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May 1 day of action for immigrant rights demands equality
The return of May Day

April 21, 2006 | Page 3

FOR DECADES, International Workers Day has been celebrated on May 1 in countries around the world--everywhere but the U.S., home of the first May Day in 1886.

But that will change this year. May Day will again be a day of protest in America--and in a manner befitting the long tradition of working-class struggle that the holiday honors.

Organizers have set May 1 as the next national day of action for immigrant rights. Their call is for the "Great American Boycott 2006"--a day of "no work, no school, no sales and no buying."

"We can't rest"
Spokesperson for the Great American Boycott 2006.

WE'RE ASKING people to continue the momentum--to not fold their arms after the demonstrations that began in March, leading to March 25, with the 1 million people we had in Los Angeles, and then with the millions that marched on April 10.

On May 1, International Workers Day, we are asking people not to work, not to shop, not to go to school, and for businesses not to open. It's extremely important that we spread the word throughout the country. This is catching like wildfire all over the place.

We will be more effective in our efforts to obtain a more generous legalization--amnesty for the 12 million people who need to be empowered, and who have risen up in a massive form that's unprecedented in this country.

We want to hand the extreme right a wonderful defeat, and put ourselves on the map so that our voices, our feet--our everything that comes with empowerment--can be taken into consideration.


May 1 will be a day to stay away from work and school, and to rally at "symbols of economic trade," such as stock exchanges and anti-immigrant corporations--effectively, a national strike day unlike anything the U.S. has seen in at least half a century.

In Mexico, former bracero workers are leading an effort to demonstrate at border crossings May 1--and to call on Mexicans not to go to work or shop in the U.S., or buy anything from U.S.-owned businesses.

Socialist Worker urges all of its readers to take part in this history-making day--and to get started right away, by joining the organizing effort to spread the word about the Great American Boycott and build the widest possible mobilization.

May 1 will be a new high point for a struggle that erupted in opposition to anti-immigrant legislation sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner and passed late last year by the House that would brand millions of undocumented immigrants as felons.

But the movement has become more than this. It is a struggle for dignity and a place in society by some of the most vulnerable people in the U.S.--millions of workers consigned to fear and isolation by a system that demands their labor, but isn't willing to grant equal rights.

The mass outpouring of protest has shaken the right-wing status quo in the U.S. The May Day strike can keep up the pressure on Washington.

Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations in the immigrant rights movement are opposing the May 1 day of action.

Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigrant Coalition and a speaker at the April 10 demonstration in Washington, D.C., said the boycott was premature before the Senate reconsiders immigration legislation. "We shouldn't put our progress in jeopardy," Contreras told the New York Times. "That is a tool you use when you have to, but you have to be completely prepared for backlash and repercussions."

In New York City, unions such as the SEIU that participated in the April 10 demonstration of half a million are likewise resisting the May 1 call--claiming that labor could face fines and employer retribution if members participate.

This conservative attitude is jeopardizing a golden opportunity to not only press the case for equality and justice for immigrants, but to begin turning the tide against the right-wing offensive generally.

"Those organizations don't want the movement to radicalize," says Javier Rodriguez, a veteran activist and one of the leading organizers of the March 25 demonstration in Los Angeles. "They don't want immigrants and the rest of society to come forth in a militant way and demand their rights."

Rodriguez--who, with Jessie Diaz, a fellow organizer of the LA march, was traveling around the U.S. this week to make the case for the Great American Boycott--points out that the movement's effectiveness was proven when the Republicans were forced to change course.

"[Those opposed to the May 1 call] weren't the ones to galvanize the country," he said. "They weren't the ones to develop a people's strategy that injected the immigrant community and its allies into the national debate, and radically changed its direction."

Contreras and other leaders of mainstream immigrant organizations believe they are being "realistic" in supporting the "compromise" legislation in the Senate. But this would mean settling for a slightly "lesser evil"--a proposal that maintains immigrants in second-class citizenship.

The massive mobilizations against the Sensenbrenner bill have shown the power to demand much more.

The Republicans are backpedaling. Last week, the two top Republican leaders in Congress--House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist--issued a joint letter that abandoned the centerpiece of the Sensenbrenner bill: The criminalization provision to classify undocumented workers as felons.

Some conservative flacks are even trying to get away with a new talking point--that the Republicans didn't really want to propose turning tens of millions of people into a new criminal class, but were, despite their control over both houses of Congress, somehow forced to do so by the Democrats, who control nothing at all.

The Republican retreat shows the power of protest. The immense demonstrations of the past month have had a huge impact, even in Washington, where the debate on immigration issues has taken place on the terms of the right for many years.

But it's important to remember something else: All but the most rabid anti-immigrant politicians will be perfectly content with the so-called "compromise" legislation currently stalled in Senate, but likely to be reconsidered later this month.

First of all, the Senate proposal--which originated with Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy--contains many of the same provisions as the Sensenbrenner bill, including increased militarization of the border. It also includes a "guest worker" program that business interests have been pushing, and for good reason--it would create a further means of dividing the workforce to make it easier to push down wages.

What's more, the latest version of the Senate deal goes even further than McCain-Kennedy--by dividing the ranks of the undocumented into three tiers, each with different hoops to jump through on the impossibly contorted "path to citizenship." "They are trying to turn immigrants against each other," concluded Ivy Machin, one of the many teenagers on last Saturday's student demonstration in Los Angeles.

The Senate "compromise" may drop Sensenbrenner's most unpopular provisions, but it's still a rotten deal, designed to keep the undocumented as second-class citizens, and to intensify exploitation at work.

Anyone who took to the streets for immigrant rights--or who saw those demonstrations and was inspired by them--should reject this deal, and send a message to Washington that we want amnesty and full equality.

The tide has turned so quickly on this issue precisely because people didn't wait for mainstream national organizations--still less the Democrats--to challenge the anti-immigrant right. The mass response started with grassroots initiatives, and these same efforts will take the movement another step forward on May Day.

The May 1 Great American Boycott offers the chance to keep the momentum going our way--and demand more from Washington than a bad compromise that keeps 12 million immigrants at the back of the bus.

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