News & Politics

Outside the Democratic Convention: Labor Rallies, Protests, and the “Undocubus”


Picking up press credentials at the Charlotte Convention Center yesterday, it was clear from the mob of journalists swarming the scene — organizers estimate 15,000 — that the scripted spectacle playing out inside the Democratic National Convention will be exhaustively covered.

But there’s plenty going on outside the convention as well.

Five miles south of the convention center, in the Wedgewood Baptist Church, hundreds of people packed into the main hall for the Southern Workers Assembly, a gathering of union members and undocumented workers from across the south gathered to push back on the erosion of labor rights in southern states.

The Democratic Party’s selection of Charlotte to host the convention was widely interpreted as a middle finger to organized labor: North Carolina is a right-to-work state, with only 2 percent of the labor force unionized. To the assembly’s attendees, the message was clear.

“Southern workers cannot wait for the Democratic Party, and certainly not for the Republican Party, to enact labor laws,” said Saladin Muhammad, National Chairman of Black Workers for Justice.

Ashaki Binta, field organizer for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, attributed the dismal state of organized labor in the southeast to four factors: the Taft Hartley Act, state’s restrictions on bargaining rights for public-sector workers, increasingly strict immigration policies, and southern state’s reliance on foreign direct investment. This last factor drives states to compete for investment with a race to the bottom in terms of labor protections, Binta said. When foreign investors do bring jobs, they often do so with “greenfield” development, building manufacturing centers far from established communities, the better to control their labor force.

A panel of immigrant workers, some undocumented, others in the country on short-term work visas, discussed the special vulnerabilities of workers with a precarious legal status.

“I suffer from the opposite end of the spectrum — I’m over-documented, fingerprints and mugshots” said another panelist who was formerly incarcerated. Prison labor is another powerful tool for depressing wages and keeping labor weak, he said. “If they work me for free, your labor ain’t worth much. We got to figure out how to build solidarity with fences in the way.”

Later yesterday evening, elsewhere on the periphery of the city, another group of people marginal to the narrative about to be spun at the convention was gathering. In the back room of a Mexican restaurant nestled in a peculiar strip mall on the eastern outskirts of Charlotte dominated by strip clubs and and a laser-tag venue, passengers of the Undocubus were having a party.

Officially titled “No Papers, No Fear,” the campaign set out from Arizona in July as a bus full of undocumented immigrants, stepping out of the shadows to openly acknowledge their immigration status and publicly challenge the policies and politicians that usually operate as though the millions of America’s undocumented immigrants are invisible.

Under Obama, deportations have significantly increased — 1 million deportations over the last four years — and undocumented immigrants constantly live in fear that any encounter with law enforcement can easily lead to deportation. But remarkably, the passengers of the Undocubus have found that when they politicize their status, conducting acts of civil disobedience while publicly identifying as undocumented, law enforcement and immigration officials are unwilling to begin deportation proceedings.

“The more press is involved, the more the story of the action is out there, the faster people get out of jail,” said Kemi Bello, a bus passenger who was born in Nigeria before moving to Houston as a child. “ICE’s PR machine doesn’t like negative attention.”

The bus passengers say this paradox — that immigrant-rights protesters get sprung from jail while their equally undocumented cellmates arrested for driving with a broken tail-light face deportation — speaks to a fundamental hypocrisy in the Obama administration’s approach to immigration and an official rhetoric that suggests that only dangerous criminals are deported.

“There’s the record and there’s the rhetoric; with these actions, the administration has a decision to make,” said B. Loewe, one of the project’s organizers. “Obama hasn’t decided his legacy on immigration yet. The migrants have.”


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