By Shelly Ruzicka
After attending the book talk with Paul Apostolidis, which included a though-provoking presentation and quality discussion afterward, I left with several ideas swimming in my head. Perhaps two of the most interesting points made by the author that stuck with me are the following:
1. The realization that U.S. citizens perhaps have more to learn from immigrants than to teach—at least when it comes to hands-on democracy in action.
2. The understand of a direct connection between harm and benefit of the physical human bodies of immigrant workers and non-immigrant consumers, respectively.
On the first point. Paul recognized that so often non-first or second generation immigrants (a.k.a. U.S. citizens) express the need to “teach” immigrants how to live in the U.S.—how to integrate, how to act, how to speak English, and how to understand what it means to live in a “democracy.” Paul’s book tells the story of one particular workplace struggle by Mexican immigrants at a meatpacking plant in the northwest. The workers banned together to discuss the many problems on their job and worked collectively to make positive changes. He argues that instead of thinking that U.S citizens need to “teach” immigrants such as in this group about democracy, citizens, in fact, should take a step back to learn from the lessons of this and similar struggles. After all, what could be more democratic than a group of workers coming together to share ideas and strategies on how to improve their workplace? Isn’t that what democracy is all about? A group of people, operating on a level playing field to share ideas and power to create a better society? Indeed, Paul, citizens need to stop the preaching and take in the lessons from this and countless other struggles of immigrant workers across the country (including the efforts at Worker Centers).
The second intriguing point the author made was asking the audience to understand the direct connection between the harm caused to low-income brown (immigrant) bodies in order to feed and sustain middle-class white bodies. The meatpacking plant he details is just one of a myriad of workplaces where health and safety hazards are rampant. From meatpackers suffering from injuries by the speed of the line as well as repetitious movement, to farmworkers plagued by the use of pesticides and chemicals without proper protection in the fields, every day workers in the U.S. food industry put their physical health at risk. And Mr. Apostolidis argues that we need to recognize the direct link between the health and nutrients provided to white middle-class bodies at the expense of the harm caused to brown immigrant bodies. It was an interesting connection that is so obvious, but one the general public rarely, if ever, makes.
While I found his point valid, I want to add one more layer to the argument. The link, indeed, is currently between white and brown bodies. I think we also need to recognize the economic, or class, role here. The author does make a point to say white middle-class bodies and brown low-wage bodies. Again, this is true. But I want to make sure the direct link is also made between class and race. And how class is largely determined by one’s industry or workplace—and the wages earned (which historically has been constructed by race in order to maintain the class structure). Brown bodies are more at risk of injury, illness, and death on the job, because these bodies are working in the lowest paid and least regulated industries. I do not argue that we should make a shift and put more white bodies in lower-paying jobs, or shift all brown bodies into different jobs. Instead I argue that the only way to break the direct link of bodily harm and bodily nutrition is to eliminate the bodily harm aspect of the chain. We obviously do not do this by eliminating these jobs. We do it by making sure that no job requires such sacrifice. We do it by making sure every job I this country is a safe job, and one that can be completed with dignity. Rather than make the inane argument that “immigrants don’t belong here so they don’t need or deserve protection,” we should all be taking action to make sure that we lift the floor on wages and health and safety in the workplace for all workers. After all, when we create improvements in the worst industries, do we not all benefit? Would keeping workers healthier and providing more sustainable wages not benefit our entire economy and thereby each of us individually?
-Shelly is Director of Operations at Arise Chicago