Two recent events offered lessons about the approaches Latinos need to take to gain political respect--one on the streets, the other inside political institutions. The first was an immigrant rights rally in Goldsboro on Feb. 21, the second a conference last weekend of the Hispanic Democrats of North Carolina (HDNC). Each event revealed how Latinos can build power through labor movements and the Democratic Party.
"The point at which we've made the most progress in this country was when people were in the street," U.S. Rep. Mel Watt said in an interview at the conference of Hispanic Democrats. But it's not enough. Street protests are "necessary," Watt said, "but not as a substitute for political involvement."
At the Goldsboro rally, the unions involved--the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and United Electrical Workers (UE)--presented themselves with the National Farmworker Ministry, Latino Community Credit Union, and other community organizations as a unified coalition for empowering immigrants.
Both events shared another notable feature--the prominence of African-American activists standing alongside Latinos, and the importance of working together. North Carolina AFL-CIO president James Andrews, an African American, spoke at both events of overcoming the "divide and conquer" strategy of Republicans and anti-union bosses.
Developing Latino-African American relations has been critical for union organizing in Eastern North Carolina. FLOC and Black Workers for Justice have maintained a black-Latino alliance for several years. UFCW's organizing drive at the Smithfield hog processing plant in Robeson County has focused on developing black-Latino trust after getting burned in the union election of 1997, when the plant management planted lies among the Latino workers about black workers and vice-versa, explained UFCW organizer Kevin Blair.
The events had differing objectives. While the conference sought a place in the Democratic Party's political process, the rally focused more on empowering the immigrant participants. FLOC Executive Board Member Angelita Morrisroe, who spoke at the rally, said, "We have had to work very hard in the immigrant community to eliminate the fear."
And while both gatherings were devoted to issues of concern to immigrants, the HDNC additionally recognized a constituency of multi-generational Hispanic Americans.
A cause which both groups share is the campaign against the Department of Motor Vehicles' executive decision this year not to honor non-Canadian foreign identification in issuing new North Carolina driver's licenses. Latinos throughout North Carolina lobbied the state legislature last spring and defeated a bill that would have implemented this change, but Gov. Mike Easley and the DMV circumvented the legislature to push through these changes as executive department policy.
"The DMV office is implementing immigration law," said John Herrera of the Latino Community Credit Union at the Goldsboro rally, "That is a federal mandate. If the governor wants to force immigration laws... he can call Homeland Security and request the federal government to send down the troops they need, the agents, and the buses to deport all the undocumented immigrants working in the economy of North Carolina. But if we do that, Mr. Governor, you will have to tell North Carolinians the social and economic benefits of doing so."
Immigrant worker demographics show that such a move would collapse the North Carolinian agricultural and construction industries, which rely heavily on the billion-dollar underground immigrant smuggling industry for cheap labor.
The Goldsboro rally kicked off a letter-writing campaign to Gov. Easley on the driver's license issue. The HDNC conference sent attendees off to a summer full of voter registration and coalition-building.
(Editor's note: The ninth annual El Foro Latino, a gathering on Latino issues sponsored by El Pueblo, is March 6-7 at Meredith College, Raleigh. For info, go to www.elpueblo.org or call 835-1525.)