Walkout by immigrant workers rocks the nation on May Day

by ANDREW POLLACK / May 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

The outrage and determination of millions of immigrant workers turned El Gran Paro Americano 2006—May Day’s Great American Boycott 2006—into the first nationwide political strike in U.S. history.

Estimates of participation in the day’s events vary, but the total clearly tops the record previously set by this same movement on April 10. That day’s turnout of two million was already the largest political demonstration in U.S. history.

It’s possible that on May Day over three million turned out in California alone, where huge marches in central Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and San Diego were accompanied by smaller marches throughout the state. In towns and cities in nearly every state, from the biggest metropolis to the tiniest farming town, Latino workers struck, marched, rallied, and celebrated their new-found strength and unity.

The massive outpouring on May Day took place despite the urgings by some church, union, and community leaders, and their Democratic Party “friends,” to call off the boycott and street actions. And the mass movement likewise remained strong in the face of intimidation by the Bush administration, which authorized raids on undocumented workers in several areas of the country in the weeks preceding May 1.

To understand the rapid growth of the immigrant-rights movement, it’s crucial to listen to the motivations that participants gave for turning out. One immigrant from El Salvador decided that the tone of the proposed legislation in Congress to regulate immigration was too insulting to go unanswered. An undocumented landscaper said he was tired of living in fear of being deported: “We are in the situation Rosa Parks was in. Enough is enough.”
A U.S.-born asbestos-removal worker came to a D.C. protest with a hand-lettered sign that asked, “Did Pilgrims Need Green Cards?” He came to show support for union colleagues from Poland and the Dominican Republic: “I’m American myself. I’m just here in support of immigrants in our union, because they’re hard workers, they’re good people. They deserve a chance to stay here.”

One student said the issue has built a new sense of unity: “It used to be like, ‘I’m Colombian’ or ‘I’m from Mexico.’ Now, it’s like, ‘I’m Hispanic, I’m Hispanic.'” Immigrant Iraq war veterans and families of those still serving overseas also marched, pointing out the irony of being called to fight for a government threatening their rights.

Said a Washington, D.C., organizer, “What I notice is they are no longer afraid; they are insulted. They are being called criminals and terrorists, and that has changed the tenor. Six months ago, they were in the shadows. These people on Capitol Hill started something they didn’t anticipate.”

In our last issue we reported on the first wave of this mighty upsurge: the demonstrations in March of 300,000 in Chicago, a million in L.A., and scattered protests in-between. The second wave came on the April 10 National Day of Action, when people demonstrated in over 140 cities and towns.

This in turn inspired the call for the May Day boycott. Many of the rallies were in the middle of the day, meaning—as had been the case on March 10 in Chicago—that workers left their jobs to participate.

April 10 proved the geographic spread of the immigrant workforce, who have been pulled and pushed by capital to industries of all kinds in communities big and small. The April 10 and May 1 actions have helped unite this disparate workforce, giving them a sense of their potential power: a Peruvian interviewed at a Madison march said he hadn’t realized how many immigrants were in the area until he saw them all come together.

April 10 also served as a dress rehearsal for the general strike component of May 1. One marcher, Eduardo Quintana, the Machinist Union Local 933 union steward, said local members decided to join the protest because they realize the impact proposed laws could have on unions: “As more and more people realize the importance of [the proposed bill] on labor, you’ll see more and more rank and file coming out.”

Millions march and boycott
On May 1, according to some estimates, over a million marched at mid-day in Los Angeles, with a slightly smaller number at a protest later in the afternoon. The crowds were so big that side rallies developed spontaneously at various spots.
Many turned out despite discouragement from boycott opponents. Nativo Lopez, head of the Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Nacional Mexicana, reported that after Cardinal Roger Mahoney made an anti-boycott announcement, workers at the Cardinal‘s own cathedral came up to him and said excitedly, “Nativo, we’re not going to work on May 1!”

About 150,000 marched in San Francisco, and at least 100,000 in San Jose, while tens of thousands marched in Oakland and smaller Bay Area cities. In Watsonville, scene of historic farmworker and cannery worker battles, 10,000 marched in a city of 45,000. At least 15,000 people marched in Santa Barbara and Sacramento, 10,000 in Santa Ana, and similar numbers in dozens and dozens of California towns.

About 75,000 marched in Denver (1/6th of the city’s population), 30,000 in Houston, and 30,000 throughout Florida.

At least half a million—maybe three-quarters of a million—marched in Chicago. Latinos were joined by immigrants of Polish, Irish, Asian, and African descent. German and Czech immigrant workers in Chicago gave the world May Day, and after decades in which the day’s tradition of internationalist workers’ solidarity was repressed or forgotten, immigrant workers, mostly Latinos, have carried it back to the U.S.
In New York City some Latino small business associations announced beforehand that all their member businesses would be closed. At 12:16 p.m. (a time chosen to mark the Dec. 16 passage of the Sensenbrenner bill), thousands held hands in eight locations around the city, wearing white—like marchers around the country. Later that afternoon between 100,000 and 200,000 marched in Manhattan.

The human chain in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park was typical of gatherings around the country in its joyous and festive mood.

Two local papers quoted a Sunset Park demonstrator, Sylvia Garcia, who held a sign reading, “I lost my job to be here today.” She was fired along with five coworkers for attending the rally.

The big majority of businesses on the commercial strip were closed. A Pakistani organizer told WBAI of a hundred South Asian stores shutting their gates, and noted the harassment they’ve felt ever since 9/11.

Well over 10,000 boycotted work in Tennessee, with 14,000 rallying in Nashville. More than a thousand marched in New Orleans, stressing the need for multiracial unity; the city has seen an influx of immigrant labor since Hurricane Katrina. Many construction businesses shut down for the day.

Hundreds were marching by high noon in Dodge City, Kansas, including meatpacking workers from Cargill and National Beef. About two-thirds of the Latino work force in Kansas stayed away from work, and absenteeism from school was five times the norm.
Among many marches throughout Massachusetts was one of thousands of Salvadorans, Colombians, and others in East Boston. Delivery drivers from an elderly care service in Jamaica Plain brought extra frozen meals to elderly clients the day before accompanied by letters saying there would be no delivery the following day.

At a New Bedford garment company, only half of the 425 workers showed up. Workers were told originally that if they didn’t show up they’d be fired, so they organized a meeting and told the owner they’d be taking off. The boss told the press, “If it were just five people, that would be one thing. We can’t fire all of them.”

Ten thousand turned out in Salt Lake City and 1500 in nearby Ogden. Here too, there was a division between boycott opponents, in this case the Latino legislative task force, which arranged a “Walk for Liberty” at 5 p.m., and more radical groups, including the Brown Berets, whose pro-boycott stance was more warmly received in the community.
Raleigh-Durham and other areas in North Carolina had impressive turnouts. Schools in some areas were half empty, construction sites in downtown Raleigh sat silent, and areas with Latino businesses looked like ghost towns. A farm boss said he couldn’t discipline the third of his workers who didn’t show up because “they’re a vital part of our work
force. We need them.”

Political disputes in the movement
In the run-up to May 1 major divisions surfaced over whether or not to support the call for a work stoppage as part of the boycott. In New York City, for instance, divisions over the boycott led to the splintering of a coalition that had had hundreds in its meetings.
A prominent figure in building April 10 in New York, Chung-Wah Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition, was repeatedly quoted against the boycott, saying “We want a positive message, not a disruptive one.” Other leading forces in building previous actions in the city, including SEIU Local 32BJ, came out against the boycott. Some 1199 SEIU officials openly opposed it, others just said they couldn’t promote it but wouldn’t badmouth it.

Boycott opponents clearly took their cue from “friends” in politics and business. Soon after speaking at the April 10 rally in New York, Hillary Clinton announced that she is for a fence, drones and infrared cameras to enforce border “security,” and praised Israel’s racist wall as a model. She said that only some immigrants should get limited legalization—and they should not get it earlier than two years after border “security” is implemented.

Her fellow Democrats, Senator Barbara Boxer and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, told the movement to abandon the boycott, with Boxer saying, “You’ve made your point, now cool it. A boycott and strike will not help your cause.”
Some heads of mass organizations and NGOs were quick to get the point. Alongside frequent quotes from Latino business, clergy, and radio figures opposing the boycott, the Washington Post repeatedly turned for anti-boycott statements to Jaime Contreras, head of the Washington, D.C., National Capital Immigration Coalition and foremost leader of SEIU in that city: “We shouldn’t put our progress in jeopardy. That [a boycott] is a tool you use when you have to, but you have to be completely prepared for backlash and repercussions.”

Let’s give Congress more time, he urged: “It’s premature to do the boycott May 1. We want to see what comes out of the Senate and what compromises [with the House] emerge.”

(Radical journalist Erin Cassin has noted that the notion of “earned citizenship” ignores the taxes withheld from immigrant workers’ paychecks and never paid back in services received; the hundreds of billions paid by them into Social Security, again for nothing in return; and the equally large sums stolen when less than the minimum wage is paid. Yet none of the Senate bills, while demanding fines from immigrants, propose restitution to immigrants for such theft.)

Contreras made sure to slander other forces in the movement: “What we don’t want is for people to go around and confuse the community. … The folks that came here … would say that they were the people who held the Gran Marcha in L.A., when in reality that was not the truth.”

This was said at the very moment when such L.A. organizers as Gloria Saucedo and Jesse Diaz were in D.C. seeking to drum up support for the boycott—and being studiously ignored by Contreras, who claimed “I don’t know who they are.”
The day after May Day, Contreras told the Washington Post: “I think people in the community understood why we asked them to go to work and to school.” He then promised, “Rest assured, if we don’t have a bill we can live with, we will have a general strike and a general boycott.”

But the Post followed this quote with a report that “clearly, protesters in Washington did not want to wait that long. More than half of the 1147 construction workers on projects at Dulles Airport did not show up” on May Day, and many area schools were hit by high absenteeism levels.

In Chicago, boycott supporters found they could have their cake and eat it too. After successfully bringing out 300,000 in the middle of a workday on March 10, organizers—including leaders of SEIU and other unions—announced they were not officially supporting the boycott, but proceeded full steam ahead for a mid-day rally on May Day, including posting flyers for it on local union websites. Other union officials were more explicit: SEIU leader Jorge Rodriguez, of United Health Care Workers West, promised, “We will shut down Chicago.”

The Massachusetts chapter of Jobs with Justice announced that “as a coalition of 80 labor, community, and religious organizations we support the goals of the May 1st Day of Action. … On May 1st, 2006, immigrants and their allies across the nation will make the courageous decision to join a national boycott.”

L.A. was also the scene of dueling press conferences and counterposed positions on the boycott over the airwaves, with heads of some immigration advocacy groups warning listeners about being fired or considered truant.

Nativo Lopez traced the dispute to the differing characters of movement groups. Most of those in the March 25 Coalition, which supported the boycott, are Latino grass-roots organizations. Lopez contrasted their approach with the hypocritical references to King, Rosa Parks, Gandhi, et al. by liberal NGO and “advocacy” groups who “celebrate the civil rights leaders but won’t adopt their tactics.”

At meetings of the Hartford, Connecticut, coalition, which included representatives of national groups with differing opinions, the strongest supporters of the boycott were undocumented workers. Said one: “How else can we show our power?”

Senate “compromises”
Boycott advocates generally denounced all the bills before the Senate for their many repressive features, and warned that Democrats and their supporters within the movement would continue to push such bills in order to derail the movement. Under all of these bills millions would still be deported, and the rights of those remaining severely restricted.
After April 10 the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights circulated a statement opposing all proposed laws in Congress and demanded that it “stop masquerading these proposals as immigration reform.” Said the Network’s Arnoldo Garcia, “there’s a big gap between what advocates in D.C. are negotiating and what [immigrant] communities are really demanding.”

In this regard it’s encouraging to note that several union locals and even Central Labor Councils passed resolutions in the days leading up to May Day that reiterated the AFL-CIO’s 2000 statement opposing guest worker programs and other anti-immigrant measures.

Even some Change to Win affiliates have spoken out against the compromise. At the April 10 New York rally, May Chen, a vice president of UNITE-HERE, told the crowd that “a temporary guest-worker program that simply provides a cheap labor source for employers” was unacceptable.

Unfortunately, some unions still echo the positions of employers in their industries. During the Congressional recess, the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, representing hotel, service and trade industries, was busy lobbying for the Hagel-Martinez compromise. A Coalition spokesperson was quoted as supporting building a border wall if that was the price to pay for a guest-worker program. In the same spirit, the SEIU International still calls for “smart and secure borders” on its website.

Repression: Firings and raids
Barely a week after the April 10 actions the Bush administration issued its response: the April 19 arrest of 1200 undocumented workers from 26 different states employed by manufacturer IFCO Systems.

Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff called it “the largest single worksite enforcement operation in American history” and boasted that the raid netted more arrests than in all of last year. And he promised more of the same. Declaring that hiring undocumented workers is a form of organized crime, Chertoff said the government would now use techniques similar to those used against the Mafia.

Soon after the IFCO raids, federal authorities arrested almost 200 immigrants in several states, supposedly because they had outstanding deportation orders, but many of those swept up in the raids had no such orders in effect. Fear spread throughout immigrant communities, reaching a peak the week before May Day. Workers began to stay away from construction and day-labor sites, parents pulled kids out of school and cancelled doctor’s appointments. But May 1 organizers also predicted, accurately, that the raids would result in more outrage and more widespread protest.

Aiding and abetting the stepped-up repression are the mainstream media, who for “counterpoints” to immigrant activists are now routinely interviewing members of the right-wing Minutemen group. This gaggle of thugs has beaten immigrants, harassed them by videotaping day laborer gathering sites, and carried out vigilante attacks at border crossings. Yet this doesn’t stop The New York Times and many others from quoting them at every opportunity. This is the equivalent of getting KKK quotes in the early 1960s in response to civil rights movement statements.

What makes this bestowing of legitimacy even more dangerous is the potential for the Minutemen to grow and become even more violent. For significant segments of the ruling class, Minutemen violence is just the surrogate used until their repressive bills are passed and the “legitimate” armed bodies of the state can be used more routinely against immigrants.

What next?
Three days before May Day a press conference was held in New York to announce a call for a national march on Washington on Friday, May 19. Speakers included Juan Jose Gutierrez of L.A. and other participants from Chicago and New York. It’s not clear yet how widely this call will be taken up.

Certainly, the diverse group that attended the April 22 planning conference in Chicago will be in communication about next steps, and activists around the country will be discussing what to do to keep the heat on.

Meanwhile, the more conservative wing of the movement is gearing up to try to drive the movement into the abyss of the Democratic Party. Thus the signs with which they flooded marches read, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” But vote for whom? Democrats who want to kick out millions of immigrants and deny the rest any rights?
What’s clear is the immediate and urgent need to keep the movement in the streets and out of the hands of the Democratic Party. The starting point for doing so is building mass organizations on local, regional, and national levels that can make sure that the masses who struck and marched are the ones who decide on the movement’s strategy and tactics.
In addition, the new mass immigrant workers’ movement will likely lead to a new wave of unionization struggles in the fields, in the hotels (where UNITE-HERE is currently engaged in a national contract campaign) and in other service industries, and in workplaces where organization has not even been contemplated yet.

Such a revived struggle at the workplace will have to contend with the fatal alliance of union officials and Democratic politicians consolidated after the organizing drives of the 1990s. The most visible example of that alliance is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, himself a former union official. Like other Democrats he posed as a friend of the movement during the first and second wave, but did all he could to derail the May Day boycott, and supports the Senate “compromise.”

A re-energized labor movement led by immigrant workers can also inspire the rest of the working class. After all, the victories of troqueros, janitors, and drywallers have all been against bosses using subcontracting and deregulation—two of the most common union-busting weapons in every industry.

An example of the potential impact the new movement can have on other local issues has already come forward in Washington, D.C., where the Post reported that tenant organizers are finding new recruits from immigrant march participants. “They’re really in the spirit right now, because L.A. Marcha just happened,” said one organizer. “Before, we didn’t have any motivation from tenants here.”

At housing rallies the familiar chant “Sí, se puede!” (“Yes, we can!”) is repeatedly heard. One demonstrator said, “If you can make it on a national issue, you can make a change in your own community.” The same can happen on the full range of issues facing immigrant neighborhoods—nutrition, health care, education, etc.

One of the new movement’s most urgent steps is to consolidate gains already made in forging alliances with Black activists, and overcoming the propaganda claiming that immigrants steal Black jobs. The hotel contract campaign mentioned above includes a concrete example of how this can be done: the union is fighting not only for traditional contract demands, but has also coupled struggles against anti-immigrant discrimination on the job with demands that hotel bosses hire more Black workers.

Parallel demands can be raised against discrimination and for affirmative action at a national level, as part of a broader campaign for jobs for all.

Among the forces which will play an important role in building democratic structures to take the movement forward will be many of those who attended the April 22 planning meeting in Chicago. The conference was hosted by Chicago’s March 10 Movement and was attended by leading figures in the L.A. March 25 Coalition, which initiated the May Day boycott call and collaborated on it closely with the Chicago group.

The conference voted to initiate regional immigrant rights conferences in May and June, a national conference in July and a national protest in September.

To ensure the success of these steps, and to realize the boundless longer-range potential of the movement, the energy and enthusiasm displayed on May Day should be immediately turned to building democratic committees of immigrant workers and their supporters (churches, unions, women’s groups, etc.) in every workplace and every neighborhood.