Staff, volunteers and the Leadership Committee of the UWA at a recent rally for immigration with dignity in Washington, DC.
Human rights, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights vision statements are by their nature, "universal." This is important. Things universal can transcend traditional barriers, such as barriers between races, between language groups and between national and religious divisions. But human rights are not the UWA's only organizing framework. The UWA is also, at our core, an organization led by the poor themselves. While all are welcome to work with the UWA, priority is placed on developing leaders from the ranks of the poor. And this requires class identity.
The UWA is an historically African-American organization. Our leadership is currently comprised of English-speaking Black and White current and former day laborers. As a human rights organization working to unite the poor across color lines, we are currently working hard to break down our internal language and cultural barriers. We do this to become a truly multi-racial human rights organization. But becoming such an organization requires more than just translation, multi-lingual outreach and working with immigrant rights allies. We must overcome our own divisive beliefs, such as "America First," and some of the traditional divisions and cultural tensions that exist within the urban Black and urban Latino communities.
Ignoring these differences will not work. But so won't dwelling on them. Instead, we confront the differences by focusing on what the poor have in common. First, the poor share a common opponent and face common struggles. Second, most people all share a belief in the universal dignity and sanctity of all persons. Through class identity and human rights values we create a space to talk about why it is just, moral and pragmatic for our historically African-American membership base to work with other low-wage workers, including undocumented immigrants in the US and low-wage workers in the world's poorest countries.
When the UWA started organizing Baltimore's largest employer of day labor at Camden Yards one of the first tactics of our opponents at the stadium was to shift from primarily African-American day labor agencies to agencies that primarily hired Latino day laborers. This tactic not only required an immediate expansion of our language resources, but also challenged our current base to consider the rights of Latinos as no different (and less worth fight for) than those of other workers.
The bulk of American labor organizing has relied on "us first" organizing. The "us" have been the workers at one factory, or in one trade, or in one industry, or in a single region or nation. Popular expressions of this way of organizing are "Buy American" and the fight to stop "off shoring." Rather than focus on the human rights and working conditions of all workers, labor has worked to keep jobs with those currently hired at union factories in the US.
"Buy American" will not work. That's because capital will go, if left on its own, to where profits will be maximized. So long as labor can't move as freely as can capital, products, profits and production, capital will move to where labor is cheapest. This race to the bottom produces unjust wages for everyone, everywhere. Appeals to American nationalism won't work to save jobs or to keep wages just. But these appeals will work to divide workers according to nation, a division that plays into the hands of worker-opponents.
For workers to secure just wages and their other economic human rights, including the right to freedom from poverty, workers must start by fighting for the rights of all workers. The fight for workers at a US-based textile factory is no different from the fight for workers at a factory in any other country. This is true because what happens to workers at one factory, no matter where in the world, can happen to workers at any other factory. And it is also true because all workers are persons. All deserve just wages, to be treated with dignity and to have their human rights respected.
Pitting workers against workers will only weaken the possibility of ending poverty. It plays into the hands of those who seek to exploit their fellow human beings by extracting labor for the tiniest amount of payment possible. If we are to end poverty, if we are to secure the human right to freedom from poverty, we must unite all persons behind the just cause based on the inherent dignity of human life. We cannot fight amongst each other, working to hold onto our own small piece of the pie.
The UWA knows that this approach works. It is what allows us to unite with other workers when jobs are shifted from African-African cleaners to Latino cleaners. Since we are all in the same boat, such a shift requires us to reach out to more cultural and language groups, to expand who we work with. It forces us to stand with, to learn about and to work with workers once believed to be our opponents, or our competition. We know it works because our belief in human rights is why our leadership considers the recent immigration struggles as being no different from our own struggles. And that's why the mostly US-citizen membership base goes to rallies and marches for immigrants, why they speak out to their fellow Black Baltimorians on behalf of workers' centers for mostly undocumented Latino immigrants, and why we have made it a priority for our leadership and membership to communicate in both English and Spanish.
Disclosure: I am on staff with the UWA.