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Former labor organizer Bill Barry discusses the tenuous relationship between the working class and undocumented workers, and the forces that keep these groups at odds

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

So here at The Real News we’ve covered President Obama’s executive action to give some 4 million undocumented immigrants temporary legal status. Remember, undocumented immigrants that qualify must be a parent of a U.S. citizen or a legal resident, and you must have resided in the U.S. for at least five years.

But what you don’t see being covered in the mainstream media is this issue being discussed around wages. And what do these policies do in shaping our economy? And how do they affect working people?

Here to help us answer some of these questions is our in-studio guest, Bill Barry. Bill is a retired director of labor studies at the Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk, and he was a union organizer for 20 years before that.

Thanks for joining us, Bill.


DESVARIEUX: So, Bill, this issue around wages, as I mentioned in the introduction–you were a union organizer for 20 years, so you’ve seen working-class people sort of react to undocumented workers.

BARRY: Well, I was actually involved in organizing them.

DESVARIEUX: Oh, you were?

BARRY: I was working in Texas. I had campaigns along the Rio Grande Valley and in the clothing industry down there. And quite a few of the people lived in Mexico. I never asked about their legal status. They were workers. They wanted better wages. The native workers in Texas understood that, and there was no problem.

DESVARIEUX: So do you feel like that is a typical example? Because I would think that the perception is that these undocumented workers are going to somehow threaten their jobs. What was, like, the–.

BARRY: Well, I think generally the issue for workers is what makes a good job and what threatens it. And the latest bugaboo is undocumented workers. And 30 years ago it was black workers or women, and 100 years ago, when my great-grandfather came over here from Ireland, it was Irish workers. It was not necessarily–the stereotype today of an immigrant worker is it’s from Central America or Mexico. But back in Baltimore, there were big signs in a lot of the stores: NINA–no Irish need apply. And the nativeborn workers claimed that it was the immigrants who were undercutting the conditions.

DESVARIEUX: Well, let’s look at the statistics, ’cause let’s get some numbers behind this. So first question: do undocumented immigrants have any effect on wages? Specifically let’s talk about first low-skilled American workers.

BARRY: I don’t think so. There’s some impact, because they’re threatenable. That is, the employer can go to them and say, well, if you put too much effort into trying to raise your wages or get better conditions, I not only can fire you, but I can have you deported. But I think if all allegedly 11 million undocumented workers suddenly evaporated tomorrow, I don’t see Walmart raising wages. I don’t see the other industries–the landscaping industry, the construction industry–miraculously bringing wages up. And where wages come up, as we see here in Baltimore, for example, in the hospitality industry, where workers are organizing and they are foreign-born, they are–nobody knows what their status is, but they’re employed in a hotel, for example, they want better conditions, and they join with the other workers in that hotel to get those conditions. And that’s how conditions are going to get better. And that’s how conditions get worse, because workers lost that sense of direction, that sense of struggle, that sense of determination to control the job that our great-grandparents had.

DESVARIEUX: So would it be fair to say, then–let’s take your example of these 11 million undocumented workers. Let’s say that they don’t go away, but let’s say they’re legalized. If they now are part of this sort of legal workforce, could we see there being more pressure on employers to have higher wages, things of that nature?

BARRY: Sure. And I think you go back to the time after the Civil War. The biggest fear among white workers was 4 million freed slaves in the workforce. And what they found in the cases where they organized together, black workers and white workers, the rising tide lifted all those boats. And they made them go up. I think the same thing would happen here.

And I think the problem is that undocumented workers are just the latest diversion for workers, and they’re frantically scrambling around trying to figure out, what do I have to do to put the pieces back together, because the world is not what it was when I came into the workforce. And I’m speaking as a parent of two boys who are out–young men now–looking for work, and it’s real, real different how they are, and it has nothing at all to do with legal status or documentation. It’s just retail, for example. They don’t want you to have a regular schedule. They want you to be on call. And we have seen an economy transformed where I think millions of people are never going to have full-time jobs again. So there are lots of applicants for these jobs which have been de-skilled. So anybody can come in and do them, and the employers taking of action that. And they would take advantage of it–of you, Jessica, or me, as well as people who are undocumented.

DESVARIEUX: So, I’m listening to you, Bill, and it seems like what I’m hearing is that the working people and undocumented people are in the same fight.

BARRY: Absolutely.

DESVARIEUX: And for me, though, do you think it’s–why has it been so difficult, then, to kind of bridge that gap? Because I don’t necessarily see white working-class people and black working-class people on the front lines pushing for undocumented people to get legal status.

BARRY: No, that’s right. But you didn’t see necessarily 50 years ago white working-glass people and some blacks pushing for civil rights. And the argument then was, oh, black workers are going to take my job. And often companies recruit them as scabs to come up from the south and they were brought into situations over which they had no control.

But once black workers and white workers started to understand in the 1930s that they were all working for the same employers, and if they were to all work together that things would be better–and it took a long time to overcome racism, just as it does now to overcome that hysteria about foreign-born people. I mean, I talk to people, and they say, wow, about these immigrants, and I say, well, I am a child of immigrants. We’re all children of immigrants.

DESVARIEUX: Here, here.

BARRY: There was a great graphic of the Native Americans welcoming the colonists for Thanksgiving and saying, well, they don’t speak our language, but we’ll give them food anyhow. And I think that it’s again this hatred of race, of ethnic status, men and women. People learn it through the media, they learn it in school, they learn it in their neighborhoods, and it’s just something that keeps us divided and conquered as working people. And when workers stick together, regardless of age, race, sex, ethnic background–I mean, been a huge movement for sexual preference, for gay workers or transgender workers, to come into the workplace and be treated like everybody else as workers. And as long as workers are divided, they’re going to be conquered. And we have seen that. The conditions now are not even close to what it was, what they were when I started working.

DESVARIEUX: So in whose interest is it, then, to divide and conquer? Let’s speak specifically.

BARRY: Well, the 1 percent and the one-tenth of 1 percent. The Koch brothers have increased their income, their holdings, $1 billion a month in the last five years.

DESVARIEUX: This is Koch industries. Yeah.

BARRY: But Walmart–I had a discussion with somebody at a public event I went to on Sunday, and I said that the Walton family’s total net worth is something like $250 million.


BARRY: Million.


BARRY: Yeah.


BARRY: But there was just demonstration this morning at–the daughter, Alice Walton, has a condo in New York, $26 million. And a group of Walmart workers took a food donation box from in front of one of the stores and put in front of her condo. And I said to the people at this event that that $260 million comes out of the fact that one-third of Walmart workers are on food stamps and have no insurance and various types of public assistance. And as long as those workers worry about what your color is or where you’re from or what language you speak, the Walton family is going to just ride home free.

And the amount of change–you’re from New York. You’ve maybe seen the New York paper. I just saw last week in the business section of the New York paper that mega yachts and mega private planes are the biggest sellers going. People have got tons of money. A guy just bought a penthouse with some friends: $90 million. And he’s not even going to live there. It’s an investment. And so we can see all the signs of social inequality. And the trick is: what are we going to do about it? And if I’m fighting you because of what language you speak or what color you are or where you came from? I’m dead. I’m out of the game.

DESVARIEUX: Well, let me ask you that question: what do we do about it?

BARRY: I think we have to go–workers need to–what I call get out of your gated community; that is, white workers need to stop just talking to only white workers. They need to go out and talk to other people in the workplace, people in their communities. Workers need to get organized. They need to start unions. Unions need to put resources into organizing. There are some campaigns going on here. There’s even one at Jimmy John’s, which is almost self-organizing, with the Industrial Workers of the World, because they don’t have organizing staff, as I used to do it. But very little organizing going on.

I think workers need to do independent political action. I think it’s pretty clear that the two parties don’t solve the problems. But we saw, for example, in the state of Maryland this last election was workers are frantically looking around for an alternative. And so they figure, well, if you’re in office, things are horrible, so I’m going to put you out. In a place like Dundalk, all Democrats had run Dundalk in office, been in office for three generations. Every one of them got voted out. Every one.

And it’s just–people are frantically looking for some solution. And they need to look at joining together. They need to look at political action. They need to look at–talk to people in their communities about getting together and not arguing. I talked to my father-in-law, who’s in a hospital, rehab. The guy in the next bed is another white guy, listens to Rush Limbaugh around-the-clock.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah, yeah.

BARRY: And so you listen to this stuff, you watch this stuff, you begin to believe it. You hear it often enough. And people need to find alternate sources of information. They need to look at labor history, at workers history, and just get out and do it.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Bill Barry, joining us in studio.

Thanks so much for being with us.

BARRY: Jessica, thank you very much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Bill Barry is retired director of labor studies at The Community College of Baltimore County in Dundalk, and was a union organizer for 20 years before that. He has written three books on unionism: I Just Got Elected, Now What: The New Union Officer's Handbook ; Union Strategies for Hard Times ; From First Contact to First Contract: An Organizer's Handbook and will have a new book running--appropriately on May 1--off the press, The 1877 Railroad Strike in Baltimore , which grew from the historical marker erected last year at Camden Yards. Bill has also been a 3-time candidate for Baltimore City Council as Green Party member in northeast Baltimore.