Charging Through the Archway of History: Immigrants and African-Americans Unite to Transform the Face of Labor and the Power of Community


I was taught that justice wears a blindfold, so as not to be able to distinguish between the colors, and thus makes everyone equal in the eyes of the law. I propose we remove the blindfold from the eyes of Lady Justice, so that for the first time she can really see what's happening and check out where the truth lies and the lies hide. That would be a start. Viva the children of all colors! Punto!
- Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets

Part I: A Tale of Two Speeches

Why did President Obama travel to Las Vegas to make a speech on immigration? Las Vegas is a union town. The city is the home of one most powerful unions in the Americas, an organization built and led largely by Latina, African-American and Asian-American women who work as maids, housekeepers and food service workers on the Las Vegas Strip and beyond.

Many of the rank-and-file members of the 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union Local 226 are single mothers, and without their support Obama would not be President of the United States. The president understands this and herein lays the symbolic power of his speech, as well as the transformations in American life that it reveals. The new president of Local 226 is the brilliant organizer Geoconda Arguello-Kline. She was a picket captain during the epic Frontier Hotel Strike (1991-1998) where not a single one of the 550 hotel workers crossed the picket line. The strike "showed us all what unity and perseverance are," she recalled. Arguello-Kline originally hails from Managua, Nicaragua and is a former hotel housekeeper.

In the 1990s, Local 226 became the fastest-growing private sector union in the United States. It was led by the legendary African-American unionist Hattie Canty, who migrated to Las Vegas from rural Alabama. In contrast to the AFL-CIO's George Meany, who bragged that he had never been on a picket line, Canty was one of the greatest strike leaders in US history. Her patient leadership helped knit together a labor union made up of members from 84 nations. "Coming from Alabama," Canty observed, "this seemed like the civil rights struggle … the labor movement and the civil rights movement, you cannot separate the two of them."

Whether they hail from Alabama, Thailand, Central America or someplace else, the members of Local 226 represent the future promise of the Americas. This is not about demographics; it is about corazón (heart), the willingness to struggle together and the courage to challenge corporate America when others have surrendered.

The place where a president chooses to deliver a major address is important. In 1980, Ronald Reagan traveled to Neshoba County, Mississippi – the least unionized state in the country – to make a speech on "states' rights." He was trying to build a base of white southern support pursuant to the 1980 Presidential Election.

He gave his speech a few miles away from the place where three civil rights activists had been murdered in 1964. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were killed by people who held the doctrine of "states rights" to be a sacred part of their Confederate heritage. While Reagan may have been ignorant of the civil rights movement, he was well aware of the role that the Republican Party's "Southern Strategy" played in his electoral chances. The goal was to play upon white pride and to undermine the Democratic Party in the South. In the short term, it worked.

Analysts are saying that the re-election of Obama may signal the end of the Reagan Era.

But elections decide nothing. The zombie-like grip that policies implemented by cohorts of Reagan/Ayn Rand acolytes will only be broken by collective action. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the United Farm Workers did not wait for John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson to do for them what they could do for themselves. Freedom schools, strikes, boycotts and voter registration campaigns were engines of social change in the 1960s and yes, they were sometimes timed to push Washington, DC to action.

The 2006 General Strike of Latinos on International Workers' Day made the election of Barack Obama possible. The mass walkouts demonstrated the ability of Latinos to shut the economy down in defense of social justice and equality. It taught us that the real strength in our communities is in our custodians, manual laborers and service workers – not in our intellectuals, executives or experts who garner corporate endorsements for interpreting "Latin culture" for Madison Avenue. In the 1960s, we learned, much to our surprise, that the future of Latino aspirations rested on the creative energies of farm workers. In turn, the Grape Boycott awakened and trained a new generation of young community organizers who went on to play pivotal roles in rebuilding progressive politics through vehicles such as the Rainbow Coalition, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and finally, the "Obama ground game."

The general strike signaled a renaissance of working-class culture in the US that we have yet to fully understand. It reminded the nation that politics is not the property of the rich; it occurs on soccer fields, in union halls, in churches and in tiendas where immigrant workers gather to share information on the latest activities of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the neighborhood. In both 2008 and 2012, a significant amount of the electoral ground game hinged on the energy of local labor councils in canvassing, multi-lingual phone-banking and other outreach activities. Many of these activists had been rejuvenated by, or even earned their organizers' stripes, during International Workers' Day, 2006. In south Florida, an epicenter of the General Strike, Latinos were a decisive part of Election Day. According to Gihan Perera, "In Homestead, undocumented workers who couldn't even vote pitched in with a mariachi band and barbecue," to encourage thousands of African-Americans, Latinos, and progressive whites to stay in line and vote. Black and brown power made the difference in Florida.

"Politics is an activity," C.L.R. James famously said. "It is not a lecture room where the people are supposed to listen to all the government has done for them. The more active the people are, the more active the government can be." Nearly 300,000 Latinos, African-Americans, and Asian-American workers joined unions in the months leading up to the general election. Even the mainstream media noted that strike activity increased significantly around the time of the election campaign. "The number of union-related work stoppages involving more than 1,000 workers, which reached an all-time low of just five in 2009, rose to 13 this year as of October. And unions aren't done yet," reported the Los Angeles Times.

People are on the move.

I believe the president's Las Vegas speech is a microcosm of a larger movement that may create an expansion of democracy. Everything hinges on the next act of this drama. If a US president is pushed by grassroots pressure to create an opening for social change to occur and he engages in flowery rhetoric to facilitate the process, one doesn't pause at the archway of history to criticize the rhetoric: One charges through the damn door.

African-Americans did not wait in 1863 to see if Abraham Lincoln was serious about the Emancipation Proclamation. A quarter of a million of them enlisted in the US Army in order to drive the Confederate States of America into oblivion.

Is President Obama deeply committed to immigration reform? That's the wrong question to ask. We know that he promised Helen Chavez, the widow of United Farm Workers' co-founder César Chávez, to "do something" about the issue. A better question to ask is: What are we willing to do to welcome millions of struggling workers into our polity? Immigrants traveled to the United States from all over the world during the past two decades and contributed to one of the greatest economic booms in history. They are the solution to an aging Baby Boom generation; they are replenishing tax coffers and they are bringing much-needed changes to our archaic, monolingual culture. What will we do to make them fully empowered citizens of the republic?

Immigrant energy is contributing to a revival of progressive American political culture. It finds its echoes in the heroic DREAMista activists (who have pushed the federal government hard on immigration reform), the Florida Dream Defenders, who organized in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, as well as the Occupy insurgencies. All of these initiatives are part of the rising tide of new social movements that we must nurture, support and sustain.

In a recent newspaper poll taken in the college town of Gainesville, Florida, where I live, 62 percent of the respondents voted against the premise that people "currently in the US illegally" should have a path to citizenship. This is going to be a battle.

Part II: A New Century

Tens of millions of immigrants with lineages from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East voted in significant majorities to re-elect Barack Obama. The choices that first- and second-generation immigrant voters made in this election may signal a turning point in American history. In line with their early 20th century predecessors, these voters could have settled for the tragic bargain of whiteness that Toni Morrison has so eloquently critiqued. In her essay, "On the Backs of Blacks," Morrison observed that, "In race talk, the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African-Americans."

The phenomenon of "whiteness," as scholars call it, meant the country's newcomers often alienated themselves from the democratic legacies of the anti-slavery movement as well as from freedom fighters such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells Barnett and Mary McCleod Bethune, in favor of assimilation to Jim Crow/Juan Crow segregation before the 1950s.

Scholars have long been predicting a massive "turn towards whiteness" among late-20th century immigrants, but it has not happened yet. In fact, we may have broken the old curse. Recent immigrants, such as those who have become members of Local 226 in Las Vegas, are increasingly aligning their politics, trade union membership and their ballots with African-Americans. In the run-up to the 2012 Presidential Election, everyone who had access to radio, television or the internet understood that 90 percent of African-Americans were going to be voting for Obama. As novelist Ishmael Reed observed in Going Too Far: Essays About America's Nervous Breakdown:

Though progressives still cling to a fantasy to which they've been attached since at least the 1920s – that class determines one's status in American society – to millions of whites, we are all underclass. Notice how images hostile to the president show him as an underclass hoodlum, or associate him with food stamps, or fast foods like KFC, or an email circulated by a candidate for governor of New York, a pimp and his wife a whore.

It isn't as if newer generations of immigrants are completely immune to the virus of racism (and frankly, many of us brought racist attitudes from our mother countries). However, the ballots have been counted: Latinos, Asian-Americans and Americans of Middle Eastern descent rejected two solid years of race-baiting, heavy petting and courting from the Republican Party to stand in solidarity with the black electorate.

In Florida, we were given innumerable opportunities to assimilate to this country's older, miserable norms on race, to "become white" so to speak. Mitt Romney's boosters bombarded our airwaves with racial propaganda. We were warned via the notorious "Chinese Professor" video spot of an imminent Asian takeover of the US should Obama win re-election. We were encouraged to believe that African-Americans were lazy, but this is always a hard sell given slavery, and a century of the Jim Crow labor system. The fact that one cannot travel from one side of this country to the other without relying on black and brown workers to handle one's baggage, prepare one's meals or to clean up one's mess makes the "minorities need to work harder and lift themselves up by their bootstraps" argument ridiculous and insulting.

Other "softer" versions of racism or national discrimination were trotted out. A few days before Election Day, Sen. Marco Rubio bungled a play for the Latino vote by telling a Florida audience that people had fled "corrupt" countries to find freedom in the US only to discover to their dismay that Obama was plotting to import these same policies here. Rubio helpfully clarified that he was referring to Mexico and Latin America as the corrupt places in question. Rubio's gaffe illustrates a fundamental reason why the Republican Party stumbles with Latino voters: Most Mexican-Americans have a nuanced understanding of our mother country. We understand its shortcomings, but we also take pride in the accomplishments of the early 19th century Mexican War of Independence, and the fact that the abolition of slavery in Mexico preceded abolition in the United States by approximately four decades. Most of us also know that the United States invaded Mexico in order to expand slavery, steal land and rob resources from Native Americans. So, which country is more corrupt? Until the GOP drops its devotion to American Exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is as pure as the driven snow, and all other countries are lacking in the character department, the party will continue to shrink in relevance.

Hailing from Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the great centers of world population, this may be the most remarkable cohort of immigrants that has ever journeyed to the United States. They believe in hard work and self-help, but because of the places they come from and the traditions they pay homage to, many of them deeply believe in tenets of equality, social democracy and mutual aid.

Of course, these are just the kind of overarching generalizations that social critics rightly distrust, but I would argue that generations of anti-colonial struggles, experiences with post-colonial letdowns and an abiding distrust of the Washington Consensus make this generation of world citizens more worldly wise than their storied Ellis Island ancestors.

For example, more than a few recent immigrants from the Korean peninsula are importing militant trade union practices to the US, and they have a direct knowledge of the mischief that IMF-style policies wreak on workers. Highland Maya bring organizing experiences with Liberation Theology from Guatemala, and Mexican migrants are steeped in the egalitarian (if unrealized) traditions of the Mexican Revolution.

These cohorts of immigrants are less likely to grasp at the straw of racism that so many of their predecessors did because they arrive with a much more critical understanding of US society and a greater capacity to change the world without exploiting others.

What all of this might mean in political terms is not yet quite clear. However, one thing is certain. If community organizers allow this incipient coalition – potentially the largest progressive force in US history – to slip away, we are missing the opportunity that only comes once in a generation to change the trajectory of American politics.

Culinary Workers Union Local 226 presents us with an outstanding model of community and labor organizing. This is a union where members stay active, and this energy drew President Obama to Las Vegas.

Many of the people who are rank-and-file activists of Local 226 are dishwashers, fry cooks and maids. They labor in what is known in Las Vegas parlance at "the back of the house," an apt metaphor for the position of the American working class since the 1980s. With women such as Canty, the union's founder, and Arguello-Kline, its new president, these workers have moved to the forefront of social change. They marched by the thousands in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday last month with banners reading "Labor Rights Are Civil Rights," even as they organized another picket against an unfair employer in the Vegas Strip.

Arguello-Kline and Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, appeared on local television immediately following Obama's speech on immigration. Both vowed to mobilize members of the house of labor to support immigration reform. The waiting is over. It is now possible to imagine a new social movement where labor organizing, mariachi music and MLK celebrations become integral to the rejuvenation of this nation. It's time to get busy.

 

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