Tax day, Passover week: labor, migration & justice, now...and in 2049

From our Restore Fairness blog-

On this year’s Tax Day that has just passed, several organizations including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), MoveOn, Daily Kos and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) joined forces for ‘Tax Day: Make Them Pay.’ The groups organized peaceful protests around the country outside the offices of big corporations and millionaires that have evaded paying taxes for last year, mostly due to government-mandated tax breaks. According to the site, “In 2009, after helping crash the American economy, Bank of America paid $0 in taxes. GE had a tax bill of $0 in 2010. Republicans want to give a $50 billion tax bailout to big oil companies…” These protests came at the heels of news that corporations such as General Electric paid no federal taxes in 2010, something that has infuriated the millions of workers around the country who work hard and are expected to dutifully pay their taxes on time.

The tax break issue is the latest in a series of developments that have recently charged the country’s politics around the issues of immigration and labor rights, with them coming together in the case of migrant workers. Last month, the country witnessed a major standoff in the Wisconsin state government between Governor Scott Walker (and his Republican-led state assembly) and thousands of labor groups and workers in the state as the Governor pledged to enact a bill to severely curtail collective bargaining. After three weeks of fierce debates, Gov. Walker managed to push the bill through. The Ohio state assembly soon followed suit, with other states such as Tennessee and Iowa heading in a similar direction. This steady erosion of worker rights presents an increasing risk not just to the economy of this country but also to its social fabric. It also echoes a past where worker rights were often ignored, especially in the case of immigrant workers.

Last month, several labor groups and organizations marked the centennial anniversary of an incident that highlights the lack of protection of workers – the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 28, 1911, in which 146 mostly immigrant workers died. To mark the centenary of the tragedy, many labor rights groups amplified their push for pro-labor rights legislation to challenge the spate of anti-union labor bills that were passed recently. The 1911 tragedy brings to light the plight of immigrant workers and the exploitation that still continues today. At a rally commemorating the tragedy, one union member, Walfre Merida, described the similarities between the condition of migrant workers today and those that perished in the fire a hundred years ago. Merida stated-

I see that a hundred years since this terrible accident that killed so many people, things have really not changed at all…Safety conditions, none. Grab your tool and go to work, no more. And do not stop. When we worked in high places, on roofs, we never used harnesses, one became accustomed to the dangers and thanked God we weren’t afraid of heights. One would risk his life out of necessity.

As stories of worker rights violations continue to proliferate, we must take heed from our past mistakes in order to avoid a degradation of these conditions in the future. This week – just as Jews around the world gather at the Passover table to recount their liberation from migrant slave labor in Egypt – Breakthrough’s Facebook game, America 2049, immerses players into discussions around labor rights, especially with regards to the rights of immigrant workers. The game utilizes several events and artifacts from the past to highlight the continued struggles of migrant workers in the United States. In the game’s world in which everyone has an embedded chip to mark their identity, players are given the mission to investigate a counterfeiting ring that helps indentured workers – primarily immigrants, though also citizens who have succumbed to crushing credit debt – to escape their unjust contracts and inhumane living conditions, and begin new lives. The game references the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire as a lesson from the past about the respect and rightful treatment of workers. It also suggests a future that is even bleaker because we as a country have failed to recognize the importance of immigrant workers and worker rights to the success of the country as a whole.

Watch a testimonial by a character in the game, Ziyad Youssef, a Syrian man who was lured into a job with promises of good pay and easy hours, but found himself in slavery-like conditions, unable to look after his sick daughter or provide basic amenities to his family:

The United States is currently grappling with an issue that will inevitably affect our national economy and social conditions in the years to come. The denial of legitimacy and basic rights to immigrant workers will only hamper the nation’s growth on the world stage. In a special report on global migration published in 2008, The Economist argued for the widespread acceptance of migrant workers by the richer countries that so desperately need them. Speaking about the United States, the report stated-

Around a third of the Americans who won Nobel prizes in physics in the past seven years were born abroad. About 40% of science and engineering PhDs working in America are immigrants. Around a third of Silicon Valley companies were started by Indians and Chinese. The low-skilled are needed too, especially in farming, services and care for children and the elderly. It is no coincidence that countries that welcome immigrants—such as Sweden, Ireland, America and Britain—have better economic records than those that shun them…Americans object to the presence of around 12m illegal migrant workers in a country with high rates of legal migration. But given the American economy’s reliance on them, it is not just futile but also foolish to build taller fences to keep them out.

Players in America 2049 will discover valuable artifacts from our country’s past that highlight an ongoing struggle for worker rights and have the agency to join the discussion and save the country’s future from the dystopic scenario the game depicts. One of the artifacts in the game is a poem titled ‘A Song for Many Movements,’ written in 1982 by Audre Lord, a black feminist lesbian poet. The poem articulates the connection between suffering and speaking out against injustices, which is what the workers rights protests around the country have been doing and which we must keep advocating until real change is made-

Broken down gods survive
in the crevasses and mudpots
of every beleaguered city
where it is obvious
there are too many bodies
to cart to the ovens
or gallows
and our uses have become
more important than our silence
after the fall
too many empty cases
of blood to bury or burn
there will be no body left
to listen
and our labor
has become more important
than our silence.

Our labor has become
more important
than our silence.

 

 

Weekly Diaspora: Big Business Dictates Immigration Policy—At Workers’ Expense

By Catherine A. Traywick, Media Consortium blogger

Arizona’s business leaders, frustrated by the deep financial fallout of increasingly radical immigration proposals, successfully swayed state lawmakers into defeating five extremist anti-immigrant bills.

New America Media’s Valeria Fernández reports that 60 executives from the likes of WellsFargo bank and U.S. Airways penned an open letter to state Senate President Russell Pearce last week, urging him to leave immigration policy to federal government. Julianne Hing at Colorlines.com has posted the letter in full, but here’s the gist:

Last year, boycotts were called against our state’s business community, adversely impacting our already-struggling economy and costing us jobs. Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding. Sales outside of the state declined … It is an undeniable fact that each of our companies and our employees were impacted by the boycotts and the coincident negative image […] Arizona is looking like a nativist, restrictive and intolerant place, and that’s bad for business.

The legislature subsequently voted down five controversial measures that sought to redefine citizenship and ban undocumented immigrants from hospitals and public schools, among other provisions.

Pearce, whose behind-the-scenes maneuvering repeatedly saved the contentious bills from dying much sooner, has vowed to continue pushing his agenda by voter referendum, if necessary. If he does, he may have more success. Arizonans have repeatedly voted in favor of harsh anti-immigrant proposals, including measures that stripped undocumented college students of financial assistance, banned ethnic studies, and ended equal opportunity programs.

Arizona’s business leaders overlook immigrant workers

It’s worth noting, though, that while the letter’s signatories handily criticized the legislature’s immigration agenda for negatively impacting the state’s economy, they had almost nothing to say about its detrimental impact on the state’s workers—a considerable proportion of whom are  immigrants. Instead, they urge “market driven immigration policies” that will “preserve our ability to compete in the global economy“ — language that is more evocative of labor-exploitative capitalism than worker solidarity.

Their calls for “the creation of a meaningful guest worker program” are similarly suspect. While the notion of a “meaningful guest worker program” that would legalize certain undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. may, on the surface, seem like a sympathetic solution—particularly in light of the federal government’s failure to move forward with any kind of comprehensive immigration reform—it nevertheless poses dire implications for undocumented workers.

Utah’s guest worker proposal evokes Bracero program abuses

As David Bacon at In These Times posits, “guest workers” whose legal status is contingent on their employment situation are uniquely vulnerable to workplace abuse and exploitation, and could face labor conditions “close to slavery.” The Bracero Program, a guest worker initiative which imported Mexican laborers primarily for work in agriculture between 1942 and 1964, stands out as stark example of the dark side of guest worker programs. Bacon explains:

Braceros were treated as disposable, dirty and cheap. Herminio Quezada Durán, who came to Utah from Chihuahua, says ranchers often had agreements between each other to exchange or trade braceros as necessary for work. Jose Ezequiel Acevedo Perez, who came from Jerez, Zacatecas, remembers the humiliation of physical exams that treated Mexicans as louse-ridden.

“We were stripped naked in front of everyone,” he remembers, and sprayed with DDT, now an outlawed pesticide. Men in some camps were victims of criminals and pimps.

Arizona isn’t the only state to toy with the idea of establishing a guest worker program. In an effort to distance itself from Arizona’s contentious and economically disastrous immigration agenda, Utah—a fiercely red state and Arizona’s northern neighbor—is considering creating its own guest worker program, according to the Texas Observer’s Victor Landa. The law would grant legal residency to working, undocumented residents who do not commit serious crimes.

While Landa notes that the purportedly progressive measure nevertheless runs afoul of federal immigration laws (only the federal government can grant immigration status), the bill presents other issues. One must stay employed or lose residency—a circumstance that would strip employees of bargaining power while granting their employers an inordinate amount of license in the workplace. In practical terms, that doesn’t much change the existing workplace dynamics of undocumented immigrants, who frequently endure exploitation and abuse without recourse.

Labor unions vs. worksite immigration enforcement

What’s more: Exploitative employers generally get off scot free even when targeted by employer sanctions efforts; it’s the workers, not employers, who bear the brunt of the federal government’s worksite immigration enforcement. For this reason, a Services Employees International Union (SEIU) leader, Javier Morillo, has condemned the Department of Homeland Security’s emhasis on workplace raids and employer verification, according to Nicolas Mendoza at Campus Progress.

Responding to the termination of 250 unionized janitors in Minnesota following an I-9 audit—a verification process through which the federal government can ask businesses to check the immigration statuses of their employees—Morillo said:

Under the leadership of Secretary Napolitano the federal government has become an employment agency for the country’s worst employers. With each I-9 audit, the government is systematically pushing hardworking people into the underground economy where they face exploitation… Let’s be clear: I-9 audits, by definition, do not go after egregious employers who break immigration laws because many of them do not use I-9 forms. Human traffickers do not ask their victims for their social security cards. [emphasis added]

Mendoza notes that the federal government’s employer verification programs rely on the honesty of employers and rewards them for firing undocumented workers, rather than sanctioning businesses for hiring them. Workers pay the price, while employers get off.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about immigration by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Diaspora for a complete list of articles on immigration issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, and health care issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Pulse. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

Progressives: The Point Is Working Families, Not Keith Olbermann

I agree that MSNBC's suspension of Keith Olbermann was akin to a kindergarten teacher telling a five-year-old to go stand in the corner for putting gum underneath his seat. I happen to believe there's no such thing as a person or a company--journalist, or media company, or anything or anyone else--who comes without an opinion. For a few days, Progressive bloggers across the country have been making hay of Olbermann's wrist-slap, and not a few have complained that the whole silly affair has taken the news spotlight off the needs of un- and underemployed Americans.

So, nu? Doesn't anyone else see the irony there?

There's more...

New challenges and new hopes- immigrant voters hold their own in the elections

From the Restore Fairness blog-

As election fever passes and the nation takes stock, one thing becomes clear – even as Republicans have taken control of the House and Democrats remain strong in the Senate, no one can afford to ignore the immigrant voter.

This election wasn’t about immigration – much of it was dominated by the issue of jobs and the economy. But the issue of immigration, even if it wasn’t front and center, did play a crucial role in winning Senate seats. In California, Meg Whitman’s strong anti-immigrant stance yielded no results, while in Colorado, Senator Michael Bennet received support from Latino voters, and in Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s positive stance on immigration brought in Latino voters who formed 16% of the entire electorate. In an analysis on the Washington Independent-

“Harry Reid beat out Sharron Angle (R), who ran a campaign that relied heavily on anti-illegal immigration rhetoric, and immigration hawk Tom Tancredo lost the race for Colorado governor… Angle claimed Reid supported a number of policies to help illegal immigrants and seemed to be attempting to capitalize on ethnic fears in ads that showed angry-looking Latino men set to dramatic, if untrue, statements. Tancredo also campaigned largely on immigration policy… Republican Meg Whitman lost to Democrat Jerry Brown. Whitman tried to reach out to Latino voters after her primary, but was hindered by allegations of mistreatment and illegal employment by an undocumented maid who worked for her for almost a decade.”

In a poll conducted by Latino Decisions with the support of National Council of La Raza, SEIU, and America’s Voice, among Latino voters in 8 states, they found that when asked whether the issue of immigration was an important factor in their decision to vote and in their choice of candidate, 60% of Latinos said it was either “the most important” issue or “one of the most important” issues, staying ahead of other important issues like education, taxes, and housing. In Nevada and Arizona, two of the states with the most polarizing immigration debates going on at the moment, sentiments were even stronger. 69% of Latino voters in both Arizona and Nevada said the immigration issue was one of the most important factors in their decision to vote, and who to vote for.  In Arizona, 40% said immigration was the single most important issue in their voting decisions, and 38% in Nevada said the same. Moreover, a high percentage of Latino voters said that their decisions to vote and who to vote for were also motivated by divisive immigration debates, and especially by anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment expressed in the electoral campaigns of candidates like Sharron Angle and Tom Tancredo.

The election results, particularly the Republican take over of the House, will have deep consequences for the future of immigration policy. With Lamar Smith, R-Texas slated to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee overseeing all immigration issues, and Steve King, R-Iowa heading the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law, pressure for “increased border security and enforcement actions targeted at undocumented immigrants in the workplace” will increase. Mr. Smith’s track history around the issue of immigration over the past few years does not yield a pretty picture, with him supporting Arizona-Style Immigration Enforcement, measures to ending birthright citizenship and a push for mandatory E-Verify regulations. And judging by last weeks request by seven Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee asking Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to “detail exactly how much funding” would be needed to “ensure that enforcement of the law occurs consistently for every illegal alien encountered and apprehended”, a strong pushback from Republicans in both the House and Senate would not be surprising.

But instead of running away from ugly bills, we need to confront them. Because looking at 2012, it is clear that no one, Republicans or Democrats, will be able to win an election without the strength of the immigrant voter, and particularly the Latino voter supporting them. Be it in California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Nevada, this election has shown that in races with the Latino and immigrant vote, one can create victory and show strength.

It’s time to listen and stay fixed on the goal with a clear, progressive call for change that respects due process and fairness for all.

Photo courtesy of www.fronteras.org

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Will Latino enthusiasm color the mid-term vote?

From the Restore Fairness blog-

In these weeks leading up to the mid-term elections, the competition for voter support is intense and the tension is most palpable in the sphere of the media where candidates are vying for support from specific voter groups. Looking specifically at the constituency of Latino voters, research conducted by America’s Voice and the Latino Decisions team has found that in spite of, or possibly even as a direct consequence of the rabid anti-immigrant campaigning on the part of right wing members of the Republican party, there has been an steady increase in numbers of Latinos who will vote Democrat in the mid-term elections.

From the standpoint of the immigration issue, it is interesting to note that while researchers were seeing a strong sense of disillusionment with the Democrat party amongst Latinos and other immigrants over the last few months, currently, this trend seems to be changing. Latinos, who voted predominantly Democrat in the 2008 Presidential election, had begun to wane in their support for the Democratic party as a result of the party’s failure to deliver on promises of immigration reform made during the 2008 electoral campaign.

As announced by America’s Voice and Latino Decisions on a call yesterday though, recent tracking polls reveal that there has been a significant increase in the number of registered Latino voters, and that a majority of them are voting Democrat. One of the key criteria by which Latino Decisions measure their data is “degree of enthusiasm.” Yesterday’s tracking poll showed a much greater deal of enthusiasm for next week’s election amongst Democrat leaning Latino voters than amongst the (smaller) Republican leaning Latino population. Most importantly, this is a huge change from a month ago- this week, 61% of Latino voters said they were “very enthusiastic” about voting on November 2nd, as compared to only 40% on September 6th. The research shows-

For the fourth straight week, we find an increase in the percentage of Latino registered voters who report being very enthusiastic about voting in November 2010.  Four weeks ago just 40.3% of Latinos said they were very enthusiastic, and today that figures reaches 58.3%.  Self-reported turnout certainty remained constant at 75.1% from one week ago, up 10 point from four weeks ago.  As election day draws near, and early voting is in full swing, Latinos are reportedly showing more and more interest and enthusiasm.

According to Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions, this increase in enthusiasm is largely due to the anti-immigrant and blatantly anti-Latino campaigns that a lot of Republican candidates have run. In the past weeks, Senator Harry Reid’s opponent in Nevada, Republican candidate Sharron Angle, has released a series of ads that, along with demonizing Harry Reid for his support of immigration reform, are extremely anti-immigrant, anti-Latino and even blatantly racist. Calling Reid “The Best Friend An Illegal Alien Ever Had,” one of the ads juxtaposes images of aggressive looking Latino fence skulking alongside a fence with images of an innocent white family. Her second ad shows a group of “gang-like” Latino men threatening white college students. Continuing to pit the “dangerous” brown people against the “innocent” white people like her and her family, the most recent ad might be the one to tip the Senatorial race in Nevada against Sharron Angle, given that Latinos are said to play a prominent role in the tight race between Reid and Angle.

Watch the ad for yourself. 

Foolhardy anti-immigrant campaigns are not the only reason that Latinos seem more keen to vote next week. In addition to a mammoth effort on the part of civic and community groups and labor unions such as the Services Employees Workers Union working on the ground to encourage people to vote, President Obama himself seems to be focusing his energy on winning back the support of the immigrant community and driving them to the polls.

In an interview for Univision yesterday, President Obama defended his unsuccessful attempt at securing immigration reform. Making an analogy to the civil rights movement, he urged that change takes time, and reassured the community that he would push for immigration reform as soon as he could. In his interview, he sought to convince listeners that it was Republicans who were responsible for blocking the passage of immigration reform, making a pointed reference to Sen. John McCain as one of the 11 Republicans who support immigration reform a few years ago only to back away from the issue over the past year. Today, the President is holding a conference call along with actress Eva Longoria, to highlight the actions he has taken that benefit the Latino community and drive home the point that a refusal to vote in the mid-term elections could mean a death knell for immigration reform.

Whatever your reasons, it’s really important to get your voice out there, so make sure you vote!

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