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Immigrant rights & international women's rights: Two struggles intertwined

Published Feb 24, 2007 9:08 AM

Two historic struggles intertwine this year in the month of March: for immigrant rights and for international women’s rights.

March 8 is International Women’s Day (IWD). It began as a day to bring working-class and poor women and women of oppressed nationalities into the class struggle. And it provided a day for women to affirm their liberation as well as that of their male loved ones, co-workers and community members.

The seeds for a formal celebration of IWD began in 1907 at an International Conference of Socialist Women. It was organized by German socialist Clara Zetkin. Participants included Russian Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai. The call for an international women’s day came from Zetkin in 1910 at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, and European socialists began to celebrate IWD in 1911. (www.marxists.org)

In 1917, on International Women’s Day, thousands of women needle-trade workers walked off their jobs in Petrograd, joined by working-class men, swelling the crowd to tens of thousands and providing the spark that ignited the Russian Revolution. (www.cwluherstory.com)

In the U.S., an early militant strike by immigrant women in the New York City garment industries on March 8, 1857 may have inspired communist women to later choose the date for the official IWD.

‘Bread and roses’

On that date in 1857, soldiers fired on women textile workers as they demonstrated for a shorter work week in New York City.

On March 8, 1908, tens of thousands of needle-trade women workers poured through the streets of New York “to protest child labor, sweatshop working conditions and demand votes for women.” (www.holtlaborlibrary.org)

These women workers came from many countries. In the 1911 Lowell, Mass., “Bread and Roses” strike, the women workers had come from 24 different nations and spoke more than 40 languages. (www.oah.org)

Seventy-five percent of all women factory workers in 1920 were recent or first-generation immigrants. (“American Women in the Progressive Era”: 1993)

The dangers they faced were extreme.

In 1911 when a fire started in the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop in Manhattan, 146 young women workers perished inside. Most were between the ages of 13 and 25. Most were recent emigrants to the U.S.

Women leaders in immigration struggle

Today, undocumented immigrant women, and men, face extremely dangerous work, brutally long hours, exploitatively low wages and lack of child care and health benefits.

Undocumented women workers also face threats of rape and sexual or domestic violence, especially if they could face deportation if they reported the abuse.

Like the immigrant women workers in New York City who resisted in such famous actions as the “Uprising of 20,000” in 1910, women today are providing leadership in the developing immigrant rights struggle that sprang to life last year in the U.S.

These women bring traditions of resistance and struggle from their home countries, infusing the class struggle here with new vitality and experience, tactics and strategy.

Last March 28, another “uprising of 20,000” took place when that same number of students walked out of classes in at least 70 high schools in Southern California to protest anti-immigrant laws proposed in the U.S. Senate.

One of them was Rosalina García, a 15-year-old high school student from Santa Ana, Calif., who faced police with guns, tasers and masks. The cops, she noted, were being particularly hostile towards the women. But, she said, “I’m never going to give up.” (www.uprisingradio.org)

The outpouring of millions of immigrant and undocumented workers called forth by the organizing of the March 25 Coalition took to the streets across the U.S. for months, with women providing key leadership.

Last May, Evelina Molina helped bring 40,000 people into the streets of Santa Rosa in northern California, using her skills as a radio broadcaster and producer at KBBF Spanish-language public radio, and her knowledge of the history of farm worker organizing.

And last November in North Carolina, two Latina workers led more than 1,000 [email protected] and African American co-workers in a walkout from the world’s biggest hog-processing plant. They were protesting the crackdown on documented and undocumented workers by the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement Agency (ICE)—actions meant to intimidate workers from organizing. (www.fistyouth.blogspot.com)

Elvira Arellano, 31-year-old founder of La Familia Unida Latina, continues her more than 6-month struggle against deportation from her place of sanctuary in a Chicago church. Mother of a U.S.-born son, she has brought forward the special oppression and resistance of women immigrant workers, saying, “I fight so the undocumented people will be respected.”

‘A woman’s place is in the struggle!’

Teresa Cervas, Southern California coordinator for the progressive Filipino organization BAYAN-USA, notes, “Filipinos are the number one export of our country, forced to leave our homeland and move to other countries for work and economic stability.” The Philippines sends more nurses to the U.S. than any other country. Of the several thousand a year, the overwhelming majority are female.

Affiliated with BAYAN, the group “Babae” (Woman) organizes for “the rights and welfare of multi-generational Filipino women in the United States.” Their chant is: “We are people! We are not illegal! A woman’s place is in the struggle!”

In the U.S. South, organizers are making the connection between the rights of immigrants to stay and the right of Katrina survivors—who are primarily African-American—to return to their homes. (Mississippi Immigrant Rights Association)

Both those born in the Gulf Coast region and those who have immigrated there refer to the U.N. principles on internal displacement to indict the U.S. for denial of basics like food, water and shelter during and after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They are naming themselves as Internally Displaced Person (IDP’s). (www.peopleshurricane.org)

There are estimates that up to 80 percent of Katrina survivors were women of color. (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 14, 2006)

Central to the struggle against the government-made catastrophes of the hurricanes are the African-American women of the Gulf Coast, like Dyan French Cole, also known as Mama D, a long-time community leader.

Out of her home in the Seventh Ward, she and the “Soul Patrol” provide free food to her neighbors, help clean up their houses, fight to keep housing from being demolished and fight for the right of human beings to have a home from which they will not be torn away by the forces of money and power. (www.aas.duke.edu/katrina)