Friday, May 05, 2006

Workers unite:

The NYT reported yesterday that there is some unease in the African-American community about the current Latino immigrant movement and its call for civil rights. Some blacks bristle at the suggestion that the civil rights struggle and the immigrant rights demonstrations are similar. Blacks, after all, were unwilling immigrants forced to come here to become slaves. Mexicans on the other hand come here willingly and it is feared that they are in the process taking jobs away from lower income blacks and forcing wages down.

Rachel Swarns writes also that, "some fear the unfinished business of the civil rights movement will fall to the wayside as American turns its attention to a newly energized Hispanic minority with growing political and economic clout."

I would say Jesse Jackson probably has a better take on this when he says, "We too were denied citizenship. We too were undocumented workers working without wages, without benefits, without the vote. We should feel honored that other people are using tactics and strategies from our struggle. We shouldn't say they're stealing from us. They're learning from us."

What those who fear the Latins must keep in mind is that the powers-that-be don't want black Americans siding with the Latinos. Imagine a solid bloc of blacks and Latinos marching together demanding higher wages for all, not just for legal workers. (Marching with the Minutemen won't get you there.) If employers were forced to pay workers a decent wage regardless of their legal status that would pretty much eliminate the race to the bottom.

Throughout history, big corporations and southern landlords have pitted poor blacks against poor whites in order to control both. Blacks were used as strike breakers, which assured that their white unionized counterparts, hated them and would never join up with them to fight the common enemy. In the 30's the New Deal through the AAA tried to bring fair compensation to black and white share croppers alike in the south, but were stymied by the intransigence of the southern cotton barons and their influence with southern congressmen in the Democratic party. FDR needed southern lawmakers to get his New Deal legislation passed and he couldn't afford to jeopardize the greater good, so he had to make a trade off.

Regardless of the odds stacked against them, though, dirt poor white and black share croppers joined together to form a union. In July of 1935, in a schoolhouse in Tyronza Arkansas, the croppers met to form the Southern Tenet Farmers Union. Ultimately, the landlords and the local sheriffs prevailed and broke up the union but their efforts were historic and heroic.

An elderly black share cropper explained the facts to his white brethren:

"The same chain that holds my people holds your people too. If we're chained together outside we ought to stay chained together in the union. The landlord is always betwixt us, beatin' us and starvin' us and making us fight each other. There ain't but one way for us to get him where he can't help himself and that's for us to get together and stay together."

The same goes for low wage blacks, whites and Latinos today. It may be a tired old cliché, but there is safety and power in numbers.

Another historical fact that people should keep in mind is the preemptive war that president Polk started in 1846 against Mexico, which was waged in part to get more land for the southern slave interests and to increase their political and economic influence versus the richer north. The war cost the U.S. $27 million and 27,000 dead over two years and ended when the Marines marched into the Halls of Montezuma and forced the Mexicans to give up half their territory for $15 million. Presently, California is such a rich state that it would be the fourth or fifth richest country if it was on its own. Imagine if Mexico still had it and most of the south west. Probably, we wouldn't be too worried about illegal immigration from Mexico.

Ulysses S. Grant wrote "To this day regard the war which resulted as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations like individuals, are punished for their transgressions," and we still are. Viewed in this light we shouldn't be so high and mighty our great moral superiority.

[Note: While we're not forgetting the Alamo, let's not forget the Tejanos.}


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