by Andrew Pollack
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
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
It’s possible that on May Day
over three million turned out in
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
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
One student said the issue has
built a new sense of unity: “It used to be like, ‘I’m Colombian’ or ‘I’m from
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
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
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
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
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
At least half a million—maybe
three-quarters of a million—marched in
The human chain in Brooklyn’s
Two local papers quoted a
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
Hundreds were marching by high
Among many marches throughout
Ten thousand turned out in
Raleigh-Durham and other areas
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
A prominent figure in building
April 10 in
Boycott opponents clearly took
their cue from “friends” in politics and business. Soon after speaking at the
April 10 rally in
Her fellow Democrats, Senator
Barbara Boxer and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of
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
This was said at the very moment
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
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
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 García, “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
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.
Three days before May Day a
press conference was held in
Certainly, the diverse group
that attended the April 22 planning conference in
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
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
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.
Workers throughout Latin America
watched the build-up to May Day closely, nowhere more so than in
Waving signs saying, “Don’t Buy
Gringo Products, Long live the Boycott,” 3000 electrical workers blocked a
major highway. The boycott meant not only staying away from McDonald’s, Burger
King, and Starbucks, but also boycotting
Thousands gathered outside the
U.S. Embassy, including Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos. Said one demonstrator,
Fernando Vazquez Herrera, a former bracero: “We gave our blood to build
The intimate tie between NAFTA-imposed poverty and emigration is clear to Mexicans, and the link was shown on May Day. Unions raised their own demands against President Vicente Fox, who has eagerly implemented Washington-dictated “economic reforms.” The protests took on added heat because of the government’s attempt to impose a hand-picked leadership over the national union of mine and metal workers.
Fueling the boycott was also
long-standing resentment at racist, sometimes murderous, treatment of Mexicans
by Andrew Pollack
Several hundred protesters in
The combined southern
Even though it was harvest time,
Industry analysts estimated that less than half the normal number of cattle and hogs for a Monday were slaughtered. The world’s largest meatpacker, Tyson Foods, closed about a dozen of its plants and saw “higher-than-usual absenteeism” at others. Bosses at Cargill were forced to give 15,000 workers in several states the day off, and Perdue Farms, the nation’s third-largest chicken producer, closed eight plants.
Other manufacturers closing
Hundreds of stores along
largely-Latino Mission Street in
McDonald’s shut some of its
outlets and reduced operating hours or tried to operate short-staffed at
others. Also shut down were 29 branches of the Chipotle Mexican Grill chain.
Goya Foods suspended delivery everywhere except
The Associated General
Contractors of Greater Florida said more than half the workers at Miami-Dade
sites did not show up. The vast majority of day laborers on
Despite demands by casino owners
Scattered reports appeared of
firings of workers who had walked out during the March or April protests. But
here repression was met with resistance. Workers at Excel meatpacking in
Other firings included 10
restaurant workers in
One component of such a campaign appeared on May Day itself, when Change to Win announced it had filed a nationwide Unfair Labor Practice Charge (an NLRB procedure) on behalf of any worker unlawfully disciplined during any of the recent days of action.
CtW said any firings or other victimizations would be a violation of the right under federal labor law to engage in “protected concerted activity,” and that the protests must be considered such as they are political actions related to policies affecting employment conditions. CtW has asked all movement groups to forward names of victimized workers.
Now, as polls show growing disenchantment with both political parties, the issue of immigration is raised once again, as politicians seek to stir the pot of social resentment. Voices are raised, tempers are frayed, proposals are launched, and the destinies of millions are apparently held in limbo.
But, in numbers not seen for generations, mostly Mexican-born (or related) families pound the pavements in protest, demanding amnesty for the millions who live and work, in the most thankless jobs, here in the U.S.
The immigration “discussion” masks deeper currents in American life, of those who dread the approaching dawn when those who number the nation’s majority are brown, instead of white.
As the government and the
servile corporate media hawked fear to trap the nation into the Iraq War, so
now fear is once again merchandised for political gain. The perpetual fear of
the foreign Other, the fear of Spanish-speaking
people, who are called “criminal” for daring to cross the
The truth of the matter is that it is highly unlikely that over 11 million men, women, and children will be returned to Mexican territory. That’s because businesses, especially those engaged in agriculture, would virtually go out of business, if their immigrant-based workforce up and disappeared.
But, like most people, many
Latino immigrants are involved in other businesses and industries in
With the exception of Native Americans (as in so-called “Indians”), and African Americans, every person in the U.S. today is a descendant of a willing immigrant (OK, strict historians will object that many poor whites, especially in the Southern states, were sent to Georgia and Maryland as indentured servants, as part of a penal sentence).
But, the point is clear.
Immigration was consciously used to craft the
As law professor Ian F. Haney-Lopez has shown in his book, “White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race” (New York: NYU Press, 1996), American courts and legislatures have consistently defined “citizens” as “whites,” and over the course of centuries, millions of people were denied entry to the U.S., or even if allowed in, denied citizenship, because they were not “white.”
In 1882, Haney-Lopez explains, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese workers for a decade. In 1884, the Act was expanded to bar all Chinese people, and shortly thereafter an indefinite ban was implemented. State and federal court decisions banned Syrians, Asian-Indians, Palestinians, mixed-race people, and multitudes of others on the basis of insufficient whiteness!
That ugly history may be reborn in this latest “battle” over Mexican immigration. Political storms have a way of giving way to political hurricanes, which even those who planned them cannot control.
Several years ago, a right-wing
But, this era
of politicians, trying to create an issue that protects them from the falling
numbers of the incumbent Bush administration, look at
The political entity that truly
befriends this growing segment of the
© COPYRIGHT 2006 MUMIA ABU-JAMAL