course, mass incarceration
affects Latinos almost as badly as it hurts Blacks..not to mention
Latinos are also subject to racial profiling and housing
discrimination, and also need affirmative action...and, as I just
pointed out, the unions have not lifted a finger to struggle around
The only Latin civil rights issue that the unions have mobilzed around
is amnesty for illegal immigrants. Now, of course, this will benefit
the nation's 11 million illegal aliens, most of whom are from Mexico or
other Latin American countries. These workers will also benefit from
things like state governments recognizing the Matricula Consular
[Mexican consulate issued ID cards] as legitimate identification and
issuing drivers licenses to illegal immigrants.
However, the unions has also been quietly supporting the Craig Kennedy
Bill through Congress. That law would allow American employers to
legally employ illegal immigrants, and even directly import foreign
workers..and deport them when they don't need them anymore.
To qualify for this "Guest Worker" status, the workers would have to
have been employed as a farm laborer for 100 days out of the last 3
years. As a condition of legal status they'd be compelled to work for
360 days out of the next 6 years as a farm laborer. Failing to work the
required number of days, or taking a job in another industry, would be
punished by deportation.
It's an extension of the already existing H-1B and H2A visa programs
used by computer companies, agribusiness and construction contractors
to import low wage indentured workers from other countries.
Currently, almost 3 million indentured workers are employed through
these programs...and, they have no right to strike, quit or look for
another job, can be fired and deported on a whim by their bosses, are
allowed to be paid substandard wages and, incredibly enough, can even
be "sold" to another employer without their consent.
The Craig Kennedy Bill extention to the H-1B and H-2A visa programs
would hurt ALL American workers..immigrant and citizen alike..by
increasing competition for jobs and flooding already overcrowded labor
markets with rightless low wage workers.
And, ultimately, that's why the government, and the corporate cheiftans
who they work for, are pushing for amnesty for illegal immigrants..to
let American businesspeople have an unlimited supply of low wage
These same corporate elements are behind the newfound interest the
unions have in immigrant rights...remember, the leaders of the AFL-CIO
routinely let Corporate America do their thinking for them, and this
case is no exception..
Wall Street and the real estate developers of America want cheap
labor..and the union bosses are going to help them get it...by
cynically hiding their complicity with Corporate America's desire to
import cheap labor behind the legitimate civil rights demands of
This is why the AFL-CIO found itself, along with the Catholic Church,
sponsoring the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.
The church and the labor body wern't the only sponsors, of
course..buried almost at the end of the 30 page list of local and
international unions, immigrant organizations, civil rights groups,
religious leaders and politicians was a short list of "business
endorsers" of the event.
And, on that list, carefully buried among the minority newspapers,
immigration law firms, ethnic restaurants and inner city furniture
stores were two of the largest corporations in America...SBC and MCI.
We all know MCI..or, as it was known until recently, MCI WorldCom..the
scandal scarred Mississippi-based agressively anti union long distance
telephone carrier. Besides keeping it's workers unorganized and
scamming investors, MCI is also notorious for brutally overcharging the
families of incarcerated people who need to recieve calls from their
relatives in prison.
SBC isn't quite as horrible as MCI (hell, who could be?). They're not
100% non union...yet. But, they are slowly but surely making as many
parts of the company open shop as they can. They also don't price gouge
as many Black and Latin families as MCI..because MCI has something of a
monopoly over the extortianately priced prison phone systems in many
states as well as in the federal prisons operated by the Bureau of
Prisons and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
However, it's not at all clear why these two telecommunications giants
suddently care so much about immigrants rights. Perhaps it's a
marketing ploy (immigrants, naturally, make a LOT of long distance
phone calls)..or maybe they just desire cheap labor for their call
On Saturday October 4, the closing rally of the freedom ride, attended
by 100,000 workers was held at Flushing Meadows Park in Queens, just
south of Shea Stadium.
The event had begun 15 days earlier, with a 900 person bus caravan
taking off from Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las
Vegas, Houston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Miami and Boston.
The 10 arms of this bus motorcade joined in Washington for a Capitol
Hill rally and lobbying event on the 1st.
Then, the columns linked up and went to Liberty State Park (the park
across New York Harbor from the Statue of Liberty) in Jersey City, New
Jersey on the 3rd. That same day, smaller local marches were held in
largely immigrant populated neighborhoods in New York City (including
West Harlem, the neighborhood where this writer lives..that rally was
actually right across the street from this writer's apartment)
The grand finale for this nationwide event was the huge rally in
And, from the opening rally in Los Angeles to the closing event in
Flushing, the union bosses and the princes of the church kept a tight
political lid on the immigrant workers.
The Los Angeles rally that started the event was practically a pro war
rally, with a heavy military presence, lots of bombastic flag waving
nationalism and a major emphasis on encouraging immigrants to enlist in
the military and fight in Mr Bush's oil war in Iraq.
In fact, considering the continuing heavy US Army and Marine Corps
losses in the "Sunni Triangle", and the almost mutinously low morale in
many National Guard and Reserve units bogged down in counterinsurgency
warfare on the Iraqi front...it's entirely possible that the
government's sudden interest in immigrant's rights might be due to dire
need of young immigrant men and women to serve as cannon fodder in the
endless "War On Terrorism"...
In this case, the carrot to get these folks to enlist would the promise
If they come back alive.
That might explain the heavily militaristic tone of the Los Angeles
On the tail end of the bus motorcade, in Jersey City's Liberty State
Park, socialists and other militant anti racists were actually
physically barred from attending the rally by AFL-CIO staffers, so only
folks politically acceptable to the Democratic Party could speak.
Left wing anti racists were barred from the rally..but, fascists, nazis
and skinheads were allowed to have a racist "counter demonstration"
near the rally site.
The concluding event, in Flushing Meadows Park, was similarly
The politically mainstream tone was set by the event's main speakers,
the NYC Central Labor Council's president, State Assemblyman Brian
McLaughlin (D. Queens) and "His Eminence" (yes, that's actually what
they called him on the official AFL-CIO leaflets) Edward Cardinal Egan,
the head of the New York Archdiocese.
Just to make sure that none of the 100,000 workers in attendance might
get any militant ideas about making the protest more effective (by, for
instance, blocking the streets or doing other radical acts) the rally
was held on a Saturday afternoon in a park that's in a very remote and
isolated part of the city.
Flushing Meadows Park, site of the 1964 Word's Fair, is deep in the
Borough of Queens, far from Manhattan, the city's center.
It's completely cut off from the surrounding neighborhoods by 4
highways, two sets of train tracks, a New York City Transit subway yard
and repair shop, a large complex of steel scrap yards and Shea Stadium.
The rally site itself was only accessable from one subway station,
Willets Point/Shea Stadium on the # 7 line.
This meant that the New York Police Department had total control over
access to the site, and could, if necessary, confine any breakaway
demonstrators to the site. The cops were aware of this, and, within the
isolated rally site, further divided up the ralliers with lots and lots
of steel crowd control barricades...just to keep everybody in line.
Militant breakaways from boring official labor rallies have been a
problem for labor rallies here before...
Back on Tuesday, June 30, 1998, a 40,000 worker Building Trades Council
rally against the MTA's use of non union contractor Roy Kay to build a
subway command center was taken over by the workers, who proceded to
take over Midtown Manhattan, totally disrupting business and traffic
for almost 5 hours in the middle of the workweek..
That militant act (which has since come to be known as the "40,000 man
march") was very embarassing to NYC union bosses, who spent days
issuing whimpering public apologies to the real estate developers on TV
for their failure to keep the workers in line.
I posted an eyewitness account of the 40,000 man march on GANGBOX, at :
Apparently, the union bureaucracy didn't want a repeat of that..so,
they had the rally out in the middle of nowhere, carefully isolated
from the rest of the city, on a weekend.
This isolation led to another problem...price gouging by the handfull
of vendors permitted to sell on the site.
Since the park is cut off from the nearby neighborhoods by highways,
the stadium and a subway yard, workers couldn't get food or water from
local stores..and had to buy overpriced meals and drinks from the
limited number of vendors who were allowed on the site by the NYC Parks
Department and the rally organizers... This was a major hardship for
many of the poorer workers attending this event.
Beyond that, the union bosses were not able to physically bar leftists
from attending the rally here, as they did in Jersey City, but the sure
as hell could keep them off the speakers platform, with only Democratic
Party politicians, union officials and Catholic Church officials
permitted to address the crowd.
The speakers at all of these events were long on praise for the
immigrant work ethic and sympathy for the plight of the undocument
worker..and damned short on specifics.
This is probably because the Catholic Church and the AFL-CIO, as I
mentioned above, are quietly supporting the Craig Kennedy bill, a
racist "Guest Worker" proposal that's making it's way through the
This bill, sponsored by big corporate agribusiness interests in
California, Arizona, Texas and other Western states would do little to
help illegal immigrants gain citizenship status.
It would, however, guarantee corporate ranchers the right to import a
minumum of 500,000 cheap laborers..and DEPORT THOSE WORKERS AT WILL if
they dare to get other jobs..
Even if the immigrants work in farm labor, if they get less than 360
days work in a 3 year period, even if that's due to no fault of their
own, they can get deported too.
Similar guest worker programs are planned for the hotel and restaurant
industry if this law is introduced, and we may see a similar law in
To get an idea of just what a "Guest Worker" program really means, just
ask the several million Turkish workers who live and work in Germany,
Switzerland and Sweden
Those liberal "social democratic" countries all have long had deeply
racist ["Guest Worker"] programs, similar to the
Craig Kennedy bill.
The Gastarbeiter programs have guaranteed 50 years of second class
citizenship for immigrant workers. Many of those workers have lived in
places like West Berlin, Stokholm or Geneva for decades, and had
children and grandchildren there, but they are still considered
transient aliens, and are treated as deportable aliens by the cops.
These workers have no civil rights, cannot vote, and the elaborate
social welfare programs that those European states are so famous for do
not apply to gastarbeiters..or, their European-born children, no matter
how long they've lived in the country.
Middle Eastern countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates have similar guest worker programs for their oil,
construction, hotel, restaurant, sea freight and domestic service
industries...basically, they get a disposable workforce, who can be
used, abused, fired, deported and even arrested on an employer's whim.
Needless to say, a racist law like that wouldn't sell well to the
workers at these rallies..so the union bosses and the princes of the
church kept quiet about that.
Bottom line, "freedom ride" or no, the union bureaucracy really doesn't
have that much to offer the immigrant worker..except the same second
class status, low substandard wages and racism that Corporate America
has been serving up.
Unlike the REAL Freedom Rides of the 1960's, the questions of
integration and equality aren't even on the table.... All that's on the
agenda is the Craig Kennedy Bill's permanent second class citizenship,
and indentured servitude to the lowest paying employers in the nation.
Now, the question is, why is the AFL-CIO doing this?
Why have they supported institutional racism for so long?
How come they have nothing to offer Latino immigrant workers but a
future of poverty, discrimination and second class status?
Why do they support racist "Guest Worker" programs?
Is it because union leaders are bad people?
Is it due to the fact that very few unions, even those with heavily
Hispanic memberships, have leaders who are actually Latino?
I belive the racism of the unions, and their failure to really address
the burning issues of the Latin workers, is due to something called
Basically, it's a philosophy that says that businesspeople and workers
have common interests, and that it's the job of unions to promote
"harmony" and "cooperation" between labor and management.
Of course, since workers and bosses have fundamental conflicts,
business unions end up having to sell out the interests of the workers
in order to cooperate with management.
In this case, the only way the AFL-CIO leadership can even imagine
achieving civil rights for Latino immigrant workers is through forcing
those brothers and sisters to work for below subsistance wages, in a
state of intentured second class citizenship.
It's totally beyond the imagination of the union bureaucracy to
envision leading a struggle of these workers, so they can fight for
their rights, and get the same rights, priviliges, immunities, and most
importantly THE SAME WAGES, HOURS AND WORKING CONDITIONS, as White
American, Black and US Citizen Latino workers.
You see, to achieve that, there would need to be a long, hard, bitter,
agressive and militant struggle against the employers... and that's
just the kind of thing that business unionists avoid like the plague.
Is there an alternative?
I think there is..and, in my opinion, the path to Latino immigrant
worker equality lies through something called "Revolutionary Unionism".
I've talked about revolutionary unionism on the GANGBOX website before,
and on the GANGBOX listserv, at:
Basically, revolutionary unionism means labor organizations that
recognize the fact that workers and bosses have a basic conflict... We
do the work, and they pay us less than the full value of the goods or
services they produce. That difference ("surplus value", to use a
really fancy name for it), is the source of all corporate profits...
Bottom line, the less they pay us, the more money goes in their
pockets..and, the more money we make, the less the bosses have to take
for themselves. Same thing with shorter hours, and better working
conditions...if we're better off, it means less money for the rich
That's why we have to fight so hard for every little benefit we get..
And it's always going to be like that, as long as we live in a
capitalistic society, where the businesspeople and corporate rulers are
in total control.
So, until we're ready, willing and able to establish a
worker-controlled society, we'll need revolutionary unions, to make our
lives as bearable as possible under this system.
Alright...how would revolutionary unionism deal with the persecution
and poverty imposed on the immigrant workers..and the effect that mass
immigration has on wages and unemployment levels in this country?
That's a tough question..but I have some ideas of what we might want to
try and do.
First thing, specifically in the construction industry, we need to re
unionize residential construction, and we really need to do that now.
Of course, when the construction industry was originally unionized by
the socialists, communists and anarchists who founded the building
trades unions, the main tactic they used was areawide strikes, or, to
use the terminology they used at the time, "trade movements".
They would organize a citiwide strike, and march from jobsite to
jobsite, persuading and/or coercing every worker in that particular
craft in that area to participate.
That tactic can still work today..that's what the residential
sheetrockers in Los Angeles did back in 1991 when they were striking to
get into the Carpenters Union.
Now, of course, those carpenters were self-organized, the Carpenters
Union only came in once they'd done all the work and gone out on the
streets and battled scabs, cops and the INS.
There's absolutely no reason in the world why other Latino immigrant
tradespeople can't follow in their footsteps..and, get themselves
organized, and integrated into the mainstream construction unions..
This would benefit everybody in the business...if that sector was
reorganized, and the wage standard was brought up to union levels, it
would help the entire construction workforce, immigrant and
In fact, it's entirely possible that the day labor centers might be the
nucleus of just such a movement..if the workers in them were able to
capture their leadership from the clergy and the social services folks.
Now, organizing these workers would be kind of tricky.
For one thing, there's the whole self employment question - when these
workers go to private homes, to work directly for the homeowner, they
are basically acting as independent contractors.
One way that issue could be dealt with would be adding a minimum price
list for self employment to the unions bylaws..with that price list
being equal or close to union scale, and having some mechanism for
verifying that every union member doing side work actually charged
For the day laborers that are employed by contractors, there would be
the whole issue of making sure that the newly organized workers are
integrated into the same locals as American workers, and that the
residential contractors are signatory to an agreement with the same
pay, benefits and working conditions as the commercial agreement...
Beyond that, there's the language issue. That is, for these workers to
effectively participate in the unions, they would need to have the
contract, bylaws, working rules, constitution and union newsletters
translated into Spanish, or whatever other languages that day laborers
in that area speak (Portuguese, Polish, Punjabi, Chinese ect).
And, the workers would also need to be provided with the opportunity to
take English classes as well. Also, there would also have to be
translation services provided at union meetings and at the
apprenticeship school, and, of course, organizers, BAs and union staff
who speak the languages the workers speak.
Beyond that, the employers have to be forced to pay back all the
superprofits they've gained in the last decade of mass immigration.
I would propose that employers be required to sponsor any illegal
immigrant worker they presently employ for Permanent Resident status
(that is, the famous "Green Card"). The contractors should also have to
pay the full cost of immigration attorneys, fingerprinting, application
fees and any and all other costs of legalization. Also, illegal
immigrant workers should get time off with pay for appointments with
the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services that happen during
In the event a worker gets detained, the employer should have to pay
them the equivilant of what they would recieve from unemployment
insurance (that is, 50% of their wages up to a maximum of $ 405/wk) for
the time they are in detention. In the event a worker is actually
deported, once they have arrived in their country of origin, the
contractor should send them a check for one week's wages for every year
they've been employed by that contractor, plus $ 405/wk for 26 weeks.
Hey..it's only fair..for all these years that bosses have profited by
paying substandard wages to immigrant workers, it's about damned time
that they pay some of that money back to the people who made that money
Representatives of these workers would also need the opportunity to
take part in the leadership of the locals they were organized into....
That's very important..and, actually that's been one of the most
persistant problems for Black and US Citizen Latino workers in the
building trades..once we were able to "kick in the door" and get in the
union, we've never really had the opportunity to hold office in the
unions in proportion with our numbers among the membership.
Unfortunately, as I pointed out above, Latino immigrant workers have
had the same problem..many unions want to organize immigrant
workers..but exclude them from having any meaningful say in how the
unions are run.
Now, of course, none of this stuff is going to happen by itself...
Far from it..if the immigrant workers centers keep going the way they
are going, the best they can expect is 'seperate but equal' tokenism,
and continued status as second class low wage workers.
In other words, for these workers to achieve equality, it's going to
take a struggle...a struggle that will need to be led by the Latino
immigrant workers themselves.
The day labor centers COULD be a means of leading that struggle..
But, for that to happen, the workers themselves would have to take the
centers over from the social service professionals, politicians and
priests who currently dominate them..and, the centers would have to be
controlled by actual construction workers.
Now, of course, if this were to happen, the immigrants would suddenly
find that all the so called "friends of the immigrants" in the
Democratic Party, the AFL-CIO heirarchy and the leadership of the
Catholic Church will turn their backs on these workers with a truly
Remember, at the end of the day, the Democratic Party is a
corporate-controlled entity, and it's going to deliver what Corporate
America and the real estate developer community want...a plentiful and
disposable supply of rightless cheap labor.
As for the Catholic Church...they are an employer themselves, running
many school systems, universities, hospitals, cemetaries, social
service agencies, foster homes all over the country..and they are a
major landowner as well. So, the Church wants cheap labor for it's
businesses too. And, of course, since most of these immigrants are
Catholic, the clergy get the added bonus of more parisioners in their
churches as well, and more nickles and dimes in the collection plate.
As for the union bosses...they are accustomed to giving management what
they want, and the business community of this country, from Wall Street
to Main Street, wants a surplus of cheap labor.
None of these groups are "friends" of the Latino immigrants..they are
actually deadly enemies...and the only hope that the day laborers have
is to fight to integrate themselves into the mainstream of the American
workforce, and the mainstream of the American union movement, so they
can fight for their rights.
That $ 80 dollars a day is just the beginning..now it's time for these
workers to fight for the whole ball of wax.....
Thats it for now.
Be union, work safe.
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