Workers Vanguard No. 884

19 January 2007


Black, Immigrant Rights Go Hand in Hand

Protest "War on Terror" Firing of Rail Workers!

JANUARY 15—Some 70 mostly black employees of H&M International Transportation at Union Pacific and CSX rail yards in Chicago were fired in late 2006 after the company invoked supposed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) guidelines barring ex-felons from holding such jobs. In recent background checks, the workers, many of whom are members of Teamsters locals 705 or 710, had disclosed nonviolent felony convictions on their records, just as they had done when they were first hired. A lawyer for some of the fired workers said at a protest today that she has received calls from bus and airport workers across the country who have been fired for similar reasons.

The Partisan Defense Committee has protested the firings to the rail companies and wrote today in a letter to the Teamsters: “The government has made it clear that the firing of these 70 railroad workers under the pretext of Homeland Security is just the beginning. All labor must mobilize to defend the Chicago Teamster railroad workers, and protest this attack that threatens us all.” The Spartacist League warned immediately following the September 11 terrorist attacks that the repression directed first against mainly Muslim immigrants would be wielded against black people, the labor movement and the population as a whole. Now, in the name of the “war on terror,” the government is particularly targeting black workers.

Notably, the felonies cited were largely for possession of drugs or unlicensed guns. We have always opposed the racist “war on drugs,” which has criminalized generations of minorities. We defend the right to bear arms. We also call for the decriminalization of drugs as part of our opposition to all so-called “crimes without victims.” Gun control and laws against drug possession bolster the repressive powers of the capitalist state, particularly against minorities and working people. The capitalists’ repressive apparatus has been massively enhanced through the “war on terror.” Thus, while transportation bosses have for years used drug testing to weed out union militants and intimidate the workforce, now they are also using the “anti-terror” witchhunt to that end.

The “war on terror,” supported by both the Democratic and Republican parties of capital, has served as a pretext for imperialist rampages in Afghanistan and Iraq and for a wide-ranging assault on democratic rights at home. Under the same rubric, capitalist governments the world over have carried out their own assaults on working people and immigrants. In the British government’s crackdown on “terror suspects” following the criminal 2005 bombings of the London subway and bus systems, Jean Charles de Menezes, an electrician from Brazil who had nothing to do with the attacks, was executed by police on the subway with seven shots to the head.

In racist America, background checks threaten further devastation for unionized black workers, who were hit especially hard by the deindustrialization of the Northeast and Midwest beginning in the 1970s. The loss of jobs in steel, auto and other industries was accompanied by the skyrocketing incarceration of young black (and Latino) men, mainly as a result of the “war on drugs.” At current rates, as many as one in three black men in the U.S. will be imprisoned at least once. Background checks give the same government that is responsible for this onslaught on the black masses the final say on who works and who doesn’t. This is a real, present danger to the black transit and longshore workers who make up a significant percentage of those unions’ membership.

Democrats Push “Security” Crackdown

A January 2 protest of some 150 people that demanded the rehiring of the fired rail workers was led by Democrat Jesse Jackson Sr., who has publicized these cases. Jackson’s complaint is that the company is “misusing the law.” He is demanding Congressional hearings to determine when workers are enough of a “security risk” to lose their jobs. In fact, the Democrats are trying to outdo the Republicans in implementing draconian “anti-terror” laws. One of the first acts of the newly elected Democratic House was to pass a “domestic security” bill that, among other things, would pour more police and other security forces into the ports and airports while tightening cargo inspections.

The threat to labor posed by beefing up “port security” can be seen with the final rules for the Transportion Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) program announced by DHS two weeks ago. Under TWIC, which is to take effect first in the maritime industry, millions of transportation workers would have to acquire a biometric ID card—at a high price—to keep their jobs. As the New York Times (14 May 2006) noted, the TWIC card would be “an identity card equivalent of a maximum security prison. Not only would it be tamperproof, it would eventually allow transportation workers to be positively identified by a fingerprint in less than half a second.” Earlier government papers describe the program as a prototype for a mandatory identification and personal tracking system covering the entire traveling public.

It will take up to 20 months, beginning in March, for the TWIC system to be fully operational nationally. Some 750,000 longshoremen, truckers and other port workers will have to submit to an immigration status review and extensive criminal background checks. Any felony conviction in the last seven years for a range of offenses, from fraud to unlawful gun possession and drug possession with intent to distribute, could mean the end of a worker’s livelihood.

A particular target of the “security” crackdown is the large number of non-union port truckers and, on the Gulf Coast, day laborers on the docks who are immigrants. In a nationally televised spectacle reminiscent of the highway chase of O.J. Simpson in 1994, on January 7 federal, state and local police agencies converged on the Port of Miami, where an Iraqi-born port trucker who was just trying to do his job was harassed at a terminal gate. His vehicle was then pursued before he was arrested with two others of Near Eastern descent.

Unionizing the port truckers is crucial to the defense of immigrant workers and to the very survival of the (West Coast) International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and all port unions. But this requires fighting against the chauvinist policies of the labor tops. For example, the ILWU leadership has encouraged the government to screen truckers more vigorously at terminal gates—an invitation for greater repression against all waterfront workers.

For labor to prevail against the anti-union onslaught, it must mobilize its power in defense of all workers—union and non-union, black and white, “legal” and undocumented immigrants. At a speech in Chicago in October, DHS Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) chief Julie Myers openly threatened unions with a heavily immigrant membership. According to the Nation Web site (3 January), Myers blurted out that the government needed to examine unions that crossed the line between “charitable assistance and the unlawful employment of aliens.” By pushing through TWIC in maritime, the government is trying to set up a waterfront version of the massive anti-immigrant dragnet directed against airport workers—“Operation Tarmac”—that resulted in the firing of many hundreds of workers and the arrest of 1,058 on immigration-related charges between 2002 and 2004.

As part of an escalation of government attacks following the mass protests for immigrant rights last spring, the DHS has cranked up pressure on employers to fire workers whose Social Security numbers do not match government records. In a December 12 raid at six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants, armed ICE agents stormed the plants and hauled off 1,282 workers in groups shackled together. In Greeley, Colorado, the agents faced a furious protest by arrested Swift workers’ families. Most of the workers are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The display of force by the state was meant to intimidate immigrants and trade unionists who would fight for their rights.

Immigrant workers, including the undocumented, are an integral and increasingly important component of the U.S. working class as well as a living link to workers in their countries of origin. When 90 percent of Los Angeles-area port truckers stayed away from the job last May Day as part of nationwide protests and work actions, the ports there were severely congested for a week. Anyone who has made it into the U.S. should have the same rights as those born here. The labor movement must fight against deportations and demand: Full citizenship rights for all immigrants!

For a Class-Struggle Fight for Black, Immigrant Rights!

Far from mobilizing labor’s power against the anti-union security crackdown, the pro-capitalist union tops have themselves signed on to the “war on terror.” Some, like the Teamsters leadership, scold the government for not implementing TWIC fast enough. The ILWU bureaucracy has opposed background checks of its members but at the same time appeals for fair play from the bosses and their government, asking that they only act on “legitimate anti-terrorist concerns” (ILWU Dispatcher, May 2006). Last February, the ILWU, ILA and Teamsters bureaucracies joined with Democratic Party politicians in a frenzy over the proposed takeover of some terminal operations at six U.S. ports by Arab-owned Dubai Ports World. Such “America first” chauvinism is part and parcel of the union tops’ activity as the “labor lieutenants” of the capitalist class.

The fight for the rights of workers, immigrants and black people will either go forward together—independent from and opposed to the capitalist class and its government—or fall back separately. This understanding was key to a 9 February 2002 united-front rally in Oakland, initiated by the Bay Area Labor Black League for Social Defense and the Partisan Defense Committee, in opposition to the USA Patriot Act, Maritime Security Act and anti-immigrant witchhunt. The protest included a core of black ILWU members for whom this action was a conscious break with the widespread sentiment whipped up by the bosses and racist demagogues that immigrant workers and black workers are competitors. The point must be to unite the entire working class in struggle against the capitalist enemy. The Oakland rally was a small but real step in breaking through the lie that workers and their exploiters have a common “national interest.”

The current “security” crackdown underlines the need for a political struggle within the trade unions, the only significant racially integrated institutions in the U.S., to break from the Democrats and build a class-struggle leadership, one that champions the cause of black freedom and the defense of immigrant rights. The working class needs its own party to fight for a workers government. Those who labor must rule!