It's time to be audacious

California has resolved its budget crisis--for now--with devastating results for the poor and working people. The agreement reached in late July between Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Party-controlled state legislature, cut $15.5 billion from children's health care, home visits for the elderly, public education, welfare and more.

At the Socialism 2009 conference in San Francisco, two of California's best-known radicals, Mike Davis and David Bacon, led a discussion about the causes of the crisis and the struggle ahead. Here, we publish the presentation and concluding statement of David Bacon, author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants and Communities without Borders: Images and Voices from the World of Migration.

Marching for immigrant rights in Washington, D.C., on May Day 2009 (Jake Cunningham)

FIRST, I want to say what a pleasure it is to be standing here with the brilliant radical and socialist sociologist and historian Mike Davis. Every time I talk to you or read anything that you've written, I learn a great deal.

Being somewhat of a socialist myself, I thought I would start out from a very different place, and ask a series of questions to you. First of all, let's say there wasn't such a huge difference in the standard of living from one country to another. Let's say we had a socialist world.

Would migration of people stop? Would it end? I think that in large part, we migrate and we travel because it's built into us as human beings. That's why we need to defend the right to travel, the right to migrate. It's part of what makes us human.

But we also migrate in part because we can. We're not living in the Middle Ages any longer. You can get on an airplane and fly halfway around the world in a matter of hours. But I think the most important thing now is that we are connected as people through our families, through our friendships and through our communities--from country to country to country, around the world.

That's not going to end. We're never going to back to a world in which people just stayed in one place.

Series: California in Crisis

Read speeches by Mike Davis and David Bacon from their panel discussion at Socialism 2009 in San Francisco, titled "The Decline and Fall of California: How the Golden State Lost Its Shine."

Mike Davis
Why we need rebels

Mike Davis
It's time to be audacious

So what does this mean in terms of the great liberatory potential of socialism? What would socialism liberate us from? How would it change our lives?

I think we have to begin by looking at what the main characteristic of migration is under capitalism, and that is displacement. In other words, people are forced into migration. So liberation means, in some ways, liberation from displacement. Liberation from the forcible nature of why people uproot themselves, leave their communities and go elsewhere to establish new communities.

We can ask ourselves another question: Do we have to wait for socialism for that to happen? Is capitalism capable of a radical reform? Are we capable in this system, as working people, of forcing a radical reform that would work in the direction of removing the displacing nature of capitalism? Take, for instance, the economic and political policies our country introduced in Honduras. How many people are going to leave Honduras--not just because of the economy, but because of [the coup in June]?

So this is also a question of not only what do we want, but when can we get it--and what do we have to do in order to get there? In some ways, we need to look at our own history to help us to answer that question.

There are three ideas to keep hold of here.

One point is that basically, under capitalism, migration and immigration is a labor supply system. Today, we have trade agreements and neoliberal economic policies that produce the displacement in countries like Mexico or El Salvador, and then we have our immigration policy that regulates the flow of people. That's one part of it. This is what capitalist migration looks like.

The second thing is that, looking at our own movement as working people, especially our labor movement, we have a working-class movement in this country that was organized by immigrants or by the children or grandchildren of immigrants, almost all of it, but in a country in which our working class is very, very, very divided by race and national oppression.

This has been a characteristic of our labor movement for its entire history. The whole 180 years that we've had unions in this country, there's been a question of who does the labor movement belong to? Who does the working class movement belong to? Is it an inclusive movement that belongs to everybody? Or is it only for some people?

And the third thing is how we answer this question--"we" being the labor movement in this country. I'm a labor activist, and was a union organizer for 25 years, so I still think that way. Our attitude towards this question is connected to the political times, the political context--for instance, the attitude of our labor movement towards foreign policy, or its cooperation with employers versus struggle against them.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

SO WITHOUT going all the way back to the beginnings 180 years ago, let's just think for a moment about the 1950s. What was the major feature of immigration policy in the 1950s? It was the bracero program--an overt contract labor program in which migration was supposed to be channeled solely in terms of people who were to come to the United States only to be able to work.

And at the same time, what did we have? We had the repression and the suppression of the left in this country. In other words, the people who talked about the struggle against racism, who talked about solidarity across borders were driven out of our labor movement. So our labor movement's willingness to live with that kind of system had to do with the movement's attitude to the left inside of its own ranks.

In 1964, Burt Corona, Ernesto Galarza, César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the heroes and the heroines of the Chicano civil rights movement, convinced Congress to repeal Public Law 78, which was the law that set up the bracero program. And the bracero program came to an end.

In 1965, two important things happened. One was the grape strike at Delano. The other was that those same people convinced Congress to pass a different kind of immigration bill--a bill that said we are going to set up a system of family reunification, of family preferences, so that the system of immigration isn't going to be a labor supply system anymore, but a system in which it's going to strengthen our families, strengthen our communities.

We got rid of the racial quota system and the national quota system. This is an achievement of our civil rights movement, and it's no accident that that immigration law was passed at the height of the civil rights movement in this country.

Then what happened? In 1986, we got the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which we remember as kind of amnesty law. It now seems--in comparison to what's on the table in Congress--a really great program. Some 3.5 million people were able to fill out forms and, within just a few months, get green cards.

But the other part of that bill included employer sanctions. The law that said it's against the law--a federal crime--to hire somebody who doesn't have papers. It's against the law--a federal crime--for somebody without papers to work. Our labor movement in 1986 supported that law, not because of the amnesty, but because it had employer sanctions in it. The rationale was: if they can't work, they won't come, or they'll leave. In other words, us and them. And we've supported that repressive bill on the basis of suppressing the "them."

Post-1986, we had a movement in our labor movement to change that. Starting even before the bill was passed, people advocated for the repeal of employer sanctions. One by one by one, we were able to get the Service Employees International Union, the garment workers unions, and the California Labor Federation to call for the repeal of employer sanctions.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FINALLY, WE got to the AFL-CIO convention in 1999, and we won a basic change--a watershed change in our labor movement in terms of how we looked at immigrants. The AFL-CIO called for the repeal of employer sanctions, for a new amnesty program, protecting organizing rights, stopping guest worker programs, protecting family reunification--that is, for a very, very progressive program.

Why? In part because many people in our labor movement believed that we needed to organize more workers for our labor movement to survive--and immigrant workers were leading people among those people who actually wanted to join unions. Remember, in 1992, there was a drywall strike that shut down home construction from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border. We had a whole upsurge among workers themselves that produced that.

So having won that position in 1999, our labor movement split. We're still suffering from the consequences of that. Some of our unions, including Service Employees union, UNITE-HERE, the Farmworkers--ironically, the unions that had fought the hardest to change the position at the convention in 1999--began saying, "Well, we must have an accommodation with employers in order to change immigration policy. And since employers want guest worker programs, and you can't have a guest worker program without enforcement against undocumented people--in other words, to push people into those programs--we have to agree to that in order to get some degree of legalization."

This was the framework of all the comprehensive immigration bills that were in Congress in the last few years. It was the position of the Bush administration, and it is now the position of the Obama administration. There really is not an appreciable difference in terms of the basic architecture of this kind of arrangement between these two administrations.

So now our labor movement has come together again. We have a joint statement by the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win unions, in which we are supposedly healing the split and developing a common position on immigration.

But what does it say? It says that workers must have work authorization in order to have a job. We all know that undocumented workers can't get work authorization--that's what makes people undocumented. It also says that we should allow employers to get workers on temporary work visas if there's a labor shortage.

In other words, our immigration system is once again going to become a labor supply system for employers. And what happens as a result of that? It's not just an abstract argument in Washington. We have in Los Angeles right now a plant called Overhill Farms, a food processing plant. Some 254 people there were fired a few weeks ago because their Social Security numbers were no good--meaning they didn't have papers.

This is a union plant, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770, one of the most powerful unions in California. What is UFCW Local 770 going to do about this? Are they going to defend those workers? Or are they going to say, "Well, you know, work authorization. You shouldn't be here, so sorry about that. You may have paid dues to us for the last 20 years, but you shouldn't be in this workforce to begin with, so that's life."

Fortunately for those workers, there are other forces out there, too, including the Southern California Immigration Coalition, the Hermandad Mexicana Latinoamericana, led by Nativo López, who was just indicted for voter fraud in the middle of this fight because he voted in the wrong place, apparently.

Basically, the issue is, once again: Who does our labor movement belong to? Who are we going to defend? Are we going to have a people's movement, a working-class movement, a labor movement--broadly defined--that belongs to us all? Or are we going to say, "only to some?"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

From Bacon's concluding statement: One of the wonderful things about conversation with you, Mike, is that you learn a great deal.

One of the words that you used was audacious. Audacious means what happened at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago. The workers did what everybody said you couldn't do. They acted, and lo and behold, their action changed the situation, right?

I'm not necessarily a believer in spontaneous struggle. Like I said, I've spent 25 years as a union organizer. What you do as a union organizer is you try to organize and move people's energy--but also not just be spontaneous about everything. I think that there are many times where "audacious" doesn't have to mean disorganized. It doesn't have to mean totally spontaneous, just shoot from the hip. What it means is that you take action in a situation in which everybody tells you, "no se puede."

It means also looking for the opportunities for audacious action. I wrote a piece after Republic, wondering whether or not autoworkers were going to let the banks and the administration just drive them out of their jobs, without doing anything about it.

Sometimes, I think what you need in a situation like that is a group of people who stand up and say, "Hey, we're not going to leave the plant today." It doesn't always work. But we need that. Part of it is giving people the sense that change is actually possible.

I'll give you another example of what I think audacious might mean. Why don't we have single-payer health care in California? Because we didn't get the two-thirds majority in the legislature to override Schwarzenegger. Why not? Because a lot of the people who voted "no" come from districts where most working people can't vote. Because they're immigrants, not citizens.

If we had the franchise for all working people in this state, we would have single-payer here, and the people who voted against it would be out of office. We wouldn't even have the crisis that we have in Sacramento. This, again, is something that people will tell you, "not in a million years." But then you stop and think: Well, wait a minute. Isn't in the interest of everybody, including people who are far from being immigrants themselves? Here for generations and can't get their health care, because why? Because we don't have single payer.

Obama rode into office on rising expectations--about the war, that we could end it. Rising expectations about the idea of radical reform and health care--that we could get single payer. Now, of course, once he's in office, everything changes. But I don't think that we should just forget the expectations that people had. In fact, I think that's very important to us, because that's the motivation we have for trying to force change on the administration and Sacramento--changes that they don't actually want to implement.

If we don't do that, we're going to get the shit kicked out of us. We are going to have a horrible immigration bill if we can't figure out how to be a little bit more audacious and just stop accepting the idea of what's possible that's being promoted to us by certain people in Washington. There is broad radicalization out there.

Actually, I do agree with you Mike. I think that radicalization, or a large mass movement, doesn't necessarily produce radical change. You need to have a left.

Having come out of the left, I see many things that we did in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, and I don't really want to repeat them, and I don't see why other people should have to, either. When I think about what divided us--members of the organization that I belonged to and members of other organizations--we looked at each other more as enemies than we did the system or the employers.

One lesson I took from being a union organizer is that it's always easier to fight with each other, or to fight with your union, or with some other group out there, because the consequences aren't nearly as terrible as losing a fight with the people who actually have power.

I don't know what the answers are that young people are going to come up with for organizing organizations of professional revolutionaries, or conscious organizers, or whatever the phrase that we want to use. I do think that we have to have some kind of connection with the past.

I get worried about how do you pass down the legacy of Marxism. How do you pass down the legacy of radical socialist movements of previous generations to young people, when the actual organized left and organized parties are so small, and seem so ill-equipped to actually be able to transfer a lot of that knowledge?

These are all problems. But I don't think that they're insoluble ones. What we need is the combination of the radicalization and the raw material--the attack on people's lives-- plus consciousness. Educated workers--that's what's going to produce change in this country, and I'm an optimist. Like I say, si se puede.