Think about immigration like a nurse

Presentation given at the House of Delegates Meeting of the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals on April 18, 2016.

Congratulations on your victories at Delaware County Memorial, Hahnemann University and St. Christopher Hospital for Children, and at Einstein Medical Center. Almost 3000 nurses and hospital workers have joined the union in just a few months.

I was a union organizer for over 20 years, including a brief time with CNA in California. I know how important and how hard-fought these victories are. How you can change the lives of nurses, and give people real power where they work, and where they live. When nurses win a contract and a strong union our whole community benefits.

Safe staffing levels mean patients get better care. Power at work means we can advocate more effectively for the things we need in our communities. Single payer healthcare, with healthcare treated as a right, not a privilege. Better schools with teachers who are respected. Safety in our streets, including safety from the police who are supposed to protect us, but who often are the biggest threat we have to worry about for our children. Equality, where we all have rights, and discrimination is treated as a crime, whether it’s because of our race or our sexual identity, or the country where we were born and the language we speak.

And I know from my own experience, and I’m sure it’s true for you too, that the biggest thing we have on our side when we organize and begin to confront the people we work for is our unity. If we unite everyone where we work and where we live, and we stay together, there’s no limit to the changes we can make.

I’m not talking about ignoring the way’s we’re different. We are different colors, and not color blind. We fight discrimination, but are proud of who we are. Some of us have skin like coffee, others like rich chocolate, and others like strawberry shortcake. (I’m stealing a line from a song by a good friend who sang it on many picket lines, John Fromer.) In our workplace, and I know this is especially true in healthcare, we speak a lot of languages. English and Spanish, of course. But now we hear and speak Tagalog, Vietnamese, Somali, Swahili, Croatian and many others.

Can we unite?

That reflects the fact that we have many people from different countries in our workforce. So we face a very serious question as a result. Can we unite across these differences? In our unions and our neighborhoods we can go one of two ways. We can unite together, as one organization for everyone. Or we can divide into us and them.

Our media and political discourse are telling us we can’t. We must decide. Everything follows from how we answer this question. PASNAP organizing victories at those three hospitals say we can. Where I live in California, most healthcare workers are women and people of color, and immigrants are a big part of the workforce. And most union victories in my state rest on the shoulders of these courageous women and men, who defy discrimination and the threats to their jobs to organize.

So if we really believe we must unite, we must also grow to understand each other. And one of the most difficult pieces follows right after our first question. If we are going to unite, those of us who were born here, and those who have come from someplace else, we have to understand why people are coming here, and what choices people face.

Unless our ancestors were the native people who lived here when people arrived from across the Atlantic, we are all the children, grandchildren and descendants of immigrants, living on the land that was the home of those original inhabitants. So I want you to look into your own history, and think about how your family came to be here.

There are driving reasons why everyone has come. Many people came because survival was impossible in the places they lived for generations. They were forced by poverty, by wars, by persecution. The plantation owners of the south needed labor, and their raiding parties kidnapped African people by the thousands, and loaded them onto slave ships for the terrible middle passage, after which they were sold into bondage for generations. We just learned in the paper today that Georgetown University, that great institution, was built with the money from the sale of 238 slaves.

Most often, when people got here they were treated like dirt. The first “illegals” were the slaves, who were considered three-fifths of a human being, and that only so that slave states could get more representatives in Congress. Those coming from China were held prisoner on an island in San Francisco Bay, Angel Island, for years. They passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to keep the Chinese out, and make being Chinese illegal too.

So there’s nothing new about racism or the way people are treated today. A mother and child from Central America held in a detention center, a prison, in Texas today is no different from a Chinese father held on Angel Island almost 200 years ago. Immigration agents knocking on doors in the middle of the night looking for people without papers has an awful similarity to the slave catcher.

Consequences of making immigration status a crime

As a union we have to think carefully about the consequences of making immigration status a crime punishable by getting fired, getting deported, and even being thrown into prison. And this is not imagination. These things happen. Tens of thousands of immigrants get fired every year in what are called silent raids. When workers at the huge Smithfield pork plant in North Carolina tried to organize, not only were hundreds fired, but dozens were imprisoned because they’d made up a Social Security number to get a job. But they won, because Black workers and Mexican immigrants found they had a lot in common, most important, the need for a union to change the terrible conditions there.

That unity, that’s our most important strength when we organize, is threatened by the way people are criminalized. If the nurse in your ward lives in fear that if they check her documents she’ll lose her job or worse, don’t you think she’ll have to think a long time before signing that union card? It’s a testament to the courage of many people that despite not having papers, they join and stand shoulder to shoulder with their sisters who were born here, or who were able to get papers when they came here. But let’s not give our employers an extra weapon to use against us. We need everyone to have rights at work, and to live without fear of getting picked up.

Photo: David Bacon

The us and them mentality says that if the government builds a high enough wall, or devises even more extreme punishment for people who come here without papers, that people will stop coming. But I ask you, if you had to choose between seeing your family hungry or losing their land or your kids with no hope of getting beyond the sixth grade, would a wall stop you?

The consequences of turning people without papers into criminals have their biggest impact on us – our unions and our organizations fighting for social justice. So equality and rights are really a no-brainer, if we want to have power for working people. They are the road to unity.

Fleeing violence and poverty

But we also have to understand more about people who come. It’s not enough to just write it off to poverty and violence, as though these things were just products of the way people are in other countries. Because much of the poverty and violence they experience is produced by what our country, and other rich ones like ours, do in the rest of the world.

When the U.S. negotiated NAFTA, it opened the door for Wal-Mart to become the largest store chain in Mexico. We know what Wal-Mart did to us, so what makes us think it would be any different there? NAFTA drove down the wages in Mexico, so that moving a factory from Pennsylvania becomes more profitable. Now a woman has to work on the line in Juarez for half a day just to buy a gallon of milk. In fact, they’re striking over those wages in four giant factories in Juarez right now, which make the iPhones in our jeans. So let’s help them. They need money and food, but they also need us to kill the next trade deal, TPP, that will drive more people into poverty, and force them to make the same choice about coming here. Let’s make sure Hillary knows that we remember that in the twenty years of NAFTA the number of Mexican migrants here went from 4.5 to 12 million.

That violence that the mother and child fled in Honduras – where did it come from? When the Hondurans elected a President who tried to raise the minimum wage – their version of fight for 15 – the wealthy and military of Honduras kidnapped him and sent him into exile. That was good news for OshKosh and Levi’s and the other garment companies who run the low wage sweatshops there, the ones that fire workers and bust unions when they try to raise those wages. These are the factories that make the jeans we wear here, but no one can afford to buy in Honduras, least of all the workers who make them.

And our government told the rest of Latin America that it should recognize the dictatorship that followed as legitimate. If Manuel Zelaya had stayed president, there would have been a much better future for that woman and her child. Instead, our tax dollars pay for guns for that dictatorship, who use them to protect drug dealers as they admitted in the NY Times on Saturday, and for killing union activists, which our media doesn’t want to talk about. And then our taxes pay for the prison in Texas where she’s held because she had no papers, and left home anyway in order to survive.

We have to get smart about what employers want, and what we want that’s different. When hospitals or growers or construction companies here see the desperation of people to come here to work and send money home, or fleeing violence, they get dollar signs in their eyes. In some ways they want people to come. But only as workers who they can pay low wages, who they can threaten. So they set up recruitment programs, promising jobs and an income that seems high to someone used to working in a hospital for $20 a day instead of $20 an hour.

What they don’t say is that these guest worker programs require people to work in order to stay. If you cross your boss, or don’t want to work overtime for straight time pay, or even no pay at all, and you get fired or laid off, you have to leave. That’s quite a hammer. You have to borrow a lot of money to get a visa like this, so if you have to go back home without paying off the loans you lose your home or farm, and so do the friends that helped you. I talked to workers in a shipyard in Mississippi who paid $18,000 apiece in India to get that visa. When they were fired for organizing, one of them committed suicide rather than have to go home to face his family.

Employers claim they can’t find enough workers, but what they really want are workers at wages they want to pay. They think they will divide us, and get us to look at people like those welders from India as our enemy. Instead, we’re going to help those workers organize too. But let’s also put an end to those programs. In 2007, when Bernie voted against the immigration reform bill, he called guest workers programs “close to slavery,” and he was right. He wasn’t voting against legalization or immigration – he was voting against the guest worker programs employers stuck into all those reform bills. There’s nothing wrong with people wanting to come here. But people should be able to come with rights, and right number one being the right to organize.

Use organized power to demand a change

Winning the union here for nurses in Pennsylvania is important because it gives us power and the chance to educate ourselves. We can explain to the other nurses in our hospitals the reasons for migration, and listen to the voices of those coming here from somewhere else, explaining why they decided to leave home. And then we can use our organized power to demand a change.

We can demand a trade policy that puts the wages and jobs of people in Mexico or Honduras or the Philippines first, and the profits of big companies last. We can demand an end to the military aid and wars that prop up dictatorships and cause thousands to flee as refugees. We can demand an end to the policy of treating immigration status as a crime, and instead ensure that all of us have rights and legal status. We can end the impossible process most people face when they apply for a visa to come here to reunite their families. The waiting time in Mexico City or Manila today is over 20 years to get a family visa. We can demand equality and respect and treatment with dignity for all of us, regardless of where we come from, what color we are, or whether we’re men or women. We can win single payer healthcare, without a shameful rule that says a family can’t get it if they don’t have papers.

In politics in this country all this usually gets treated like some kind of dream or wish list. Nice idea, but impossible. At least this year and last year we’re not letting ourselves get pushed around and told that the things we need can’t happen. And for the first time in a long time, we have a real election campaign where we’re demanding the things we really need.

But the real reason why we know this isn’t just some pipe dream is that we have new unions at these three hospitals here. That was supposed to be impossible too.

So when they tell us in the New York Times or the Philadelphia Enquirer, or on TV and the radio, that it can’t be done, that it’s not possible, our answer is the same one farm workers shout in California. Even our President adopted this answer when he ran for office and became the first Black president in our history. That’s what Bernie’s campaign is really saying. Yes we can. Yes we can. Si se puede.

Photo: Nurse.  |  David Bacon


David Bacon
David Bacon

David Bacon is a California writer and documentary photographer. A former union organizer, today he documents labor, the global economy, war and migration, and the struggle for human rights.