On boycotts and the political economy of the Arizona immigration bill

I’m curiously conflicted about the recent calls for boycotts of Arizona.

Lately I’ve favored certain boycotts: divestment from Israel, for example. But in the past I have dismissed others. When I was in junior college, there was a campaign by Florida tomato workers to boycott Taco Bell, and I went along with it for a long while. But it was so obscure, laboring uphill against the mass media’s indifference, it never took off. It’s hard to do grassroots organizing, especially when you have no resources and there’s no sexy hook or angle to interest journalists, and the Immokalee tomato harvesters never got the traction that the California UFW did in the 60s. So eventually I got tired of telling my friends to avoid Taco Bell (and I’ll bet they’d gotten tired of listening to me about it).

I was once told by a veteran organizer that over the decades, so many boycotts have piled up against so many companies that it’s gotten hard to keep track of them, and if a sympathetic person were consistent, you might wind up feeling obligated to boycott most consumer goods completely. Hell, nobody likes Chevron or Mobil, and we know what they do overseas, but people in L.A. have got to drive cars to get to work.

So, do you boycott something when it hits you especially close? Some hard-working people have been running a campaign against Coca-Cola for its notoriously abusive labor practices in Colombia for years – I hear they just got a boycott instituted on the campus of NYU. They were big on the Berkeley campus when I was there. I personally met a union shop steward from Carepa, a town in my dad’s region of Antioquia, Colombia, whose family had been murdered by goons clearly linked to the corporation, and had fled to the United States thanks to a solidarity program run by the AFL-CIO. Do I boycott Coke? No. I am ashamed of this fact. But the sad truth is, the “Killer Coke” campaign has, for whatever reason, failed to raise its visibility beyond that of a committed core of people and their personal campus friends.

The incipient Arizona boycott is different. The media is paying a lot of attention to Arizona’s new immigration legislation right now, and major Hispanic groups are up in arms over it. Basically, there’s a good chance this boycott could take off and have consequences that would be noticeable. I don’t know if it would reach Apartheid South Africa levels, but this thing really is getting traction. I have too many friends for whom this is a dear issue for me to shrug it off; I was at the big May Day march in L.A. back in 2007, I saw how exciting it was when the working class got up and marched in favor of something that was important to it.

Noam Chomsky says that anyone dependent on or working in an institution will find their own interests harmonizing with those of the institution over time. The truth is, I am a bit reluctant to commit to the Arizona boycott, and I recognize with shame that this is doubtlessly due in part to the fact that I am in Arizona right now on a business trip. My career, or at least, my present job, depends to a small degree on cracking the nut which is the Phoenix marketplace for inland marine insurance. Now that my personal interests are harmonized with those of my employer, I find myself a bit reluctant to lend a full-throated voice to the calls for the boycott. I realize that this is a point on which the “me” of ten years ago would be unforgiving.

In a larger view, my own feelings about the immigration issue are actually decidedly mixed. I think the fact that this country is a nation of immigrants is a really key point. Nativism looks to me like a metastasized version of NIMBYism, and a common rallying point for the extreme right everywhere in the world for the last 100 years.

On the other hand, we can’t be naive about the economics involved. Just as NAFTA hurt American manufacturing and Mexican agriculture, I think the ongoing mass migration of Mexican workers to the United States certainly influences our labor market. It’s not a question of “they took our jobs”, but I have to believe that it has some effect in depressing market rates for labor. Labor is not a commodity like raw materials are, but there is absolutely a market mechanism for supply and demand. And I think that employers are able to take advantage of the flow of new arrivals from Mexico to keep certain industries staffed with vulnerable workers who work for cheap. The meatpacking industry is notorious for this. I think some employers would behave differently if they were trying to recruit and retain American-born workers, who have greater literacy about American culture, more familiarity with their rights under employment law, higher expectations for working conditions, etc.

A hundred years ago Britain and America had major merchant marine fleets. Today it’s hard to get young people, with or without high school diplomas, to sign up for a life as a sailor – the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific office in San Francisco is not the teeming labor hall it once was. The vast majority of mariners in the world merchant fleet today come from the Philippines, the Ukraine, and similar countries. Even the officer corps of merchant ships is drawing less and less on traditional seafaring countries like Britain and Germany – I personally know lots of former sailors who have gone into insurance or the law, because they just didn’t want to be away from home so much. So maybe certain industries just aren’t destined to remain in the United States, as it has evolved over the past hundred years from a developing country to a wealthy one. To the degree that we’re always going to need meatpackers and farm workers, American consumers ought to be paying prices that allow those meatpackers to earn a decent wage, in facilities that are healthy. (I’ve read articles about how workers in poultry plants frequently contract brain diseases because of their exposure to chicken brain matter in the air.)

This is a political economy issue. Employers at meatpacking plants and farms don’t want to pay decent wages not because they can’t afford to – they could pass on the higher costs to consumers, everyone’s gotta eat – but, I think, because they want to run their businesses in a certain way. Instead of running professional, modern establishments, I think they want to run operations where there is a huge social gulf between themselves and their workers, where they can live and work as feudal lords. They are guarding their profits, yes, but they are also guarding a way of life.

The truth is, sure I like the Manu Chao song “Clandestino”. Yes, the posters at immigration rallies saying “no human being is illegal” are very persuasive. On the other hand, and I think a lot of my friends are going to hate me for saying this, I do think every sovereign country needs to control its borders. Ten years ago when I was debating this issue with people, I was an earnest advocate of open borders, the kind that we had when the Italians and Germans came to this country in the 19th century. But now I tentatively recognize the fact that we don’t have an agricultural economy with wide-open “virgin land” like we did back then, and we aren’t in the process of building up a brand-new massive manufacturing base with a bottomless appetite for workers. The State has a legitimate need to know who is here, and control access. I do think the official policy should be much more open than it is now, so as to be able to absorb more of the inflow of workers without having them be pushed underground.

This is why I think a better “solution” to the “problem” of illegal immigration is more vigorous enforcement of minimum-wage laws. Obviously immigration is a phenomenon with “push” and “pull” factors. But if no workers are able to compete in the market on the basis of willingness to work for ultra-cheap, that levels the playing field for all workers, and I think this would reduce the “pull” factor.

And let’s not forget that a lot of the “push” factors are of the United States’ own doing. All other things being equal, who wants to leave the home their family has occupied for generations? NAFTA put tons of Mexican corn farmers out of business. And the civil wars in Central America in the 80s were absolutely the result of American foreign policy. We’d have a lot less immigration if we were a better neighbor in our own region. And everyone would be better off. A Marshall Plan for Mexico and Central America, and legalization of drugs including marijuana and cocaine and heroin, would put us instantly into a better and safer world, where governments weren’t at war against their own citizens.

Image credit:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/ / CC BY-SA 2.0


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