Democratic Socialists of America logo

Immigration and Labor in CA: A Contextual and Historical Report - Democratic Socialists of America, Sacramento

Jul 23, 2018

July 24, 2018 03:54

By James Jay Jackson, Jr.


The purpose of this report is to summarize part of the findings made by Sacramento DSA’s Research Committee on the subject of Labor and Immigration in California.  The research has been operating threefold: historical, contemporary, and prescriptive. The objective of the contextual research is to describe the history of labor’s relationship with immigration in California.  This report will strictly focus on the contextual part of the committee’s research. A further objective of the contextual research is to understand how the relationship between immigration and labor developed specifically in California.

This report will attempt to show through a historical lense that the relationship between labor and immigration has been founded in crisis.[1]

The intention of a contextual basis is to help the committee surmise what a socialist immigration platform will look like.  The difficulty of such an endeavor must also be noted. It must be disclosed in order to create a full analysis that Marx did not have a declared theory on migration. [2]

The following terms appear in this report;

Crisis Theory - According to Marx, the idea that crisis is not alien to capitalism, but inherent.  (I.E. shortages or excess of jobs or material goods are always manufactured by the capitalist to assure their control of the market)

Indigenous - Native to the American Continent, existed prior to Euro-American colonization, in this case specifically in California.

Bracero - Term used for Mexican migrant workers in CA and other states during the mid 20th century under the Bracero program.

Xenophobia - an inherent and prejudiced fear or hatred of people from a foreign nation.

UFW - United Farm Workers, union led by César Chávez made mostly of immigrant and Chicano farm labor.

Workingmens Party - Specifically refers to the anti Chinese political party known as the Workingmen’s Party of California which sold itself as a “working class party” without ever identifying explicitly as socialist.  NOT to be confused with Working Mens Party of the United States.

Political Struggle - According to Marx this is the struggle between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, in other words it is the struggle of class against class.

General Review

In order to cover as much historical ground as possible, this report will start with the colonization of California under the Spanish and will not just talk about United States control over the territory.  This report acknowledges that the relationship between labor and immigration as a whole does not start with the predominantly white industrial working class of America, but rather starts with the colonization and enslavement of what European explorers called “The New World,” which included places like Africa and the Americas.  In California the political struggle does not start with statehood but goes as far back as the enslavement of the Indigenous at the Spanish Missions. [3]. It is vital to frame any discussion involving the history of labor anywhere in the United States starting with slavery and colonization. Framing the history of labor in any state only around waged industrial workers as opposed to Afrikan or Indigenous slaves would be problematic and run the risk of erasing the history of their struggles and their contributions to the working class.

The report will also explore the general history of Immigrant labor in California under American capitalism by focusing on two primary examples for the relationship between labor and immigration in the state, namely the wave of anti-Chinese xenophobia of the late 1800s and the Bracero program of the mid twentieth century.  Both of these waves of immigration saw an increase in xenophobia by the predominantly white working class unions, who saw these foreign laborers as strikebreakers, which they were often used by the capitalist class.[4] While their reasoning and conclusions were inherently racist there is evidence to suggest that migrant labor has consistently been exploited by the capitalist in order to defeat unions in California.

It should also be mentioned that this report explores the problematic relationship between American labor and immigration more than the successes of immigrant strike actions in the state.  Although it should be noted that there will be discussion about the UFW as a case example of successful organizing amongst a predominantly non-white and immigrant labor force. It should also be noted that, prior to the success of the UFW, there were attempts to organize immigrant and non-white labor in California by multiple groups including the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World); but most of these attempts were unsuccessful.[5] Due to the overall findings made by the author, the primary focus of this report will be a brief explanation of the problematic history of labor’s relationship with immigrants in California.  The source of this troubled relationship can be connected to the fact that there is no defined Marxist take on immigration save for the connection established in crisis.

History of Immigration and Labor in CA

Starting from Spanish Colonization and later Mexican authority over California, the Indigenous natives can be framed as California’s original working class.  Their labor was exploited to build the California missions and operate as labor to produce material goods for export to Spain. As stated before we must frame any discussion about the working class in the U.S. beginning with slavery and colonization.  The use of cheap or free Indigenous labor was carried out by both the Spanish Conquistadors and later the Mexican government. After California achieved statehood slavery was made illegal by the California Constitutional Convention; but loopholes allowed for the indentured servitude of Indigenous Californians.  [3]

During the time of California’s admittance to the Union and developing statehood, two other things were happening causing mass migration to the territory: the California Gold Rush and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The immense farmland also saw the beginning of California’s thriving  agricultural industry, including the California wine industry. Migrant labor was a key factor in all of these areas, but what is especially notable is the large amount of Chinese labor that went into railroad and wine production.[6]

During the time of the Gold Rush and railroad construction, xenophobia was prevalent in California, especially within labor and the working class.  The Workingmen’s Party of California, led by Dennis Kearny, eventually became one of the dominant parties at the California Constitutional Convention, along with the Republicans and Democrats.  The party sold itself as a voice for the working class against the “ongoing Chinese invasion.”[7] The Chinese were seen as threats to White Californians’ employment as farm labor and railroad workers because of their willingness to work at a lower wage.  In fact, unbeknownst to most foreign labor invited to the United States, they were actually invited in as strikebreakers because of their need for a wage and capitalists’ knowledge that racists within the unions would not try to organize them. Unionizing efforts for farm or railroad labor in California often went out of its way to exclude the Chinese from their organizing.[7][8] This anti Chinese xenophobia eventually led to a federal Chinese Exclusion Act.  This can be considered a primary example of the troubled relationship between labor and immigration in California.

As industry flourished in the state, one of the largest became agriculture.  During the post-WWII era and well into the 1970s, Migrant farm labor went through numerous developments.  The Bracero program was introduced to answer a “shortage in labor” allegedly caused by the second world war, despite the fact that unionized farm laborers were going through low employment at the time. [4]  As with the Chinese of the 19th century, the Braceros were used as cheap strikebreakers and the reaction by domestic labor was less than welcoming. Not much organizing for Braceros was done, save for a few moments of outreach by select boards of the AFL-CIO.  Once again, immigrants were allowed in to be extorted as strikebreakers because of both the Braceros’ need for work and the unions’ refusal to organize non-whites. However, a successful instance of organizing predominantly non-white farm labor was when concessions were made to Cesar Chavez and the UFW after intense organizing and strike action, eventually leading to their admission into the AFL-CIO. [5] [9].  Several case studies exist detailing attempts to organize groups such as Chinese or Mexican labor in California; however, few examples of successful immigrant labor organizing in California can be found.[4][5]

Marx and Immigration

As stated before, it must be noted that Marx had no actual theory on immigration.  The only example of a text where he specifically discusses immigration exists in a letter where he elaborates how the English laborer is stuck in competition for jobs with the immigrant Irish worker, due to a sense of scarcity that each face thanks to the capitalist.[2] Some have argued that this analys ties immigration into Marx’s ideas about Crisis Theory, and that Crisis Theory can be used to explain anti-immigrant hatred.[1]

Migration and Crisis

Based on the above information, we will now explore the relationship between Migration, xenophobia and crisis theory, all of which is based in the capitalist’s exploitation of the human fear of scarcity.

Our primary case examples are the Braceros and the nineteenth-century Chinese working class. Both sought work in the United States to escape domestic problems: the Braceros were escaping Mexico’s stagnant poverty, and many of the Chinese came to America during the TaiPing Rebellion.  The rhetoric of the capitalist for using both sources of labor was the same. While they argued that “there is a shortage in domestic labor,” [10] evidence exists to suggests this is a false dialogue. During both times there were more domestic applicants than consistently available positions.[4]. Yet both the Braceros and the Chinese were brought in as non-union labor, i.e. as strikebreakers, despite being part of the working class.  In both cases, white workers reacted with xenophobic rhetoric, about immigrants taking away American jobs and decreasing wages. The primary example of this is the rhetoric of Dennis Kearny’s Workingmen’s party against the Chinese, or the refusal of the AFL-CIO to organize migrant farm labor until the 1970s.[7][9] Yet at no point does this rhetoric hold capitalist parties accountable for creating the crisis, nor for hiring out domestic jobs to foreign labor.

The fear of joblessness in the white working class, and the fleeing of war or economic hardship by immigrants, are all examples of Crisis.  According to Marx, Crisis Theory is the idea that perceived shortages or abundances in resources create a sense of crisis among the worker and consumer, enabling the capitalist to control the market.  For example, both the Braceros and Chinese laborers were brought in to respond to an alleged shortage in labor at times when Mexico and China were in crisis. Yet, among the self-identified members of the working class in the United States, there was immense contempt for immigrants due to this perceived sense of scarcity, i.e. a shortage of jobs or depletion of wages.  A sense of crisis is born from the act of immigration thanks to the capitalist and their desire to avoid paying living wages or avoid working with unions. This xenophobia obviously ignores the fact that immigrants move because of crisis as well. The Chinese escaped war and famine, and the Braceros escaped economic deprivation in Mexico. Both migrations away from crisis bred a new sense of crisis only to the advantage of the capitalist, who now has an abundance of either union or non-union labor to exploit.

Therefore, crisis leads to migration of the working class and migration of the working class inevitably leads to perceived crisis.  This results in xenophobic division of the working class. This xenophobia is not a natural occurrence, it is a manufactured product used by the capitalist for control.  Meanwhile, the capitalist is always guaranteed a consistent exploitable labor force, either thanks to a xenophobic union fearing foreign labor or socially outcast racialized foreign labor.  All of this guarantees the capitalist consistent labor and therefore more profit. This pattern has been prevalent in the history of California’s farming, railroad, food and wine production.


The relationship between labor and immigration is not a clear cut one under Marxist interpretation, save for the connecting relationship between migration of the working class and crisis.  This sense of crisis created by the capitalist powers, in addition to the lack of a clear Marxist platform on immigration, has enabled anti-immigrant xenophobia. California’s labor history demonstrates this.  Any contemporary socialist platform on immigration must take our lack of a previous platform and the troubled history of labor and immigration into account and should acknowledge the inherent dichotomy of migration causing crisis and crisis causing migration.

Sources Cited

  4. Harrington, Michael The Other America: Poverty in the United States.
  5. Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. Print.
Share on