Why FWD.us is wrong about Bernie Sanders
by Mark Ames
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg’s Big Tech immigration reform advocacy group FWD.us distinguished itself as “the first organization to criticize” Bernie Sanders’ statements against an open immigration policy.
A statement by FWD.us president, Todd Schulte, played the racism card on the Vermont socialist and Democratic Party presidential candidate, accusing Sanders of...
...putting forward the totally-debunked notion that immigrants coming to the U.S. are taking jobs and hurting Americans – specifically young people, Latinos, and African-Americans.
FWD.us’ racist-baiting show of outrage against Sanders, allegedly on behalf of Latino and African-American workers, might be easier to swallow if FWD.us co-founder Mark Zuckerberg’s company, Facebook, wasn’t such a poster child for Silicon Valley’s diversity problem: Last year, Latinos represented just four percent of Facebook’s US workforce, while African-Americans accounted for only two percent.
It’s significant that the Zuckerberg group was the first organization to respond to—and denounce—Sanders’ statement, because it gets to something that’s been nagging at me ever since I started writing about the Techtopus wage-theft antitrust conspiracy. Big Tech employers are always looking to lower their labor costs, and the oldest strategy in the books, at least since the start of the Industrial Revolution, is by bringing in foreign immigrant labor to increase the supply, while keeping them on less-than-citizenship status to make sure they’re more compliant than workers with citizenship.
It’s not easy to talk about immigration as a labor-busting strategy in this country, not if you don’t want to be smeared as a smelly-underwear white supremacist vigilante type. But one of the more surprising responses to my Techtopus stories from white collar engineers in the Valley was the sudden realization, or sudden willingness to air this realization, that their Big Tech bosses were pushing hard for more H-1B immigrant visas to bring in more software engineers precisely because of the same “problem” that led them to illegally conspire to suppress workers’ wages in the Techtopus wage-theft cartel: Since at least 2004, there’s been heavy upward pressure on Bay Area tech engineers’ wages, cutting into the companies’ bottom lines.
Even as their revenues continue soaring, nevertheless competition for workers means ever-improving benefits on the front end... although because every company is in the business of maximizing profits for shareholders, as per the ideological fashion of our era, it means that every Big Tech company needs to find ways to slash labor expenses without losing the all-valuable talent. Next thing you know, a slew of Big Tech-backed “immigration reform” groups arises, backed by the full power of Silicon Valley’s mega-billions and billionaires. FWD.us has a page listing its “Founders” and “Supporters” which is reads like Who’s Who of Big Tech elites. Besides Zuckerberg, there’s Bill Gates, Sean Parker, John Doerr, Reid Hoffman...
FWD.us isn’t the only billionaires-for-immigration-reform group. Steve Ballmer, who’s listed as a “supporter” of FWD.us, is also listed as co-chair of another immigration reform group, Partnership for a New American Economy. Other co-chairs in this group include billionaires Michael Bloomberg, Rupert Murdoch, and Bill Marriott, along with grotesquely compensated Disney CEO Robert Iger and Boeing’s James McNerney. Like FWD.us, these billionaires say they only want one thing: What’s best for immigrants of color. And earlier this spring, they joined together in a kind of super-union of employers, tech billionaires and CEOs to lobby for more H-1B visas to open up the country to as many highly-skilled migrant workers as they want.
An open letter this past March, signed by such beacons of progressive advocacy for undocumented workers of color as the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, joined with FWD.us and Partnership for a New American Economy to call on the US Senate to “rebut myths that suggest immigration harms America and American workers.”
Now judging by the negative reactions from many progressives to Sanders’ rather obvious, commonsense dismissal of open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal” in his Vox interview with Ezra Klein, a bit of recovered American/California history here is in order.
Labor history is not something they teach us in schools; and what little is taught is not reinforced in popular culture or PBS documentaries. Labor history, post-1865, is perhaps as violent, dramatic, infuriating and outrageous as the concurrent race history in this country, but it doesn’t get nearly the same coverage, and I think the reasons why are depressingly obvious. Our culture’s myths and pieties tell us that we’re making progress on race, a problem whose ultimate solution is a racism-free, discrimination-free democracy. But labor history is the history of class struggle—that’s not really a problem our culture has ever set out to solve by abolishing class and wealth differences the way we’re always trying and failing to abolish race and gender differences.
Our way of dealing with class and wealth inequality in this country is what psychologists call “denial”—these days especially, in our age of a strange and almost inexplicable tolerance for billionaires by the yachtload, and wealth inequality on a scale never seen in American history, the last thing we want to remember are all the thousands of labor leaders and strikers gunned down, clubbed, beaten, jailed, and otherwise repressed in this country. Especially now that all we have to show for it is the lowest percentage of unionized labor in the private workforce in over a century.
But I’m getting a carried away here. The task at hand demands less scolding from your humble scolder, and more factual history — a very brief history, of employers and robber barons using foreign undocumented labor specifically to drive down wages and subvert Americans workers’ power and the value of their labor.
We could start anywhere—but the most obvious example would be the use of Chinese coolies to work the railroad lines. Here we’re probably more familiar with the horrid racist reactions by the white railroad workers on these lines, whose value the Chinese coolies, barely a step up from slaves, subverted. Indeed the whole point of employers bringing in Chinese coolies to work the railroad lines was to foment racial strife.
At the height of the Civil War, in 1864, the railroad barons and other industrialists managed to pass the Immigration Act, which legalized labor contracts signed overseas by immigrants to work in the US without being pressed into the Union Army. Collis Huntington, the robber baron behind the Central Pacific railroad from San Francisco east to Omaha (along with partners Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins), boasted of the ten thousand-plus Chinese coolies he hired to build the railroad line. As recounted in leftist journalist Matthew Josephson’s classic book, Robber Barons,
For four years, without pause, three thousand Irishmen and ten thousand Chinese coolies toiled away through desert heat and mountain cold or snow. Ever afterward, Huntington would be especially grateful to the Chinese, who worked for $1 a day, about half the wages of white men and were ready to kill themselves for this; he was a constant advocate of unrestricted Chinese immigration, since to the muscular backs of Orientals he always attributed the successful building of a great part of the transcontinental system.
Some eighty years before Sanders told a shocked Ezra Klein that “open borders is a Koch brothers proposal,” Josephson described the original robber barons’ position on open immigration thus:
From the beginning the managers of industrial enterprise favored the free immigration of subjects of every race and land under the sun to this asylum of freedom—even if they had to be brought here in contract labor gangs.
He quotes a primary source report on Andrew Carnegie’s steel workers in the 1870s:
“It is a common opinion in the district that some employers of labor give the Slavs and Italians preference because of their docility, their habit of silent submission . . . and their willingness to work long hours and overtime without a murmur. Foreigners as a rule earn the lowest wages and work the full stint of hours. . . .Many work in intense heat, the din of machinery and the noise of escaping steam. The congested condition of most of the plants in Pittsburgh adds to the physical discomforts . . . while their ignorance of the language and of modern machinery increases the risk. How many of the Slavs, Lithuanians and Italians are injured in Pittsburgh in one year is unknown. No reliable statistics are compiled . . . When I mentioned a plant that had a bad reputation to a priest he said: ‘Oh, that is the slaughter-house; they kill them there every day.’ . . . It is undoubtedly trite, that exaggerated though the reports may be, the waste in life and limb is great, and if it all fell upon the native born a cry would long since have gone up which would have stayed the slaughter.”
In the classic history “Labor’s Untold Story” the authors tell how in the coke industry region of western Pennsylvania in the 1880s—coke being an essential element and process in smelting steel from iron ore—robber baron Henry Frick, Carnegie’s key lieutenant and partner, ran a monopoly on coke production and coke-smelting operators, who kept labor in line by,
[P]itting the English against the Irish, and visa versa, and the Germans against both . . . keeping up a constant war of races. . . . The heartlessness of the operators was fully exhibited by the remark of one: ‘I would rather have two men killed than one mule.’
Elsewhere the book describes how immigrant labor was used to break strikes and labor union drives in coal mines and on railroad lines. For example, when a coal miners’ strike broke out in Ohio’s Hocking Valley, a New York labor contractor immediately supplied Italian immigrant scabs for 50 cents a day (paid to the labor contractor, no one knows how much of that trickled down to the indentured Italian laborers).
The key here is that foreign migrant workers are ideal from the employers’ point of view because they’re confused and desperate and dislocated, unaware of their legal rights such as they exist and afraid of exercising them, and often times very quickly finding themselves used as scabs against angry workers from another ethnic group.
An 1883 newspaper account describes how one of the new labor recruiters working for the robber barons operated, how they enticed workers from the slums of Europe to come to the United States:
The contractors make their appearance under the American flag among the half-starved mudsills in some of the most wretched districts of Hungary, Italy or Denmark, tell the stories of fabulous wages to be gotten in America, bamboozle the poor creatures, rope them in and make contracts with them to pay their passage across the sea, upon their agreeing to terms that few can understand. When they reach the districts of this country to which the contractors ship them, they find their golden dreams turned into nightmares, as they are put to work in mines, factories, or on railroads, at even lower wages than those of them whom they throw out of work...
Nearly a century later, the most famous Latino labor organizer, Cesar Chavez, waged a series of harsh and at times vicious campaigns against Mexican undocumented immigrant workers coming into the California farms to compete with the locals Chavez was trying desperately to organize in the United Farm Workers.
Chavez understood that the decades-old, brutal struggle to organize largely Mexican-American farm workers for better wages and working conditions meant he’d have to combat the employers’ biggest weapon against the effort: A constant stream of new, undocumented, and desperate migrant workers from beyond the border. Chavez understood that labor organizing was a brutal war, and he went toe-to-toe. Many say he went way too far in fighting to stop “illegal aliens” and “wets” as Chavez called undocumented Mexican migrant workers.
Some on the racist-right have tried to exploit Chavez’ history of fighting against “illegals,” but there’s one big obvious difference: unlike the righties, Chavez tried organizing a powerful labor union representing otherwise exploited, poor and politically marginal farm workers. But he could be brutal, as when he turned the UFW into a collaborationist spy organization helping the INS police California farms for undocumented “wets” and turning them in to police.
So why did Cesar Chavez equate undocumented Mexican farm workers with strikebreakers?
Because in earlier generations, that’s exactly how ethnic groups were used by California growers—as strikebreakers, the more desperate and weak and vulnerable, the better.
Carey McWilliams, the famous mid-century muckraker and editor of The Nation, wrote a book on California’s long, miserable and violent history of labor struggles.
From 1881, when the first Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, until about 1930, the history of farm labor in California has revolved around the cleverly manipulated exploitation, by the large growers, of a number of suppressed racial minority groups which were imported to work in the fields.
And he gives example by painful example. It makes for some uncomfortable reading. McWilliams writes about five ethnic groups who were enticed to California after the savage backlash against the Chinese in the 1880s and beyond. The Chinese were brought in as coolies to undermine the Irish laborers, who, after surviving the Famine genocide of the 1840s and brutal discrimination in America, became a leading force for labor union organizing in the 1870s and 80s. Chinese coolies were brought in to undermine Irish labor power, and the two ethnic groups were pitted against each other in sometimes open violent warfare, including guns and dynamite.
After the Chinese, Japanese farm-hands were brought into California to work on specific projects at the turn of the century, and at first were welcomed by all parties, according to McWilliams. He quotes J. L. Nagle of the California Fruit Growers Exchange praising the Chinese and Japanese laborers as ideal compared to their white counterparts:
“The Japs and Chinks just drift — we don't have to look out for them. White laborers with families, if we could get them, would be liabilities.”
But into the first and second decade of the 20th century, growers started to resent the Japanese who quietly began amassing their own land, and organizing their own farm-hands along strictly ethnic Japanese lines. One speaker at a California Fruit Growers Convention complained,
"The Chinese when they were here were ideal. They were patient, plodding, and uncomplaining in the performance of the most menial service. They submitted to anything, never violating a contract. The Japanese now coming in are a tricky and cunning lot, who break contracts and become quite independent. They are not organized into unions, but their clannishness seems to operate as a union would. One trick is to contract work at a certain price and then in the rush of the harvest threaten to strike unless wages are raised."
And a Los Angeles Times editorial, published in January 1920, declared,
"Japanese labor is not cheap labor. The little brown traders know how to get as much for their product as the traffic will bear."
As laws were passed restricting Japanese laborers and land owners, Indian laborers — called “Hindus” and “rag heads” — came down from Canada into California in the first two decades of the 20th century. McWilliams writes,
From the growers' point of view, the Hindus fitted nicely into the pattern of farm labor in California. Not only were they good workers, but they could be used as one additional racial group in competition with other racial groups, and thereby wages could be lowered. A notable fact about farm labor in California is the practice of employers to pay wage scales on the basis of race, i.e. to establish different wage rates for each racial group, thus fostering racial antagonism and, incidentally, keeping wages at the lowest possible point. As part of this general strategy, "it is a common custom of the ranches to entrust a particular work to a group of laborers of the same nationality." In this manner, of course, the races are kept segregated and are pitted one against the other.
As soon as the “Hindus” started to get more comfortable in California, and stir up ideas about organizing and pushing up wages and worker rights, the growers turned to Mexican labor:
The foreman of the Giffen Ranch... stated to a reporter that: "Last year our Hindu workers struck. So this year we mixed half Mexicans in with them, and we aren't having any labor trouble."
The thing that growers and other employers liked best about undocumented Mexican laborers (and still do) is that they’re “easily deportable.” That is, you can encourage them or even bus them in, work them in the fields at low cost and to the detriment of citizens while terrorizing them into submission, and then deport them when you don’t need them, when they get uppity, when it’s time to pay them back wages, etc. Other foreigners live too far away to deport easily; not Mexicans. McWilliams writes,
During this decade, 1920 to 1930, the farm industrialists were enchanted with the Mexican. The Mexicans were available in large numbers (at least 150,000 worked in the fields during these years) ; they were good workers; unorganized; and, at the end of the season, “hibernated.” Time and again, in their deliberations, the growers have emphasized the fact that the Mexican, unlike the Filipino, can be deported. It has been estimated, for example, that 80 per cent of the Mexicans in California have entered illegally, due to technical violations, and are subject to deportation.
In the mid-20s, of course, a wave of Nativist anti-immigrant laws and violence swept the nation, including California. But while most were fine with limiting immigrants prone to labor organizing and leftwing sentiment (Jews, Italians, southern Europeans), the growers panicked about losing their Mexican laborers and fought to get exclusions—allow in Mexican workers, so long as they’re denied whatever meager social welfare programs were available at the time.
Their chief lobbyist, S. Parker Frisselle, went to Congress to make sure that bills restricting Mexican undocumented migrant workers were not passed. “The Mexican is a ‘homer,’” Frisselle told Congress. “Like the pigeon he goes back to roost.” Frisselle was asked at the hearings about Mexican workers’ designs on becoming small farmers of their own right, to which Frisselle cheerfully assured his racist representatives,
"No, the Mexican is not aggressive. He is amenable to suggestions and does his work. He does not take the Chinese or the Japanese attitudes. He is a fellow easy to handle and very quiet in his living, a man who gives us no trouble. He takes his orders and follows them."
But in fact, by the late 20s and early 30s, Mexican migrant workers did start to organize and strike, and quickly found themselves rounded up and deported by the tens of thousands — even citizens, American-born Mexicans, were forcibly pushed over the border in the 1930s.
In our time, Sanders is right about the Kochs pushing for “open borders” in immigration. Of course they would. Ideally, from the employers’ point of view, workers would be docile, scared, and happy with their lot, which is of course the greatest lot in the greatest nation on earth.
That means promoting policies that on the one hand encourage undocumented or documented immigrants into the US workforce; and on the other hand, creating conditions under which they’re terrified of getting out of line or screwing up on the job. An H-1B visa (or H-2) is great in that way—if the visa holder loses his or her job, the visa is pulled, and it’s back to the miserable homeland.
So, naturally, the Kochs’ CATO Institute is a big promoter of unrestricted H-1B visas and labor immigration. And the Kochs’ premiere libertarian project, Ron Paul, has been in favor of both unrestricted immigration of terrorizing immigrants.
Here is Ron Paul running as Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988:
As in our country's first 150 years, there shouldn't be any immigration policy at all. We should welcome everyone who wants to come here and work.
And here is the same principled unwavering Ron Paul in 2006, talking about what really matters—immigration is good for lowering wages, bad when it gives undocumented workers rights and benefits:
[W]hile cheap labor certainly benefits the economy as a whole, when calculating the true cost of illegal immigration we must include the cost of social services that many new immigrants consume — especially medical care. We must reject amnesty for illegal immigrants in any form. We cannot continue to reward lawbreakers and expect things to get better.
The Kochs, like their monkey Dr. Paul, fund the “open borders” organizations like CATO which push for unrestricted H-1B visas while they also fund the Heritage Foundation, which featured a racist “immigration expert” who argued that Latinos are genetically inferior to whites, and therefore by implication should not be afforded the same benefits and rights as white Americans.
All of which is a longwinded and roundabout way of saying—when Facebook and a few dozen other billionaires who’ve shown so little interest in racial diversity in their own workplaces suddenly start racism-baiting a longtime labor organizer like Bernie Sanders for voicing flat, obvious truths about how employers have historically exploited undocumented foreign workers, at the very least, know a bit of your history before you pile on.
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