Chicago workers take to the streets on May Day

May 2017 Chicago marchBy MARK UGOLINI

— CHICAGO — Nearly 10,000 workers, immigration rights activists, and supporters took to the streets on May Day to demand legalization of undocumented workers; an end to terrorizing immigrant communities with raids on homes and workplaces; and an end to criminalization, mass incarceration, and deportations. (See a full list of demands at the link below.)

The primarily Hispanic crowd staged a “Rally for Immigration Justice” in Union Park on the city’s West side and then marched East to Chicago’s Daley plaza and heard speakers including Tefere Gebre, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO; Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union president; and others.

Chicago May Day http://chimayday.com/# was sponsored by over 120 Chicago organizations. Among the more prominent were an array of immigration rights groups including Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Mijente, and Arise Chicago. Black rights groups including NAACP Chicago Southside, Black Youth Project 100, and Black Lives Matter were also prominent builders of the protests.

The May Day call was endorsed by the Chicago Federation of Labor, and drew the active support and participation of dozens of labor organizations and trade unions including: Fight for $15, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Service Employee International Union (SEIU), Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), United Electrical Workers-Western Region (UE), United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), National Nurses United (NNU), and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Several SEIU union locals and the CTU played prominent roles in providing logistics and marshalling for the event. Hundreds came from surrounding areas, especially DuPage County, where Immigrant Solidarity DuPage organized six busloads of immigrant workers to participate in Chicago’s day of activities.

Despite intermittent rain showers, the three-mile march down Washington St. was militant and spirited. Singing, chanting, and calls for solidarity boomed from loudspeakers as bystanders along the march route joined in. “Si se puede!” was a frequent rallying cry. Hundreds of demonstrators carried colorful flags and signs, some with handmade slogans. “Bridges not Walls,” “I believe we will Win!” and “We can’t survive on $8.25!” were among the popular chants.

One of the marchers was eager to speak with reporters. Her parents were without papers when they brought her to the U.S. as a young girl. “I’m a DREAMER myself! And I’m going to college. Today, May 1st, is college decision day, and [we are here] just fighting to keep the programs like DACA alive.”

Earlier in the day protesters rallied in the Pilsen neighborhood’s Tenochtitlan Plaza. One of the city’s historic, predominantly Hispanic communities, Pilsen residents have been frequent targets of ICE raids and harassment. Homemade signs and chants included: “No ban. No Wall” and “Trump, Obama are the same. The only difference is the name.”

One participant, Rebecca Vosler, a 25-year old Pilsen teacher, told reporters: “How can Chicago claim that they’re a sanctuary city when immigrants aren’t being protected and then on top of that, how are you protecting workers when the rent is rising, when the wages are low?”

A 42-year-old Pilsen restaurant worker, Israel Gascón, said he was protesting on May Day to take a stand for the working class, pointing out: “There is a war against the workers [and] against immigrants. … I see my community terrorized by ICE, by this criminalization of particularly the Mexican community.” Some businesses in Pilsen were closed in honor of the international workers holiday, and to protest attacks on the immigrant community.

Earlier in the day, other groups congregated outside the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center to protest police violence, harassment and the wave of arrests of Black and Latino youth. After some speeches, the group marched to join the main “Rally for Immigration Justice” at Union Park.

At Mather High School in Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood, dozens of teachers gathered to raise their demand for increased public school funding and demonstrate solidarity with immigration rights.

“It’s a day, historically, that the working class in the U.S., which is an immigrant working class, has fought for the eight-hour day, originally, but now for services that will support the future in the neighborhoods, in the schools,” said Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “We’ve seen our schools under a real threat and attack, and we hope that people come out and show solidarity and fight for a future we can believe in.”

In a video May Day Message to CTU members, Sharkey urged support for other victims of the state’s manufactured “budget crisis.” He called for solidarity with students and staff of public universities, especially predominately Black Chicago State University, which has been systematically dismantling by massive budget cuts over the last two years.

Sharkey pledged continued solidarity with state workers who are without a contract and under a union-busting assault from Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. He also promoted the struggle of over 10,000 nursing-care workers fighting for a fair contract who are planning a strike later this month.

Previously, the CTU leadership considered a one-day strike on May Day to fight school budget cutbacks and solidarize with immigration rights, but ultimately decided against a strike. Many teachers, they said, were unwilling to give up additional paid teaching days. Instead, the teachers were encouraged to use personal days to attend the May Day protests, and many CTU members did so.

While the Chicago May Day protests were an important expression of solidarity, which brought together a wide array of forces, like others around the country, they were smaller than expected. This may indicate Trump’s xenophobia and virulent racism are having a chilling effect on the immigrant community, heightening fear, and ushering increasing numbers of undocumented workers into the shadows.

Exposed now, more than ever, is the weak-kneed response of the Chicago labor movement, which is institutionally fused to the capitalist Democratic Party and the local machine of Rahm Emanuel. The so-called “progressive” labor leaders in this city are a dime a dozen, reined in by their political bosses whose job is to protect the interests of local billionaires like Ken Griffin (the richest man in Illinois) and his friends, their big corporations, their tax-advantaged hedge funds, and their tax-free off-shore accounts.

While they posture as defenders of the most oppressed workers, they have been totally unwilling to break ties with the Democrats either in the streets or in the political arena. Rather than token endorsements, resolutions, and flowery-sounding speeches, what’s necessary is a truly massive and powerful display of unity in action.

Undocumented immigrants and other oppressed workers will be further emboldened to take action when a powerful, militant, and combative ally appears on the scene—one that brings the full power of a united Chicago union movement to bear. Chicago’s labor history books are full of examples of heroic labor battles that are both a source for study and a guide to action.

Photo: Aerial shot of May 1 march in Chicago. ABC-TV 7 News