Immigration Blame Game

We at Talking Union received the post below by Buzz Malone titled Immigration Blame Game.  It was originally posted on his blog. He is a union activist in Iowa.

We encourage dialogue among union activists on critical issues.  We do not fear open discussion of difficult issues.

A response to Immigration Blame Game was posted on Working In These Times by labor organizer, writer, and photographer David Bacon. Bacon corrects some important points in labor history and argues against the position urged by Buzz Malone.

Malone’s piece.

Immigration Blame Game, by Buzz Malone.

“All of us assign blame in our own best interest — blame is relative. So one of the most important functions in society is controlling the blame pattern. Why is it that [the working class] assign blame downward to some welfare chiselers down at the bottom, “Tryin’ to get a little somethin’ for nothin'” — and they never assign blame upward to a handful of big-time chiselers who get a whole lot of something for doing nothing at all?”       -Utah Phillips-


Illegal immigration. It’s apparently one of the key issues that moved the working class electorate to vote for Trump, so I feel compelled to offer my two cents on the subject based on my own thoughts and experiences.

It’s not a terribly well kept secret to anyone who has ever travelled across Iowa and passed the heavy noxious air of a hog confinement along the interstate, that Iowa has more hogs than people. It’s always been that way. The Midwest I call home has long been a bastion of all things agricultural; of corn and beans and hogs and cattle, and all of the industries that spawn from them.


In the 1970’s, long before we had rounded up all of our free range pigs and chickens and crammed them into huge stinking corporate confinements, the Midwest was also home to much of the nation’s meat packing industry.


The industry had come a long way from Upton Sinclair’s eye opening account of it in The Jungle too. By the late 1970’s the packing houses of the Midwest were almost exclusively unionized establishments, and as the old men used to say, you had to wait for somebody who worked there to die and inherit a job from them if you ever wanted to get in on those good union wages and benefits.

While by no means rich, the meatpackers of my youth were successful blue collar men and women. Their children went to college. If they fished they owned boats. And if they were wise with their money, they even had a little cabin down by a lake somewhere. And then Reagan happened, and PATCO.

It must seem to people outside of the labor movement like we hate Reagan just because he was a Republican, or we are overly sentimental about a relatively small group of 12,000 striking air traffic controllers being fired and replaced by him. But that isn’t the case at all. In fact, the Teamsters and others actually endorsed the man and in the grand scheme of things, PATCO was small potatoes for organized labor. What happened in its wake however, sent seismic ripples throughout the land that led to an anti-union tsunami that labor has never fully recovered from.

There have always been strikes. Always. And there were always attempts by employers to break them. Labor history even tells us stories of times when employers would attempt to bring in strike breakers from the deep south. And there are uplifting accounts from those same annals of forward thinking organizers and organizations who organized them as well.

But 1981 changed the rules of the game, and when meat packing houses had strikes soon thereafter, some CEO or company president got the bright idea of recruiting strike breakers from the poor Mexican countryside. It wasn’t a particularly novel idea for any era, but the difference is that in the 1980’s under a Reagan administration, nobody said a word. Even the employers were surprised. Over the course of the next decade, the entire industry followed suit and a pattern occurred that you could set your watch by.

Contract time would come up and the company would demand huge concessions they knew the workers would never accept. The union would go on strike. The company would send recruiting agents to the Mexican countryside, and right out of the pages of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, if they needed 500 workers, they would advertise for 5,000.

Overnight, Midwest communities would be overrun with hundreds of Mexican replacement workers. And just for good measure, to make sure that no claims for old pension promises hung over their heads, the company would shutter their entire operation and reopen either across the street, or under another name in a corporate shell game. And nobody in the era of deregulation and Laissez-faire economics ever said a word about any of it or did anything to stop it. Fast forward another decade and they began calling them jobs that Americans wouldn’t do anyways.

Then, they started showing up in other industries. When I came onto the scene as a construction worker in 1990, my Laborers Union Hall in Des Moines, Iowa had become the quintessential model of historical irony, with Blacks, Irish, and Italians all standing arm in arm chanting about Hispanics that “we don’t want those fucking people in our union!”

I saw them from a distance. I eyed them on jobs across the street from mine with suspicion and contempt. We could feel the noose tightening on our ability to protect our work, and I could see the workers on surrounding jobsites who were obviously to blame for it.

A number of years later I had my first real eye opening experience when two Spanish speakers came into the union hall pointing at a piece of paper. I called a Mexican staffer I knew and he translated over the speaker phone. The paperwork they were showing me were check stubs. There was a line for their pay of $7.00 per hour (union scale at the time was around $18). There was a line item for a deduction for tools they were being charged to use they had never received. And there was a line item for union dues being deducted. Their pay after deductions was around $4 per hour, less than the minimum wage. A co-worker had just fell and been seriously injured and the company owner dropped him off outside the emergency room, returned to the jobsite and fired the other two.

They had believed that they were union members because they were being charged union dues. They had believed that the union could help them. They had believed that a nation as great as ours would help them. We could not help them. There were few protections for them under the law, and where the law had been violated, no government agencies would pursue it.

This played itself out a million times around the country. Wherever illegal immigrants can be found working, there are employers who use them to skirt every labor protection. Female employees are raped. Workers are cheated. And workers are routinely injured and killed. And no one ever talks about any of it. There is never a thought given to actually punishing the people who employ them. Ever.

Trump can build his wall, but so long as there are employers seeking to profit, illegal immigration from all nations will continue to be a problem. We, as Americans, blame immigrants for taking our jobs. We blame them for using benefits that come out of our tax dollars (even if social programs are only a tiny budgetary sliver, and even if the majority of them pay into social security for benefits they will never be able to collect AND pay more in payroll taxes than Donald Trump has in the last twenty years). And we even blame them for the rising cost of healthcare for those times their employers dump them off at the emergency rooms.

But no one on the right or even the left ever talks about the one thing that could really end the problem. Imprison the employers who import, hire and exploit these workers, and all of it would end. You wouldn’t need to build walls (and good luck building a wall in Southern Texas without using immigrants to build the thing anyways). You wouldn’t need an army of ICE agents sweeping into homes and businesses to round up and detain immigrants. You wouldn’t need any of it. Lock a handful of employers up, and all the rest would fall in line. The border crossings would fizzle out and many of the people would leave on their own.

Drug dealers do cross the border every day. “Bad hombres” come too. But the vast majority of the millions who have made the dangerous and costly journey come in search of opportunities. Often promised opportunities. And I can honestly say that if my own family suffered for the want of the basic needs of life and my children and grandchildren went to bed hungry each night, and there were no opportunities for me here and someone promised me a job with a good wage in Montreal, that no wall would be high enough, no desert would be wide or deadly enough, to keep me from the other side and the promise of something better for them.

Want to make America really great again? Stop blaming the people who have no control over the system and start looking at people who really do.

In the paraphrased words of Utah Phillips, “The world (as we know it) is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”

David Bacon responds:

Punishing Employers Who Hire Undocumented Immigrants Isn’t the Answer—Solidarity Is. Nov. 30, 2016.

It is clear in the article that its author, Buzz Malone, feels he is defending the interests of workers against employers. The article’s thrust, however, calls for the enforcement of employer sanctions—punishing employers for hiring undocumented workers. I’m writing this letter because, with the election of Donald Trump on the most overtly anti-immigrant platform in decades, the proposals in this article present a greater danger than they would at any other time. In many ways they line up with the kind of immigration enforcement we can expect from the Trump administration.

Malone misstates the history of the kind of proposal he is making, so I’d like to set the historical record straight. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which imposed penalties on employers for hiring undocumented workers. Malone proposes jailing employers, while the Act calls for an increasing scale of fines, but the idea is the same. That idea was in fact advanced by the AFL-CIO at the time the law was debated in Congress, using an essentially nativist and racist logic. By making it a crime for employers to hire workers without papers, the workers would be unable to work and would leave the country. Immigration would taper off because people wouldn’t come to the United States, knowing they wouldn’t be able to work. Job competition would slack off, and wages would go up because “they” wouldn’t be taking “our” jobs.

Even at the time, the most progressive unions (United Electrical, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, garment unions) and union activists fought that AFL-CIO position. They predicted that sanctions would simply make workers more vulnerable and be used as a weapon against immigrant workers when they tried to organize. They argued that instead of uniting workers against the attacks of the Ronald Reagan administration, it would divide them against each other. Those activists and unions lost the argument. IRCA became law, and sanctions went into effect.

The predictions of the law’s opponents were borne out. Whether against apple pickers in Washington state, janitors in California or meatpacking workers at Smithfield Foods in North Carolina, sanctions were used to fire immigrant workers when they tried to organize. Some workers even went to prison, charged with “identity theft” because they’d given a bad Social Security number to their employer when they were hired. The impacts among the apple pickers and at Smithfield were catastrophic. The apple drive was lost, and it took Smithfield workers a long time to recover. The janitors were more resilient, and immigrant workers won contracts at Apple and Hewlett Packard despite the firings. These are just a few of many examples.

The predictions paraded in defense of sanctions proved false. Undocumented immigration increased enormously in the 1990s and 2000s because of the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement in Mexico, and the destruction of the economies of Central America in the wars Reagan fought by proxy. Sanctions had no effect on slowing migration. Nor did they end job competition. Instead, they gave employers an even greater advantage when the Supreme Court held that employers didn’t have to rehire undocumented workers fired for union activity or pay them back wages. We all know what happened to our wages over the years since 1986.

Some nativist and rightwing organizations argue that sanctions were never enforced because employers didn’t go to jail, as Malone proposes. Actually, a few did for document fraud, and others did pay fines. But many more workers were fired for not having papers, so workers were the ones who paid the price. This is the essential problem with sanctions enforcement—there is no way to do this without having thousands, and even millions, of people lose their jobs, resulting in evictions, hunger and enormous suffering for workers.

This is why progressive unions and activists kept organizing, and finally in 1999 won the fight at the AFL-CIO convention. The federation eventually passed a resolution calling for the repeal of employer sanctions and for the legalization of people in the United States without papers. That fight is not over, however, even in labor. In Congress, Democrats have proposed immigration reform bills (and some unions have supported them) that would strengthen employer sanctions and increase penalties. We already have an electronic verification program, E-Verify, a database maintained by immigration authorities so that employers can check the immigration status of workers. The Obama administration has required thousands of employers to access this database and fire workers accused of not having papers. George W. Bush proposed forcing employers to fire millions of workers, and was only stopped by court decisions won by California labor councils and the American Civil Liberties Union.

We are likely to see the incoming Trump administration put this workplace enforcement mechanism on steroids, even beyond what Bush and Obama did. One question for Malone is whether he will try to get his union to defend those workers when it happens, or stand aside as they lose their jobs. It is clearly not just a question for Malone, but for every union in this country—and beyond unions, for our churches and community organizations as well. Fortunately, we have a long history of people stepping up to defend their coworkers and neighbors. To its credit, In These Times has published several articles over the years covering some of those struggles.

But the other problem with Malone’s article is not just what he’s arguing for, but how he does it. He describes a false history of what happened in the meatpacking industry, and then in construction. He begins his history by describing what he allegedly saw in the 1980s: “Contract time would come up and the company would demand huge concessions they knew the workers would never accept. The union would go on strike. The company would send recruiting agents to the Mexican countryside, and right out of the pages of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, if they needed 500 workers, they would advertise for 5,000. Overnight, Midwest communities would be overrun with hundreds of Mexican replacement workers.”

The reorganization of the meatpacking industry certainly did involve attacks on the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—the old locals of the radical Packinghouse Workers, which had a very different policy on racism and immigration during the 1930s and 1940s when it was organized, from what Malone advocates today. Mostly the UFCW granted concessions, and the plants of the old meatpacking companies closed anyway. When strikes did take place, whether at IBP, Hormel or elsewhere, the companies did try to bring in strikebreakers. But they came in all colors and nationalities, and mostly from the areas around the struck plants. Blaming Mexican workers for lost strikes is playing the employers’ game. In a previous era it would have been accusations against Black workers, or Italians, etc.  Employers did not, in fact, recruit significant numbers of workers from the “Mexican countryside.” And painting a picture of Midwest communities “overrun with hundreds of Mexican replacement workers” presents a vision calculated to incite racial hysteria, in pretty offensive language.

New meatpacking companies did open new plants in rural areas, far from the urban strongholds of the union where most old plants had been located. Production was reorganized with the introduction of boxed beef and other innovations that didn’t require skilled butchers in markets. Those plants required a large labor force in the plants, to cut the animals up, however. Wages were low, injuries were common, conditions were bad, and the people of many of those local communities could get easier jobs at higher wages elsewhere. Employers did then advertise to bring workers in. The first wave of Latino migration into Nebraska plants, for instance, came from Los Angeles. As one family member got a job, he or she would then urge others to come. Those networks eventually extended into Mexico, where people were being driven off the land by corn and meat dumping by U.S. corporations, or losing jobs in other economic reforms tied to U.S. corporate penetration of Mexico.

Employers did, and still do, advertise their jobs on the Mexican border. But the big question is what the union and other workers in the plants need to do as new workers come in, whether from Mexico or anywhere else (many now in the rural Midwest are Muslim workers from Somalia and the Sudan, for instance.)

To its credit, that immigrant workforce over the years became very active in organizing unions in those plants, from Smithfield in Tar Heel, North Carolina, to Cargill in Omaha, Nebraska. Often workers had to fight the cooperation between immigration authorities and employers, who sought to stop organizing. Malone says a group of immigrant workers he met wanted help from the union. He wrote: “We could not help them. There were few protections for them under the law, and where the law had been violated, no government agencies would pursue it.”

Hostility and inaction by the government is no news to most workers. If the union didn’t help them either, that’s not to its credit. But Malone sets up a scenario in which the union is the “we” and immigrant workers are not part of it. They are the “them.” That puts the workers on the outside—a terrible way to organize people or gain their support. But this also isn’t a real picture of the role of immigrant workers in relation to unions generally, where they have often been the sparkplugs of organizing drives, often trying to convince a reluctant union structure to support them.

Malone ignores the active role that immigrant workers have played, in cooperation with others, in organizing in the workplace, and in political action in defense of workers’ interests. Trump was defeated in the 18 precincts of South Omaha, for instance, because of the long organizing efforts of its immigrant-majority population, most of whom came to Nebraska originally to work in meatpacking plants. Hillary Clinton lost Omaha’s electoral vote because of the majority white vote in Omaha suburbs. So who was defending workers’ interests in this Midwestern city, and who was betraying them?

Malone ends his article, after claiming that “no one on the right or even the left ever talks about the one thing that could really end the problem. Imprison the employers who import, hire and exploit these workers, and all of it would end.”

All of what would end? Workers would no longer be exploited? Their wages would go up? And this, after immigrant workers were driven from the workplace? Malone then gives his answer. “Lock a handful of employers up, and all the rest would fall in line. The border crossings would fizzle out and many of the people would leave on their own.”

Sound familiar?

Posted in Working In These Times Nov. 30, 2016







This piece was originally posted on the blog


by Buzz Malone. A union activist in Iowa.


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