May 24, 2006

Further Thoughts on Immigration

At this stage of the game, US immigration reform seems to be coming down to these couple of options:

  1. This option is a massive beefing up of the US-Mexican border, including a sort of militarization of the border through the National Guard. This option is the xenophobes preferred option and is based on totally blocking immigrants and migrant labor from entering the US. This option maybe ought to be referred to as the racist option in that this position most simplistically holds Mexican labor responsibly for all the ills and depredations of the native American working class. Appealing to those who really aren't very good at complex thought, this position holds that wages, benefits and working conditions would improve for native American workers if only those dark skinned folks from Mexico would stop stealing "our" jobs. This position is one often held by those who are really angry and need someone to blame for their current economic condition.
  1. This second option is the one favored by the Bush Administration and those who run the capitalist show. As such, this option ought to be called the thinking capitalists' option, in that it is based on an understanding of the key role played by migrant labor in agricultural and low-wage production. As such, this wing of the immigration argument calls for beefing up the borders through registering and regulating migrant labor, but also endeavors to hold out a carrot to migrant labor in the form of the possibility of some sort of case by case citizenship for long term migrant workers. Crucially however, the guts of this second option comes down to formally legislating and regulating a second class tier of workers with far fewer rights and protections.

The migrant and immigrant labor argument in the US has three main players. First are the xenophobes. This wing recently raised its ugly head in Congress when it rejected any kind of Bracero, or second class worker option, and called instead for a wall across the US-Mexican border.

Second are the thinking capitalists, as represented by the Bush Administration. This wing of the argument really sees nothing structurally wrong with the current exploitation of illegal immigration. On the other hand, this capitalist wing needs the widespread political backing of the xenophobe wing, and thus, must appear to be dealing with this issue.

Finally, the most recent player is the new immigrant rights movement and the voice it has projected out of the blue over the past six weeks. In spite of massive actions and demonstrations, this new movement does not have a clearly thought out set of positions, and instead seems to be interested in working out the best possible option number 2 kind of deal.

What has not taken root here in the US is a position that calls for the legalization of migrant labor with all the economic and legal rights accorded to native workers. To my mind however, this position is the one us on the socialist left ought to be advocating.

Structurally, the one thing that cannot be accepted by the thinking capitalist side of things is the notion of migrant and immigrant labor having rights. Full rights would mean that immigrant labor could organize and take action in behalf of wage and working condition improvements with little fear of round ups and deportations; the usual method used to control immigrant and migrant labor. As such, legalization would make immigrant labor much less exploitable, and therefore far less attractive.

Secondly, full rights for immigrant labor would and should make immigrant labor eligible for those social benefits accorded to workers with citizen status. And why not? These workers make massive contributions to the American economy and in anybody's sense of fairness, ought to be entitled to at least the fraction of their labor that other American workers are entitled. This eligibility is however something that the capitalist right is not willing to pay for or willing to shove down the throats in the form of tax increases to be paid by those often on the xenophobic end of things. Again, the attractiveness of immigrant labor is that it is rightless!

Finally, the issue of the cross border exploitation of workers is neither accidental nor a purely US phenomena. The European Union's Bolkestein Directive, which allows low wage Eastern European workers to be hired in higher wage Western European nations at Eastern European wages is part of the same capitalist strategy of lowering wage costs through importing cheap labor. Folks who might be interested in immigrant and migrant labor at the global level ought to take a look at this link to Spectrezine Magazine in Europe (

And, of course again, there's the NAFTA, CAFTA, GRAFTA treaties, which nicely mirror the advantage of cheap immigrant and migrant labor. The mirror difference is simply this: the free-trade agreements take the exploitative economy to workers rather than moving the worker to the exploitative economy.

All for now ...

May 22, 2006

Oregon's Workers/Oregon's Primary Elections

The results of Oregon's primaries are still being analyzed and debated. Very few people seem to be thinking about a working class analysis of the primaries, however. What follows below is an incomplete and limited overview of what I regard as some key issues and trends. Perhaps someone can use this as a point of departure for a more comprehensive analysis.

Jim Hill ran as a progressive Democrat and lost to incumbent Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski. Kulongoski got his votes from the center and right of the Democratic Party and from a base of some liberal, gay and environmental voters. Hill ran a strong campaign and would have been Oregon's first African-American Governor had he made it through the primaries and the general election. Very little in his candidacy should have surprised or disappointed the progressive base, union members, the antiwar movement or the immigrant rights movement. On the other hand, we cannot argue that Hill was a workers' or working class candidate: the reforms he proposed were built on making capitalism work better and avoiding social confrontations and confrontations with the Bush administration. His campaign did not prepare his base for confrontation.

Governor Ted Kulongoski will now face off against Republican Ron Saxton and the allegedly independent Senator Ben Westlund. Saxton represents some of the worst thinking in the Republican Party today - he is solidly against key worker rights and immigrants and seems to be making an effort to present himself as a homier version of nationally discredited neoconservatives. Westlund's campaign advertises his "independent" strategy as if this were an end in and of itself: not much critical thinking or policy work here and he offers only the same sort of non-solutions to social crises that we are used to hearing about from both Republicans and Democrats.

But in a three-way race for Governor between Kulongoski, Saxton and Westlund it is Saxton who seems most likely to win at this point. Westlund takes votes from Kulongoski. The Governor's trust level and record among key working class sectors must be something comparable to Bush's dismal ratings and he cannot hope to win without undoing some of this damage. He seems incapable of running a strong campaign while Saxton draws from constituencies who feel angry, threatened and displaced. Their publicly evident racism is a symptom of their strongly held belief that the ground is shifting beneath them. This is, in some warped microcosm, the essence of reaction.

The primaries include other races and issues, of course, but it is the race for Governor which has captured the most attention. The primaries should not yet be understood as a referendum on the Governor's performance because of low (but still higher than expected) voter turnout, the political gap between Oregon's cities and regions, the divide between forces favoring human services and those favoring education and because the unions most affected by the Governor's key policy decisions were divided in the primaries.

We can see at this point that union-endorsed candidates generally did not do well. Westlund's candidacy seems to be giving some Republicans and Democrats a push towards leaving their parties and running as independents. Such a turn seems likely to muddle Oregon politics at a time when we need unity against the right. It also works against working class political independence in the long-run by reinventing a mythic political "independence" without principled political positions guiding or motivating it. Eugene now becomes the key in keeping the Democratic majority in place in Oregon's Senate. The Republican majority in Oregon's House may end in November, or the gap between Democrats and Republicans may narrow, so the question of independent campaigns is important.

The payday loan issue caused a crisis and realignment for Republicans. Liberal and working class forces should be uniting to head off a Republican counter-attack on the issue and in order to win additional protections for the workers who use payday loans, car title loans and check cashing companies. Unity on this issue between center, left and working class blocs could help push Republicans back into playing defense. The working class won a major victory on payday loans in Oregon and we must build on that victory.

On the other hand, Democrats took soft positions on immigrant rights and the war while these movements grew and maintained their strength over the past winter and spring. Faced with growing movements in the streets and stridently racist opposition from the right the Democrats generally folded. The Democratic Party also continues to take union support for granted. This feeds the often-repeated (but incorrect) assumption in the media that unions - and particularly public employee unions - now have nowhere to go but into the arms of Governor Kulongoski. An anti-Saxton campaign is not the same as a pro-Kulongoski campaign, in any case, and unions could very well remain divided or channel resources into legislative races instead of the race for Governor. Postponing key union endorsements is also a strong possibility. Despite some loss of political power and standing, then, public employee unions in Oregon might be able to begin bargaining new contracts this fall with some added political will and strength. No one should expect that this bargaining will be easy and statewide strikes over retirement benefits and against privatization are quite possible. The movement we saw in 2005 for a labor line on the ballot and for a labor party might be resurrected and taken from the hands of its liberal mismanagers.

We will not be facing any major ballot measure fights in the coming months and this will certainly impact the November vote and voter turnout. But what will this impact be The right can use this to slip through its barbaric tax cutting measures and Bill Sizemore can use this to reposition himself as a populist. On the other hand, ballot measures fights to increase nursing home staffing and expand healthcare coverage as part of the fight against the right wing could develop and win at the working class base. Certain unions and the Oregon AFL--CIO have gone AWOL in these fights. There is a noticeable retreat among some unions from even their past too-mild reformism --- and this happens as the working class fight for immigrant rights grows and other popular movements grow.

An opportunistic trend among union workers and leaders says that unions can take advantage of Kulongoski's weaknesses and his need for support. Now is the time, they say, to exact promises and commitments from the Governor and base labor's support for the Governor on these promises. The Governor's bad record makes this sort of opportunism particularly unrealistic.

We can consider the leaders of the Oregon AFL-CIO to be generally progressive, but two key unions are opposing the ballot measure to increase nursing home staffing levels. The Federation has not been a great political force since the Change To Win (CTW) unions withdrew from the AFL-CIO. There will be some positive union impact on the elections where legislative races and issues overlap, but positive union impact on immigrant rights issues has been lessened by divisions of opinion between the AFL-CIO and CTW unions. The real issue here is one of union organizing and union crisis. We would prefer a united and militant labor movement with a progressive voice from the base; absent that, it is best that the AFL-CIO get out of the way. With a weak CTW formation in Oregon, an AWOL AFL-CIO, a divided left and a Democratic Party which cannot fight back we are facing related fundamental problems. In the short-term, what must our relationship with centrist forces be? Can our unions and the most vulnerable sections of the working class survive a Saxton win? In the long-term, what political center and leadership do we need to beat the right and build working class unity and power?