When Jay Gould, one of the “robber barons” of the 19th century, remarked that he could “hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half,” he described one of the great tools of Big Business: the power to exploit differences within the working class. Today, as in the past, pitting different social groups against each other—such as whites against blacks, native workers against immigrants, and even blacks against immigrants—remains an effective tool for dismantling an effective labor movement.

Take the use of blacks as strikebreakers during the Great Migration. Between 1916 and 1934, company owners used African Americans 25 times to break the picket lines of primarily white workers. Company recruiters went to Southern states and promised good wages and a better way of life to African Americans, many of which were tied to a dismal feudal Southern system. However, they were greeted by angry white mobs in the North who viewed blacks as nothing more than corporate scabs. As for labor solidarity, these actions successfully drove a deeper wedge between two marginalized groups being swindled by mostly affluent white men.

These days a major rift has developed between native-born labor and Latino immigrants. As explained by Edna Bonacich, a labor sociologist, “The central problem is that Latino immigrants, especially the undocumented, through no fault of their own, provide a very attractive workforce for many employers. Because of their vulnerability and desperation, the immigrants can be paid less and forced to put up with poorer working conditions.” For immigrants an oppressive conservative coalition results as business owners exploit undocumented immigrants on the one hand, while social conservatives rail against “aliens” on the other. Many native workers all to often take the bait and tow the socially conservative line.

So what to do about it? There have been some efforts to actively engage this important topic in order to create a more effective labor movement—but they are not enough. For instance, the October 2007 Building Bridges conference held in New York City, sponsored by the New York Immigration Coalition and the NAACP New York, among others, was a start. The coming together of scholars, activists, and community members looked at common obstacles that immigrants and African Americans have faced in U.S. society, as well as how to organize against these barriers. And this past May Day demonstrated how a common vision can create a more unified and effective labor movement. It may only be a start, but efforts like these are a great step in the right direction.