US Immigrant Workers Movement: Birth of the New Civil Rights Movement?


" There are economic interests who want to perpetuate a global low-wage work force and maintain the pool of exploitable labor of Mexicans in the United States and Mexico . " BALDEMAR VELASQUEZ, FARM LABOR ORGANIZING COMMITTEE

May 1, 2006 made history. It was the day when the traditional May Day was resurrected by the new immigrant workers in the US . Despite the US origins of May Day, it has been wiped out from peoples' consciousness. The new immigrant rights movement changed all of that. A multitude of organizations -immigrant rights organizations, progressive sections of the labour movement and unions, left political parties and religious organizations - and multinational workers resolved to organize a national 'day without immigrants.' May 1st was chosen for its special symbolism as an international workers' day. It was no ordinary day of protest but a national day of boycott with the key slogans of 'no work', 'no school', and 'no selling, no buying'.

New Draconian Anti-Immigrant Bill

The momentum for the May 1 boycott built after millions of the people marched in all the large urban centres including Los Angeles , Washington , Chicago , New York , and Boston during March and April. These marches were to protest the passage of the HR 4437 (The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005) in the United States House of Representatives on December 16, 2005 . It is also called the Sensenbrenner bill after its sponsor the Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner.

The draconian Sensenbrenner bill further criminalises the super-exploited undocumented immigrants. Some of the provisions are: 1) Requires up to 700 miles (1120 km) of fence along the US-Mexican border at points with the highest number of 'illegal' immigrant crossings. 2) Requires custody of undocumented immigrants detained by local authorities. 3) Mandates employers should verify workers' legal status through electronic means. 4) Criminalises, with a prison term, the 'assisting' of undocumented immigrants. As written it includes any charity, church or neighbour, who aids the undocumented immigrant to remain in the U.S. , for example by providing food, clothing or shelter. The bill is presently under consideration by the United States Senate. In case mass deportation results in labour shortage one congressperson suggested " let the prisoners pick the fruits."

Shaken by the building immigrant workers movement, McCain-Kennedy bill and other alternative bills are being proposed. The alternative bills largely retain a lot of the provisions of the HR 4437 and has a "guest worker" program which sends the workers home after a few years. The two labour federations American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and Change to Win, although oppose the HR 4437 in principle, support some sort of legalization and guest worker program. This is a grave mistake. The Braceros program, a type of guest worker program from the 1940s to 1960s, was employed to lower wages and break strikes. In a national speech on May 16 Bush announced that he is sending 6000 National Guard troops to increase border patrol along the US-Mexico border and supported the establishment of a guest worker program and the denial of citizenship to millions of immigrants. The Democratic leadership mostly agreed.

Imperialism, Free Trade, and Labour

US is a country built not only from the sweat of immigrants but also the slavery of Africans and the genocide of American Indians. In 2003, 11.7% of the population, about 33.5 million, were foreign born residents and approximately half arrived after 1990 (8). It is estimated that about 11-12 million are undocumented immigrants of which 7.2 million are undocumented workers. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico are 56 %, other Latin American countries are 22 %, Asia are 13%, and Europe and Canada about 6%. Most of these new immigrants have less formal education, lower wages and higher unemployment and clustered in the jobs with dangerous and abominable conditions (4). For example, in New York City 's Chinatown the restaurant and garment sweatshop workers work about 100 hours a week - compared to a standard work week of 40 hours per week - and were paid as low as $ 2 an hour - compared to a minimum wage of $ 5.15 an hour (8).

The immigrants provide food to the US population by working in the low paid and dangerous jobs in farming and meat processing. The 2 million year-round and seasonal migrant farmworkers, includes 100,000 children. Approximately two thirds of farmworkers are immigrants, with 80 % from Mexico . Agricultural work injuries and illnesses disable farmworkers at thrice the rate of the general population (3) and 60% of these families live below US poverty line (1, 7). In the meat processing industry, "exhausted employees slice into carcasses at a frenzied pace hour after hour, often suffering injuries from a slip of the knife or from repeating the same motion more than 10,000 times a day." The workers are asphyxiated by fumes, have their legs cut off and hands crushed doing the most dangerous job in the US (2).

Why do the undocumented workers risk their lives to work in these horrendous conditions? The two parties of the ruling class, the Democratic and Republican, have been pursuing the imperial economic policies with North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Mexico 's pursuit of these economic liberalization policies has transformed rural Mexico , forcing 1.7 million subsistence farmers to migrate to the cities, maquiladoras (export factories) or the U.S. It is estimated that 15 million more Mexican farmers, nearly one in six, could soon be displaced with a projected 5 million of those attempting to migrate to the U.S. Since NAFTA, 80 percent of rural Mexicans live in poverty, with 60 percent living in extreme poverty (5, 6). Besides the economic migration millions have run from Nicaragua , El Salvador , Guatemala , and Honduras to escape the US financed militias and state terror. Additionally, in the 19th century, US annexed large parts of Mexico , comprising the large states of California , Texas , Arizona . Thus, the Chicana/o leaders "Chican@s did not cross the border the US crossed the border." No wonder the immigrants rights organizations are on the streets fighting back the latest round of assault on their rights.

The May 1 Boycott

May 1 could be a watershed in the workers' movement in the US . After massive demonstrations on March 25 and April 10, on May 1 millions joined in massive marches and workers strikes. This was not a simple march. This was "a day without immigrants," the historic May 1 boycott. The reasoning was expressed succinctly by Juan Jose Gutierrez, national coordinator for Latino Movement USA "You can only march for so long to make your point You have to think of other creative ways to make it clear to Congress and the Bush administration that we expect them to behave responsibly." He added that it was inspired by the International Workers' day. Nevertheless, several organizations who are supporting the immigrant rights, such as the Catholic church, opposed the boycott. The central slogans were "Amnesty for All", "Immigrant rights are workers rights", "No human being is illegal", "We are not criminals".

May 1 witnessed one of the largest demonstrations in US history. More than 153 cities in 39 states in US and in Mexico and other Latin American countries millions of people protested. The numbers were mind blowing: 1 million in Los Angeles , more than half a million in New York City , 700,000 in Chicago , 100,000 in Atlanta , and 100,000 in San Francisco . In addition tens of thousands participated from Boston to Houston . People had signs of "Bush, listen! We're fighting back!" "We're here and we're not going anywhere," and "There are no borders in the workers' struggle." 90% of port truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach did not work. US's biggest beef processor was forced to give workers the day off in seven plants in Colorado , Kansas , Iowa , Illinois , Texas and Nebraska . Food giant General Mills was unexpectedly forced to stop production at two of its plants in the Boston area. Immigrants from Latin America , Africa , Asia , and Eastern Europe participated in large numbers.

As the US Senate was deliberating provisions of the immigration bill on May 17 immigrant rights activists protested outside. As a result of all these protests, it is likely that the Senate will decide to tone down some provisions of the House bill but with most of the provisions intact. These laws will ultimately criminalise immigrants, fuel racism and increases the super-exploited workforce. The immigrant rights movement is polarising further into the centrists and the progressives. Militant trade union activists, in the spirit of oppressed peoples' struggle, have called for Brown-Black (and White workers) unity. The progressive forces in the immigrant rights movement will have to continue to organise and build the movement in the spirit of the popular slogan " Si Se Puede " (Yes We Can!).



1. Anh, C., Migrant Farmworkers: America 's New Plantation Workers, Institute for Food and Development Policy, Spring 2004.

2. Human Rights Watch, Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in US Meat and Poultry Plants, 2005.

3. Oxfam America, Like Machines in the Fields: Workers Without Rights in American Agriculture, 2004.

4. Pew Hispanic Center , Immigration Statistics, 2006.

5. Public Citizen, Down on the Farm: NAFTA'S Seven-Years War on Farmers and Ranchers in the U.S. , Canada and Mexico , 2001.

6. Public Citizen and GRACE, Unfair Trade: Mexico 's Agriculture Crisis: How Free Trade, the United States and Transnational Corporations Made It Happen, November 2003.

7. United States Department of Labor, National Agricultural Workers Survey, 2000.

8. Yates, M., Capitalism is Rotten to the Core, Monthly Review, May 2006.

Note: May 1 boycott reports from,, and