Thursday, March 2, 2017


In photos and text:  The great San Francisco hotel lockout
By David Bacon

The full set of photos is viewable here:

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 6SEPTEMBER04 -  On Labor Day, at the beginning of the campaign for a new contract, hotel housekeepers and other hotel workers march up Powell Street in front of the St. Francis Hotel, in the heart of the hotel and tourism district.

During the great San Francisco hotel lockout, the progressive leaders of the American Anthropological Association responded to the request of San Francisco hotel workers that they move their annual convention, because the hotels were being boycotted.  The association agreed, and the convention was moved.  There was a lot of controversy internally about the decision, and at the convention in 2009 they organized a panel to talk about the strike, and about the links between labor and progressive anthorpology. I was asked to write an account of the fight for CIty and Society, where this appeared in 2009.  Two other contributions also discussed this issue:  "Toward an Anthropology of Labor" by Sharryn Kasmir and "Locating Labor: David Bacon and Anthropology" by Gerrie Casey.

The lockout and the two year fight that followed took place at the height of the George Bush administration.  Despite Republican domination of the government and savage attacks on unions, workers and immigrants, the hotel union doggedly developed a strategy to unite workers nationwide.  The union showed (and it is clear in these photographs) that workers in San Francisco would fight hard for it, and that winning was possible even under a rightwing administration.  Revisiting the history of the lockout can help to envision a strategy for unions and immigrants facing similar challenges today.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 6SEPTEMBER04 - Workers and supporters get arrested in front of the St. Francis Hotel.

The 2004 strike and lockout of San Francisco hotel workers, and the two-year struggle that followed, weren't just limited disputes over wages-a union in a strong labor town getting serious money for its members. Some of the hotel workers' hardest-fought achievements didn't involve money at all, at least not directly. Instead, their new contract, finally signed in 2006, put in place building blocks that made hotel labor much stronger in years that followed-coordinated bargaining, card check recognition, and civil rights protection balancing the needs of immigrants and African Americans.

Perhaps the best explanation for why the hotels signed the agreement was given by UNITE HERE Local 2 president Mike Casey who simply said, "they decided it was cheaper to sign a contract than go to war with us again."

The final settlement certainly cost the hotels a bundle. Not only did wages rise a dollar an hour for each of three years for most workers (half that for those who get tips), but the big chains- Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental and Starwood- even threw in 60 cents an hour retroactively for each of the prior two years when the union lived without a contract at all. Poetic justice, since it was the hotels' choice in 2004 to refuse to sign an agreement that had them negotiating a new contract in 2006. It was expensive justice nonetheless.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 6SEPTEMBER04 - Mike Casey, president of Unitehere Local 2,  is photographed by the police at the paddy wagon, after being arrested in front of the St. Francis Hotel.

The bigger question, however, was whether a new balance of power in hotels would make housekeepers and cooks the inheritors of the city's waterfront labor tradition, and lead to the kind of rise in the standard of living that longshoremen experienced decades ago. Like the hospitality workers of today, dockworkers of the 1920s were San Francisco's low-wage earners-even scorned as bums and derelicts. Eighty years later, they are some of the best-paid blue-collar workers in North America. A strong union in the 1930s and '40s knitted waterfront and maritime laborers together in every Pacific port. It gave workers a new way to deal with the shippers, and with each other. A radically higher standard of living was one visible manifestation of better organization. The political machine in San Francisco and Hawaii, which sent a generation of pro-labor politicians to Washington, was another.

It could happen again, and hotel workers may be the ones to make it happen. Certainly in San Francisco their union avoided the disasters of the earlier 2003 Southern California grocery strike, and the wage and workforce cuts plaguing the nation's airlines. But the union did more than fight a good defensive battle. It changed the rules. It altered the relationship between hospitality workers and the multinational corporations who now employ them.

If the hotels learned anything from the two-year saga, it was that the union in San Francisco was better prepared for war than they were. In 2004, Local 2 asked for a contract that would terminate in 2006, enabling it to negotiate at the same time its sister locals around the country were also at the bargaining table with the same hospitality chains. Earlier in 2004, the hotels agreed to a 2006 expiration date in a number of major cities. But by the time the San Francisco union demanded it, they'd realized their mistake and become badly scared. The notion that independent local unions, which previously could be defeated easily in local strikes, would band together to negotiate jointly, was an extremely threatening idea for the hotel companies. Common contract expirations might eventually lead to joint negotiations, multi-city strikes, and even, in the longer term, national master agreements.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 14SEPTEMBER04 - Three workers talk about how to vote and mark their ballots in the strike vote.  Hotel workers in Los Angeles and Washington DC also took strike votes the day prior, making a 3-city strike very likely.

So in San Francisco the companies balked.

Choosing this city and this union was a bad mistake. While hotel operators were able to get 2006 off the table in Washington DC, and weaken the momentum elsewhere, San Francisco hotel workers held to their guns. They struck four of the fourteen Class A hotels (the city's most expensive) in the Multi-Employer Group, announcing they'd stay out for two weeks. The other ten implemented a mutual support agreement, and promptly locked out their own workers. Once the two-week strike was over, workers in the struck hotels were locked out too when they tried to return. The hotels obviously saw no contradiction between their gentlemen's agreement to lock arms in an anti-union alliance, and their opposition to local unions showing the same mutual support.

Workers did, though. To them it smacked of hypocrisy, and made them more willing to stay on the picket lines.

As it ground on, the lockout did more damage to the hotels than to their employees. After nine weeks, workers were clearly not frightened, and continued to mount noisy picket lines and drive away guests. When the hotels cut off payments to the union health plan, other unions stepped in to make up for them. Management's own tactics pushed people together, and made broader class solidarity more necessary than ever.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 29SEPTEMBER04 - A Hilton Hotel striker carries her infant on the picketline in front of the hotel lobby.

At the same time, the hotels had a hard time with their own business allies. The city's mayor, a photogenic, TV-savvy restaurateur, heretofore viewed as business friendly, tried to broker a settlement. The corporations' rebuff carried a resentful tone, as though he was betraying those who'd propelled him into office. Mayor Gavin Newsom then went to a picket line at Union Square, in the heart of the tourist district. In front of the Westin St. Francis he declared the lockout was hurting city business, and that he would honor the union boycott of the fourteen hotels until they settled.

The hotel corporations finally caved and reopened their doors to their own workers. The mayor kept his promise, however, and stayed away for the next two years. And as room occupancy rates rose nationally, with the industry recovering from its disastrous decline in the wake of September 11, 2001, an active boycott cut deeply into San Francisco's expected share of sharply rising profits.

Hotel housekeepers, bellmen, cooks, and laundry workers returned to their jobs, but without a contract. To pressure them further, the companies refused to deduct dues and turn the money over to the union. Rather than watch its income plummet in the middle of this battle, however, the union set up a system to collect dues by hand from over 5,000 workers. In the end, "it brought us much closer to our own members," said Local 2's secretary-treasurer Lamoin Wehrlein-Jaen.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 13OCTOBER04 - Local 2 President Mike Casey leads workers and supporters to the entrance of the Mark Hopkins Hotel to demand that managers let them go back to work.  Fourteen hotels locked out their workers when they tried to return to work at the end of the two-week strike against four of them.  Hotel managers then extended the lockout indefinitely in all 14 Class A hotels. 

Action in the street continued. Noisy marches reminded managers and travel agents of what a return to war would feel like. Arrests of dozens of members and supporters for sitting in hotel entrances became San Francisco's annual Labor Day observance. And inside the hotels, workers began to use delegations, petitions, and other collective actions when they had problems on the job. The official position of the Multi-Employer Group-that since there was no contract, there was no grievance procedure-created more worker cohesion, not less. 2006 finally arrived, and union contracts began to expire in other cities around the country. Local 2 was ready to fight again. The hotels were not.

Negotiations, which had stalled not long after the lockout ended, were restarted from scratch. Hotels demanded that new hires receive an inferior medical plan, and pay more for it-the same basic demand which led to the four-month strike of 40,000 grocery workers in Los Angeles in 2003, and which store clerks in the end had to accept. Local 2 put its old demands back on the table.

This time, however, the parent union's national strategy began to have an effect in San Francisco. The huge New York local, UNITE HERE's largest, reached agreement in May. It was a six-year deal, meaning that the union would not be a factor in the next round of negotiations. But New York won substantial raises, and most important, card-check recognition.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 13OCTOBER04 - Workers at the Fairmount wait to find out if they're going to work, as the lockout begins.

Of all the union demands, this was anathema to the hospitality chains. Under a card-check arrangement, workers at non-union hotels run by the same company can sign cards asking for union representation. When a majority has signed, the hotel agrees to recognize the union and bargain. This process avoids National Labor Relations Board elections, which, over two decades, have become a vehicle for scorched-earth anti-union campaigns. Managers facing workers who want a union first hire anti-union consultants. They, in turn, wage a campaign of illegal threats and firings, designed to produce a momentary majority of workers on election day, so scared that they vote against their own self-interest.

UNITE HERE has card-check agreements in Las Vegas, where it represents such a large percentage of the casino workforce that the wealthy operators have no choice but to agree. In the rest of the hotel industry, however, union busting is the norm. In San Francisco, it took Local 2 over four years to organize the Parc 55, and at Marriott Corporation's downtown flagship, the campaign lasted ten.

Ironically, Hilton Hotels broke the logjam in New York. In the 2004 lockout, Hilton led the other MEG employers in San Francisco in defying Local 2. In UNITE HERE's pre-2006 planning, Hilton had even been chosen as the national target. Workers were interviewed around the country, and their testimony supported a growing indictment of worker abuse, especially in non-union hotels.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 12OCTOBER04 - Rev. Jesse Jackson rallies with locked out and striking San Francisco hotel workers in Union Square.

Following the company's decade-long binge of buying out smaller chains, a majority of Hilton workers are now unorganized. By moving from a majority-union to a majority non-union workforce, the company has begun to push wages and conditions down, even for unionized workers. Local 2's members understood this. Without organizing their non-union colleagues, they too would feel the same pressure. They recognized that a new contract had to have more than just wage raises. It had to include a better process for bringing unorganized workers into the union.

Local 2's housekeepers and kitchen workers understood power. They knew the advantage they would have if they could force the hotels to negotiate in 2006. They knew why they needed card check. They could have given up these two demands anytime during the nine locked-out weeks, or the two years without a contract that followed. The hotels would have gladly given them raises in exchange. But in a convincing demonstration of the union's ability to educate its own members, the workers wouldn't take the deal.

When New York's new contract was ratified, the union and Hilton also announced that the chain was willing to sign card check agreements in a limited number of other cities. Those agreements would have to be included in new contracts in each of those cities, though, and in San Francisco those negotiations were not going well.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 22OCTOBER04 - Locked-out hotel workers rally in front of City Hall, before calling on city supervisors to take action to end the lockout.

Finally, Local 2 took another strike vote on August 24, 2006. A week later, at the end of a noisy march through the tourist district, over sixty members and supporters were arrested for blocking the entrance to the Palace Hotel on Market Street. Managers could envision the possible return of the labor war of two years before. In the shifting alliances inside the Multi-Employer Group, Hilton and its allies succeeded in convincing a majority of the other operators that they could live with card check in San Francisco.

Workers held out for a third strategic goal, however, which may eventually have as profound an effect on the union's strength as card check and common expiration dates. They negotiated an unprecedented civil rights section of the new agreement, which combines protection for immigrant workers with a requirement that hotels make concerted efforts to hire African American workers and residents of other communities underrepresented in the industry's workforce.

The proposal stems from an effort by the union to address changing demographics. In the city's hotels, the percent- age of African American workers is falling, as employment continues to grow. African Americans now make up less than 6 percent of the San Francisco hotel workforce, a number that has declined in each of the past five years but one.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 22OCTOBER04 - One locked-out hotel worker holds her infant as she speaks in a meeting of city supervisors, asking them to take action to end the lockout. 

In San Francisco, this issue has a lot of history. The Palace Hotel was the scene of the city's most famous civil rights demonstration. In 1963, hundreds of civil rights activists sat in and were arrested in the hotel lobby. They demanded that management hire blacks into jobs in the visible front-of-the-house locations, where the color line had kept them out. The day after the arrests thousands ringed the entire block in the largest picket line San Francisco has ever seen.

Richard Lee Mason, an African American banquet waiter at the St. Francis remembers: "African Americans had been kept in the back of the house for far too long. People wanted to be in the front of the house, and rightly so." Employment prospects improved for black workers for some years after the demonstrations, but the situation changed again in the 1980s.

"I suspect that because the industry had had a great struggle with African Americans, they thought we were too aggressive," Mason speculates. "A lot of us had come out of the civil rights movement, and we were willing to fight for higher wages and to make sure we were treated fairly." Steven Pitts, an economist at the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California in Berkeley, adds that "this perception by employers of African American workers is true nationwide. Blacks aren't perceived as compliant, and therefore when many employers make hiring decisions, they simply don't hire them."

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 26OCTOBER04 - San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom listens to Lesli Salmeron, a housekeeper at the Hilton hotel for over 9 years, about the suffering of workers caused by the lockout.  The mayor joined locked-out workers on their picketlines after hotels rejected his appeal to end the lockout.

Hotels hired increasing percentages of immigrants, in a move they hoped would create a less demanding and expensive workforce. In kitchens and among the laundry carts, voices now speak in languages from Mexico and Central America, the Caribbean, China, the Philippines, and a host of other countries. But if the hotel industry hoped this new workforce would be more compliant, they were disappointed. Immigrants proved a key element of the 1980 citywide hotel strike, and smaller conflicts over the following two decades. But black employment fell nonetheless.

To restart movement in the other direction, in 2004 Local 2 asked companies to agree to a diversity taskforce, to reach out to African American communities, and eliminate hiring barriers. While demanding progress towards ending the de facto color line, the union also proposed new protections for the job rights of immigrants. The union won strong language allowing workers to keep their jobs for up to a year if they have to leave to adjust their immigration status. Management is prohibited from firing workers named in "no match" letters from the Social Security Administration, because their numbers don't match the SSA database (a common cause for termination by employers who assume those workers are undocumented.)

The union proposal strengthened an important ruling won in 2000 in San Francisco, when an arbitrator held that management couldn't use a "no-match letter" to fire immigrant workers if they had a union contract. Then, in 2003, the union organized the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a national demonstration for immigration reform joining immigrants with black veterans of the original 1960s freedom rides. The mobilization brought people to Washington to push for immigration reform to make it easier for immigrant workers to join unions, go on strike, and advocate for their labor rights.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 5NOVEMBER04 - At a prayer service outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel hotel workers put their anger into writing on the signs they carry on the picketline.

The union's civil rights proposal "is an important first step," according to Pitts. "But in the civil rights movement we learned we need structural change, that can bring community residents into the hotels, and make sure they progress." The new outreach requirement may have limited impact, but it is a first step. It puts immigrants and African Americans on the same side. It makes the union part of a new civil rights movement, geared to a changed world of globalization. The key is prohibiting discrimination against immigrants because of their status, while moving towards affirmative action to gain more jobs for underrepresented communities.

Winning structural reform in hiring takes a lot of bargaining power-an important argument for card check and coordinated negotiations in cities around the country. But possibly more important in the long term, the agreement renews the basis for a civil rights alliance that can lead to greater political power, as well as increasing union strength.

In the 1934 San Francisco general strike, longshore leader Harry Bridges promised African Americans in the city that if they made common cause with the strikers rather than with the ship owners, the union would force employers to take down the color line that barred them from most waterfront jobs. As president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Bridges kept his word. African Americans became a majority of San Francisco longshore workers in later years, and the union and minority and working-class communities formed an alliance that gave them decades of political power.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 5NOVEMBER04 - A hotel housekeeper shouts out her anger at the continuation of the lockout, at the door into the St. Francis Hotel.

Local 2 may become the nucleus of a similar political alliance that reflects the new realities of the city's changing demographics. That could give it influence, in raising the standard of living for not just its members but for working-class San Franciscans as a whole.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 20NOVEMBER04 - Mayor Gavin Newsom announces the end to the lockout, flanked by (l) and Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2 (r).

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 5SEPTEMBER05 - UNITE HERE President John Wilhelm sits in with workers, blocking the doors, to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, protesting the lack of a union contract at  San Francisco's Class A hotels. 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - 13SEPTEMBER06 - San Francisco hotel workers announce that their union, UNITE HERE Local 2, has reached agreement on a new contract with the city's leading hotels, after two strike votes, a strike, a lockout, and negotiating for over two years.  The union acheived its major goals, including card-check neutrality to make it easier for workers in non-union hotels in San Francisco and San Mateo Counties to join the union.  Workers won substantial wage and benefit increases, and defeated an attempt to make them accept a two-tier arrangement giving new workers a lower standard.  The union accepted no  concessions. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017



OAKLAND, CA - 21FEBRUARY17 - Immigrant rights organizations marched through downtown Oakland to the office of Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahearn, to protest the cooperation of the Sheriff in the Priority Enforcement Program and Urban Shield programs of the Federal government, which target immigrants for detention and deportation.  President Trump has announced he will reauthorize the 287g program for cooperation between local law enforcement agencies and immigration authorities, which has led to the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people.

 Full selection of photos:

Monday, February 6, 2017


Photoessay by David Bacon
The Progressive, February 1, 2017

Five years ago, the Reverend Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity began organizing church vigils outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, California. Vigil participants have won the ability to meet with detainees inside the prison, offered sanctuary, and have found legal help for families.

"Solidarity is our protection," says Reverend Lee. "We ask faith communities to consider declaring themselves 'sanctuary congregations' or 'immigrant-welcoming congregations.'"

In 2011 people of faith began holding a vigil outside the West County Detention Center, where immigrants are incarcerated before being deported.

A Jewish activist blows the shofar, or ram's horn, outside the detention center, as a call to resist oppression and as part of a prayer service called during a time of communal distress.

One vigil was sponsored by members of the Unitarian Universalist Church, which developed a slogan for its work to halt deportations, "Standing on the Side of Love." 

A refugee from Central America is comforted outside the detention center where her brother was still being held by a member of St. John's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, which has given sanctuary to families threatened with deportation.

The Reverend Izzy Alvaran, who gained asylum from the Philippines a decade ago, leads protesters in a chant outside the detention center.

 A Vietnamese refugee describes his personal experience as part of a protest against the denial of amnesty to Central American families, outside the detention center where many are held. 

Civil rights veteran Rev. Phil Lawson leads demonstrators during the detention center vigil in a call and response prayer.

A woman begins to weep while talking about the experiences that forced her and her family to leave their home in Mexico, in a detention center vigil organized by Mujeres Unidas y Activas (United and Active Women), an organization of immigrant women in San Francisco and Oakland.

Reylla Denis Ferraz Da Silva, her husband Fabricio, and baby Enzo Gabriel.  Reylla was picked up for deportation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, despite the fact that she was nursing Enzo, and had been living in San Francisco for eight years as she trained to become a church pastor at the Message of the Peace Church. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Book review by David Bacon

Border Cantos
Photographs and text by Richard Misrach
Instruments, sound installations, scores, and text by Guillermo Galindo
Introduction and epilogue by Josh Kun
Published by Aperture, April 2016
274 pages, including gatefolds; 257 four-color images
Hardcover, $75

Reviewed in Afterimage, v.44, n. 4, January 2017

“I was born in Guatemala. My mother, who’d gone to work in the US, was deported back home. Later she returned to the U.S., and sent for me and sister Gaby. We were 12 and 10 years old. My uncle sent us off with a group crossing the border at Nuevo Laredo. I had my Bible with me, and I thought, I have faith. They took us to a part of the desert, and at night we all began to walk.

 “We were going to see my mom, so we packed our favorite clothes. You’re supposed to have dark clothes that aren’t visible, but Gaby wore her best bright white pants. The group huddled around to hide her. There was a sense that they had to protect the kids. After walking we had to cross the river, and took off our clothes to wade through the water. One of my shoes was swept away, and a lady gave me hers. Then we had to run, and at the end her feet were all cut up. But we were so glad we made it.”

—Lucia Pedroza

“I came to the US with a coyote. It cost me $2000 to cross the line. I took a bus to Naco, Sonora. We spent three days in an empty house, sleeping on the floor, men and women together. I was worried by all the stories I’d heard about women getting raped. Then one afternoon the coyote took us down into a ravine. We climbed into a pipe, crawling on hands and knees, one person behind the next.

 “The pipe was only about four feet around, with sewage running at the bottom. It was very dark, and the coyote warned us not to go off to the side or we’d get lost. I was very scared, but I needed to make it across. I prayed to the saints. I arrived in Lumberton, North Carolina, on a Saturday, went to mass and gave thanks to God on Sunday, and went to work in the fields on Monday. With the first money I made I bought a saint and gave him to the church there.”

—Guadalupe Marroquin

These women, two of the millions who’ve crossed the border between the United States and Mexico in the last two decades, describe this perilous journey as they lived it. For them, the border is not just geography, or a wall or a river. It is a passage of fire, an ordeal that must be survived in order to send money from work in the US back to a hungry family, to find children and relatives from whom they have been separated by earlier journeys, or to flee an environment that has become too dangerous to bear.

Some do not survive, dying as they try to cross the desert or swim the Rio Bravo, or murdered by gangs in northern Mexico. To them the border region has become a land of death.

But the border is also a land of the living. Over the past half century the once-small towns of Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana have become cities of millions. A huge part of the industrial workforce of southern California, South Texas and New Mexico lives and works, not on the US side of the border, but on the Mexican side and is part of the production and supply chain that delivers products to US consumers. There people build homes out of cardboard and shipping pallets cast off by the factories—the maquiladoras. The dirt streets of their barrios often end at the border wall itself. Many neighborhoods have no sewers and flood when it rains. Electricity is stolen by hooking up to power lines, while drinking water comes in a truck, and people must pay to fill the tank in front of their homes.

The border is the scene of some of Mexico’s sharpest social struggles. In Maclovio Rojas, outside Tijuana, land occupiers fight the police in sight of the border wall for the right to build homes. Workers in Juarez’s factories organize independent unions, and when they’re fired they set up tent encampments, like Occupy, at the gates. This upsurge is not new—it’s been going on for more than a hundred years. In 1906 Colonel William Greene, owner of the huge copper mine in Cananea, just a few miles south of Arizona in Sonora, brought the Arizona Rangers across the border to put down a strike now considered the first conflict of the Mexican Revolution. Mexican unions sent organizers north across the border to help Texas farmworkers organize their first unions in the Rio Grande Valley in the 1930s.

The border is a vast area with a vibrant social history. Over the past three decades it has also become a powerful social symbol, especially the wall that’s been built in fits and starts, underlining the separation of our two countries. The border played a big part in electing Donald Trump president, whose campaign rallies featured chants of “Build the Wall!” and promises to deport millions of people. Mexicans angry at the wall’s symbolism—Keep out!—and at their own President Enrique Peña Nieto for not challenging Trump’s campaign insults of Mexicans, may well dump Peña’s political party in the next election.

So people in the US need to understand what goes on at the border. This country needs a reality check about the wall, as one element of coming to terms with the sources of migration and protecting the human rights of migrants and working people generally. Richard Misrach is one of a number of photographers who have sought to present that reality. Over several trips to the border between 2009 and 2015 he took photographs of the wall and its environs. In the course of that work, he developed a collaboration with musician Guillermo Galindo. Together they created a book of photographs, Border Cantos, and a website where people can hear Galindo’s music,

Both the book and the website are the products of a great deal of work. Border Cantos is a very large book (approximately 13 x 11 inches). Some 185 of its 274 pages are given to Richard Misrach’s photographs taken along the border. The last part consists of photographs of instruments Galindo has created from objects found in the area near the border wall. The website features twenty-two of his works created on these instruments, from twenty seconds to over four minutes in length.

One of Galindo’s instruments is the Ropófono. “This loom,” he says, “a powerful symbol of home and tradition in Latin America, rotates a loop of discarded clothing. Contact microphones mounted on three arms amplify the sound of the clothing as it rotates” (200). Here Galindo is seeking to connect with the culture of the migrants who are crossing, and to create a sound—that of clothing—they might have heard as they were walking through the desert. It is a way, he believes, to create a voice for people who passed that way— who might have survived the experience, but who also might have perished in the crossing.

This is not the same, however, as listening to the actual voices of migrants themselves, at least those who survived, like Pedroza and Marroquin. It is important to hear those voices also, and to understand the concrete experience of a border crosser. But it is perfectly legitimate for Galindo, as an artist, to use physical pieces of that experience to create what is both a work of art and a tribute to the human beings involved. When you listen to the different instruments on the website, one after another, they create a broad texture, making the listener consider the ways the sounds connect to the experience.

Misrach’s photographs (other than the ones of the instruments) are mostly full-page color plates, with occasional collages of multiple smaller images. They are divided into eight chapters, or “cantos.” The first and largest shows the border wall as it crosses the desert and other remote locations. Two focus on the Border Patrol’s mechanisms of enforcement—the detritus left on shooting ranges and the tires dragged across the sand to reveal the tracks of migrants who later walk through the area. Two sections are images of the remnants of passing migrants—strange sculptural effigies in the vague shapes of people and cast-off and lost articles from backpacks to tennis shoes. One section shows the water containers left by activists who put them in the desert in hopes that migrants suffering thirst and heat prostration will find them. Another “canto” contains photographs of the wall as it passes through urban areas. The last, “The Other Side / El otro lado” has images of Mexico shot through the bars or mesh of the wall itself.

The first section contains the best-known images—the iron bars of the wall as it snakes through the desert, up and down hillsides. They are carefully framed compositions requiring substantial investments of time, repeatedly using perspective to dramatize the relation between the wall and the land. Misrach creates stark landscapes, devoid of people (as are most of his images). In many, the wall seems overwhelmed by its surroundings, a line of bars or obstacles made small in a much larger environment. As it presently exists, the wall is only a few decades old, in its oldest sections. Already even the newer wall of twenty-foot iron bars is rusting. This is not the Great Wall of China—it’s clear this wall is not a work for the ages. Nor is it a great accomplishment of human labor or engineering. Building it clearly didn’t produce many jobs. Skilled construction workers—electricians, pipefitters, and bridge builders—were not needed here.

The images reinforce an understanding that the wall’s main importance is its symbolism—its ability to win higher budgets for the Department of Homeland Security and votes for Donald Trump. Given that about 4.5 million Mexican migrants lived in the US in 1990, and 12.7 million by 2008, the wall had almost no impact on stopping migration across the border, despite its catastrophic human cost.

Some of Misrach’s images, especially the wide panoramas, are reminiscent of those shot by other photographers. Images by Mark Klett, Victoria Sambunaris, and Alec Soth, included in a 2012 San Francisco Museum of Art show titled Photography in Mexico: Selected Works from the Collections of SFMOMA and Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser, all consider the border as landscape. In others, Misrach shows the wall’s absurdity and irrationality. Wall, Near Brownsville, Texas (2013) is one of several that show a fragment of wall in the middle of nowhere. Clearly someone could just walk around one end or the other. In another photograph, the wall runs through a Texas golf course, but with openings and missing sections so golfers can play through. Missing from the book, though, are images of those sections of the wall, like those in San Ysidro or El Paso, where the border is like a military installation, with high-intensity lights, multiple barriers, and lots of Border Patrol agents in SUVs.

The photographs of Border Patrol detritus—spent shells and perforated targets on a shooting range, or chained tires—don’t really convey the reasons why migrants fear the “migra.” In another section, one photograph does show a street in Nogales, Arizona, from which Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, while standing on a street in Nogales, Sonora, was shot  by a Border Patrol agent through the bars of the wall. Misrach’s two images of this same section of the wall show small posters of Rodriguez pasted onto the bars on the US side, but for some reason neither photograph was taken at the place where the shooting actually occurred, where Mexicans have erected a memorial on the street below.

Nevertheless, Misrach shows, with both target range and Nogales images, that militarization has a terrible human cost. Further, Misrach shows his support for the efforts made by US activists to save migrants from dying of thirst, with a section of images of water containers left in desert. Some show the hatred motivating those who’ve shot holes into the containers, draining out their precious water.

The section that ties the photographer to the musician contains images documenting the items discarded by migrants. “The stories behind these artifacts—who left each one behind and why—will forever remain a mystery,” Misrach says (145). Some were used by Galindo to make the instruments pictured in the book’s last section. It is an exercise in forensics, trying to see the people in what they leave behind, without seeing the people themselves, hearing their voices only in the instruments made from their discarded possessions. “There are many reasons why I refuse to consider my pieces recycled art objects,” Galindo says. “The instruments for the Cantos project are meant to enable the invisible victims of immigration to speak through their personal belongings” (193). Presumably Misrach takes these photographs for the same reasons. But the people are invisible in this book by the choice of the photographer. He has deliberately decided to take photographs of the land and objects, revealing human presence in most cases only by implication.

The last section of photographs, “The Other Side / El otro lado,” consists of images of Mexico and Mexicans, taken through the bars of the wall themselves. It highlights the two main limitations in Misrach’s approach to the border. This is the only section of the book, with a few exceptions, that contains images of people. And the images are almost all taken (as are almost all the images in the book) on the US side of the border. In this last section we see people through the bars as though they were prisoners in Mexico. They have no personality. Why not go across and talk with them?

Border Cantos does not pretend to be a sociological study of the border, or to document the reasons why people migrate, their living conditions, or social struggles in the border area on the Mexican side. But the reader does come away wondering why Misrach had so few images taken from that side. What does the wall look like to the people living south of it? Even the phrase “el otro lado” is very common in Mexico, but refers to the US side, not, as Misrach uses it, to refer to Mexico. Mexican photographer Leopoldo Peña, who photographs migrant indigenous Mexican communities in Los Angeles, asks, “What separation is the photographer [Misrach] suggesting when he does not allow the other side of the border to emerge?”

There is a long history of artists interpreting the border-crossing experience. In San Francisco, Pearl Ubungen developed a public dance performance, Refugee (1995), as a political challenge to the denial of immigrant rights. At one point she dances among wet concrete blocks along a rope pulling her from one place (or one country) to another. In another scenario, a section of the border wall on wheels chases, and is chased by, both migrants and border patrol agents.

The wall itself has been used for some years for art protesting the death of migrants, or highlighting the migrant experience. In the first years of the mass deaths of Operation Gatekeeper, at the end of the 1990s, Tijuana artists made sculptures of the plastic water bottles left in the desert to rescue migrants. They placed them on the wall itself with crosses and the names of people found dead in the wilderness. Other artists, myself included, have used the wall for public exhibitions, mounting large photographic prints on the bars showing the lives of migrants on the US side. This has been done only on the Mexican side, since the US Border Patrol prevents such displays, and often even simple access, on their side of the barrier.

Misrach has had several museum exhibitions of the Border Cantos images. The photographs deserve broader venues, however, with diverse audiences, if they are to have a strong social impact. And if, as Galindo desires, his music is to “enable the invisible victims of immigration to speak,” (193) where can they find an audience of listeners willing to act to change social reality? A gallery or museum interested in the commodification of art is not a place where a large audience will be found that is committed to an active fight to stop the abuse and death of migrants at the border.

Border Cantos can be a powerful tool to inspire that action if it reaches those people prepared to act. The need for this is undebatable. The US has a new President who says he is building an even bigger wall on the border, and who threatens to imprison and deport millions of people who have crossed it. It is more important than ever to understand what that wall means to the people who’ve encountered it.

DAVID BACON is a California writer and photographer and author of Communities Without Borders (Cornell University/ILR Press, 2006) and the forthcoming In the Fields of the North/En los campos del norte (UC Press/Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017), among other books.

NOTES 1. Lucia Pedroza, interview by author, Omaha, NE (September 24, 2016). 2. Guadalupe Marroquin, interview by author,  Tar Heel, NC (July 7, 2011). 3. Leopoldo Peña, interview by author, Berkeley, CA (July 22, 2016).

Monday, January 30, 2017



Sunday, January 22, 2017


By David Bacon
Dollars and Sense | January/February 2017

People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
—Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” 1852

While the government officials developing and enforcing U.S. immigration policy will change on January 20, the economic system in which they make that policy will not. As fear sweeps through immigrant communities in the United States, understanding that system helps us anticipate what a Trump administration can and can’t do in regard to immigrants, and what immigrants themselves can do about it.

Over the terms of the last three presidents, the most visible and threatening aspect of immigration policy has been the drastic increase in enforcement. President Bill Clinton presented anti-immigrant bills as compromises, and presided over the first big increase in border enforcement. George W. Bush used soft rhetoric, but sent immigration agents in military-style uniforms, carrying AK-47s, into workplaces to arrest workers, while threatening to fire millions for not having papers. Under President Barack Obama, a new requirement mandated filling 34,000 beds in detention centers every night. The detention system mushroomed, and over 2 million people were deported.

Enforcement, however, doesn’t exist for its own sake. It plays a role in a larger system that serves capitalist economic interests by supplying a labor force employers require. High levels of enforcement also ensure the profits of companies that manage detention and enforcement, who lobby for deportations as hard as Boeing lobbies for the military budget.

Immigrant labor is more vital to many industries than it’s ever been before. Immigrants have always made up most of the country’s farm workers in the West and Southwest. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 57% of the country’s entire agricultural workforce is undocumented. But the list of other industries dependent on immigrant labor is long—meatpacking, some construction trades, building services, healthcare, restaurant and retail service, and more.

Protest in front of Oakland City Hall against the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.  - All photos © David Bacon

During the election campaign, candidate Donald Trump pledged in his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again” to “begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country” on his first day in office. In speeches, he further promised to eventually force all undocumented people (estimated at 11 million) to leave.

In a society with one of the world’s highest rates of incarceration, crimes are often defined very broadly. In the past, for instance, under President George W. Bush federal prosecutors charged workers with felonies for giving a false Social Security number to an employer when being hired. He further proposed the complete enforcement of employer sanctions—the provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that forbids employers from hiring workers without papers. Bush’s order would have had the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) check the immigration status of all workers, and required employers to fire those without legal immigration status, before being blocked by a suit filed by unions and civil rights organizations.

Under President Obama, workplace enforcement was further systematized. In just one year, 2012, ICE audited 1600 employers. Tens of thousands of workers were fired during Obama’s eight years in office. Given Trump’s choice of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, greater workplace enforcement is extremely likely. Sessions has been one of the strongest advocates in Congress for greater immigration enforcement, and has criticized President Obama for not deporting enough people. Last year he proposed a five-year prison sentence for any undocumented immigrant caught in the country after having been previously deported.

Industry Needs Immigrants

Both deportations and workplace firings face a basic obstacle—the immigrant workforce is a source of immense profit to employers. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, of the presumed 11 million people in the country without documents, about 8 million are employed (comprising over 5% of all workers). Most earn close to the minimum wage (some far less), and are clustered in low-wage industries. In the Indigenous Farm Worker Survey, for instance, made in 2009, demographer Rick Mines found that a third of California’s 165,000 indigenous agricultural laborers (workers from communities in Mexico speaking languages that pre-date European colonization) made less than minimum wage.

The federal minimum wage is still stuck at $7.50/hour, and even California’s minimum of $10/hour only gives full-time workers an annual income of $20,000. Meanwhile, Social Security says the national average wage index for 2015 is just over $48,000. In other words, if employers were paying the undocumented workforce the average U.S. wage it would cost them well over $200 billion annually. That wage differential subsidizes whole industries like agriculture and food processing. If that workforce were withdrawn, as Trump threatens, through deportations or mass firings, employers wouldn’t be able to replace it without raising wages drastically.

As president, Donald Trump will have to ensure that the labor needs of employers are met, at a price they want to pay. The corporate appointees in his administration reveal that any populist rhetoric about going against big business was just that—rhetoric. But Hillary Clinton would have faced the same necessity. And in fact, the immigration reform proposals in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats over the past decade shared this understanding—that U.S. immigration policy must satisfy corporate labor demands.

During the Congressional debates over immigration reform, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) proposed two goals for U.S. immigration policy. In a report from the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, Senior Fellow Edward Alden stated, “We should reform the legal immigration system so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness.” He went on to add, “We should restore the integrity of immigration laws, through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system.” The CFR, therefore, coupled an enforcement regime—with deportations and firings—to a labor-supply scheme.

Immigrants, workers, union members, people of faith and community activists demonstrated in Silicon Valley, calling for a moratorium on deportations and the firing of undocumented workers because of their immigration status.

This framework assumes the flow of migrating people will continue, and seeks to manage it. This is a safe assumption, because the basic causes of that flow have not changed. Communities in Mexico continue to be displaced by 1) economic reforms that allowed U.S. corporations to flood the country with cheap corn and meat (often selling below the cost of production—known as “dumping”—thanks to U.S. agricultural subsidies and trade agreements like NAFTA), 2) the rapacious development of mining and other extractive concessions in the countryside, and 3) the growing impoverishment of Mexican workers. Violence plays its part, linked to the consequences of displacement, economic desperation, and mass deportations. Continuing U.S. military intervention in Central America and other developing countries will produce further waves of refugees.

While candidate Trump railed against NAFTA in order to get votes (as did Barack Obama), he cannot—and, given his ties to business, has no will to—change the basic relationship between the United States and Mexico and Central America, or other developing countries that are the sources of migration. Changing the relationship (with its impact on displacement and migration) is possible in a government committed to radical reform. Bernie Sanders might have done this. Other voices in Congress have advocated it. But Trump will do what the system wants him to do, and certainly will not implement a program of radical reform.

H-2A Guest Workers

The structures for managing the flow of migrants are already in place, and don’t require Congress to pass big immigration reform bills. In Washington State alone, for instance, according to Alex Galarza of the Northwest Justice Project, the Washington Farm Labor Association brought in about 2,000 workers under the H-2A guest worker program in 2006. In 2013, the number rose to 4,000. By 2015, it grew to 11,000. In 2016, it reached 13,500. That kind of growth is taking place in all states with a sizeable agricultural workforce. The H-2A program allows growers to recruit workers outside the country for periods of less than a year, after which they must return to their country of origin. Guest workers who lose their jobs for whatever reason—whether by offending their employer, or not working fast enough, for example—have to leave the country, so joining a union or protesting conditions is extremely risky. Growers can only use the program if they can show they can’t find local workers, but the requirement is often unenforced.

The program for foreign contract labor in agriculture is only one of several like it for other industries. One study, “Visas, Inc.,” by Global Workers Justice, found that over 900,000 workers were brought to the United States to work every year under similar conditions. The number is growing. In the context of the growth of these programs, immigration enforcement fulfills an important function. It heralds a return to the bracero era, named for the U.S. “guest worker” program that brought millions of Mexican farmworkers to the United States between 1942 and 1964. The program was notorious for its abuse of the braceros, and for pitting them against workers already in the United States in labor competition and labor conflict. In 1954 alone, the United States deported over a million people—while importing 450,000 contract workers. Historically, immigration enforcement has been tied to the growth of contract labor, or “guest worker” programs.

Arresting people at the border, firing them from their jobs for not having papers, and sending people to detention centers for deportation, all push the flow of migrants into labor schemes managed to benefit corporations. The more a Trump administration pushes for deportations and internal enforcement, the more it will rely on expanding guest worker programs.

The areas where programs like H-2A are already growing were heavy Trump supporters. In eastern Washington, a heavily Trump area, immigration agents forced the huge Gebbers apple ranch to fire hundreds of undocumented workers in 2009, and then helped the employer apply for H-2A workers. While the undocumented workers of eastern Washington had good reason to fear Trump’s threats, employers knew they didn’t have to fear the loss of a low-wage workforce.

Deportations and workplace enforcement will have a big impact on unions and organizing rights. Immigrant workers have been the backbone of some of the most successful labor organizing of the last two decades, from Los Angeles janitors to Las Vegas hotel workers to Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. At the same time, the use of the E-Verify database under President Obama often targeted workers active in labor campaigns like Fight for $15, as did earlier Bush and Clinton enforcement efforts.

Unions and immigrant communities have developed sophisticated tactics for resisting these attacks, and will have to use them effectively under Trump. Janitors in Minneapolis fought the firing of undocumented fast-food workers in Chipotle restaurants. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) teamed up with faith-based activists, immigrant-rights groups, and environmentalists to stop firings of undocumented workers in Bay Area recycling facilities, winning union representation and higher wages as a result. The same unions and community organizations that have fought enforcement in the workplace have also fought detentions and deportations.

Immigrant Latino workers from the Woodfin Suites hotel in Emeryville, Calif., and their supporters protest after hotel managers fired 20 workers, accusing them of lacking legal immigration status.

These efforts will have to depend on more than a legal defense. The Supreme Court has already held that undocumented workers fired for organizing at work can’t be rehired, and their employers don’t have to pay them back pay.

Border Enforcement

Trump’s threatened enforcement wave extends far beyond the workplace. He promised increased enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border, expanding the border wall, and increasing the number of Border Patrol agents beyond the current 25,000. Immigration enforcement already costs the government more than all other federal law enforcement programs put together.

Trump proposed an End Illegal Immigration Act, imposing a two-year prison sentence on anyone who re-enters the U.S. after having been deported, and five years for anyone deported more than once. Under President Obama, the United States deported more than two million people. Hundreds of thousands, with children and families in the United States, have tried to return to them. Under this proposed law, they would fill the prisons.

One of Trump’s “first day” commitments is to “cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama.” This promise includes Obama’s executive order giving limited, temporary legal status to undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA). DACA has been attacked by the right-wing ideologues advising Trump’s transition team since Obama issued his order.

The 750,000 young people who gained status under DACA—the “Dreamers”—have been one of the most active sections of the U.S. immigrant-rights movement. But they had to give the government their address and contact information in order to obtain a deferment, making them vulnerable to deportation sweeps. Defending them will likely be one of the first battles of the Trump era. Many, if not most, DACA recipients are now in the workforce, and many now belong to unions as a result.  They were given work authorization as part of deferring their deportation, but if Trump cancels that work authorization, employers would then be required by ICE to fire them.

Trump further announced that on his first day in office he will “cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities.” More than 300 cities in the United States have adopted policies saying that they will not arrest and prosecute people solely for being undocumented.

Many cities, and even some states, have withdrawn from federal schemes, notably the infamous “287(g) program,” requiring police to arrest and detain people because of their immigration status. Trump’s proposed order would cancel federal funding for housing, medical care, and other social services to cities that won’t cooperate. As attorney general, Sessions can be expected to try to enforce this demand. After the election, many city and some state governments and elected officials were quick to announce that they would not be intimidated. The Dreamers especially see direct action in the streets as an important part of defending communities. In the push for DACA, youth demonstrations around the country sought to stop deportations by sitting in front of buses carrying prisoners to detention centers. Dreamers defended young people detained for deportation, and even occupied Obama’s Chicago office during his 2012 re-election campaign.

In detention centers themselves, detainees have organized hunger strikes with the support of activists camping in front of the gates. Maru Mora Villapando, one of the organizers of the hunger strikes and protests at the detention center in Tacoma, Wash., said organizers couldn't just wait for Trump to begin his attacks, but had to start building up defense efforts immediately. She advocated pressuring the Obama administration to undo as much of the detention and deportation machinery as possible before leaving office. “We don’t want him just to hand over the keys to this machine as it is right now,” she warned.

The success of efforts to defend immigrants, especially undocumented people, depends not just on their own determination to take direct action, but on support from the broader community. In Philadelphia, less than a week after the election, Javier Flores García was given sanctuary by the congregation of the Arch Street United Methodist Church after being threatened by federal immigration agents. “Solidarity is our protection,” urged the Reverend Deborah Lee of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity in California. “Our best defense is an organized community committed to each other and bound together with all those at risk. ... We ask faith communities to consider declaring themselves ‘sanctuary congregations’ or ‘immigrant welcoming congregations.’”

But while many workers may have supported Trump because of anger over unemployment and the fallout from trade agreements like NAFTA, they also bought his anti-immigrant political arguments. Those arguments, especially about immigrants in the workplace, even affect people on the left who opposed Trump himself. Some of those arguments have been made by Democrats, and used to justify enforcement measures like E-Verify included in the “comprehensive immigration reform” bills they sponsored. One union activist, Buzz Malone, wrote a piece for In These Times arguing for increased enforcement of employer sanctions, although he envisioned them more as harsher penalties for employers who hire the undocumented. “Imprison the employers ... and all of it would end,” he predicted. “The border crossings would fizzle out and many of the people would leave on their own.”

Fifteen thousand people rally and march in San Francisco, demanding legalization and equality for undocumented immigrants.

What Is to Be Done?

To defeat the Trump enforcement wave, immigrant activists in unions and communities will have to fight for deeper understanding and greater unity between immigrants and U.S.-born people. Workers in general need to see that people in Mexico got hit by NAFTA even harder than people in the U.S. Midwest—and their displacement and migration isn’t likely to end soon. In a diverse workforce, the unity needed to defend a union or simply win better conditions depends on fighting for a country and workplace where everyone has equal rights. For immigrant workers, the most basic right is simply the right to stay. Defending that right means not looking the other way when a coworker, a neighbor or a friend is threatened with firing, deportation, or worse.

The rise of a Trump enforcement wave spells the death of the liberal centrism that proposed trading increased enforcement and labor supply programs for a limited legalization of undocumented people. Under Trump, the illusion that there is some kind of “fair” enforcement of employer sanctions and “smart border enforcement” will be stripped away. Sessions will have no interest in “humane detention,” with codes of conduct for the private corporations running detention centers. The idea of guest worker programs that don’t exploit immigrants or set them against workers already in the United States will face the reality of an administration bent on giving employers what they want.

So in one way the Trump administration presents an opportunity as well—to fight for the goals immigrant rights advocates have historically proposed–to counter inequality, economic exploitation, and the denial of rights. As Sergio Sosa, director of the Heartland Workers Center in Omaha, Nebraska, puts it, “we have to go back to the social teachings our movement is based on—to the idea of justice.”

DAVID BACON is a journalist and photographer covering labor, immigration, and the impact of the global economy on workers. He is author of several books, including Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon Press, 2009).  His new book, coming in February, is In the Fields of the North / En los Campos del Norte (University of California Press / El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, 2017)

SOURCES: “Donald Trump’s Contract with the American Voter” (; Chico Harlan, “The private prison industry was crashing—until Donald Trump’s victory,” Wonkblog, Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2016 (; U.S. Immigration and Customs Envorcement, “Delegation of Immigration Authority Section 287(g) Immigration and Nationality Act” (; Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity (; Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, “End the Quota” (; Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel, and D’Vera Cohn, “Five facts about illegal immigration in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, Nov. 3, 2016 (; Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics, 2016,” May 19, 2016 (; Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States,” Migration Information Service, April 14, 2016 (; “Selected Statistics on Farmworkers,” Farmworker Justice, 2014 (; “Indigenous Mexicans in California Agriculture,” Indigenous Farmworker Study (; “U.S. Immigration Policy Task Force Report,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 2009 (; “Visas, Inc.: Corporate Control and Policy Incoherence in the U.S. Temporary Foreign Labor System,” Global Workers Justice Alliance, May 31, 2012 (; “H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (; Buzz Malone, “Stop Blaming Immigrants and Start Punishing the Employers Who Exploit Them,” Working In These Times (blog), Nov. 15, 2016 (; David Bacon, Illegal People (Beacon Press, 2008); David Bacon, The Right to Stay Home (Beacon Press, 2013); David Bacon, author interviews with Alex Galarza, Maru Mora Villapando, Deborah Lee, and Sergio Sosa (2016); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2004); Ronald L. Mize and Alicia C. Swords, Consuming Mexican Labor: From the Bracero Program to NAFTA (University of Toronto Press, 2010).

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Photos by David Bacon

Facing four years of struggle with a government that represents the 1%, enamored of war and racial oppression, the thoughts of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak to us down through the years.  Marching in San Francisco to remember his birthday, people celebrated his spirit of struggle.  Thanks to Michael Honey for collecting these words and others of Dr. King in "All Labor Has Dignity."  Thanks also to Baba Jahahara Amen-Ra Alkebulan-Ma'at for embodying the spirit of this march.

And I have come to see that it must be a massive movement organizing poor people in this country, to demand their rights at the seat of government in Washington DC.

Now, I said poor people, too, and by that I mean all poor people.  When we go to Washington, we're going to have black people because black people are poor, but we're going to also have Puerto Ricans because Puerto Ricans are poor in the United States of America.  We're going to have Mexican Americans because they are mistreated.  We're going to have Indian Americans because they are mistreated.  And for those who will not allow their prejudice to cause them to blindly support their oppressors, we're going to have Appalachian whites with us in Washington.

We're going there to engage in powerful nonviolent direct action to demand, to bring into being an attention=getting dramatic movement, which will make it impossible for the nation to overlook these demands.  Now, they may not do anything about it.  People ask me, "Suppose you go to Washington and you don't get anything?"  You ask people and you mobilize and you organize, and you don't get anything.  You've been an absolute failure.  My only answer is that when you stand up for justice, you can never fail.

The forces that have the power to make a concession to the forces of justice and truth and right, but who refuse to do it and they follow the path of darkness still, are the forces that fail.  We, as poor people, going to struggle for justice, can't fail.  And if there is no response from the federal government, from the Congress, that's the failure, not those who are struggling for justice.

March 10, 1968, explaining the purpose of the Poor People's March to the members of Local 1199

With all our problems we are optimistic.  We are presiding over a dying order, one which has long deserved to die.  We operate in stormy seas, but I often remember some beautiful words of Eugene Debs to the court which imprisoned him for his pacifism:

"I can see the dawn of a better humanity.  The people are awakening.  In due course of time they will come into their own."

October 23, 1962, speaking to members of the National Maritime Union