May Day rallies link struggles

May 5, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte reports on protests across the country on May Day calling for justice for workers.

IN PROTESTS across the country on May Day, thousands of activists marched and rallied to demand the rights that all workers deserve--highlighting the abuses suffered by immigrant workers.

Since the massive immigrant rights protests of 2006, May 1 has become a rallying point for immigrant rights activists every year, breathing new life into the workers' holiday that was born in the U.S., but is rarely celebrated here.

While the protests this year weren't as large, they reflected a mood among activists, young and old, who are linking different struggles and demands--from an end to raid and deportations to passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).

In Los Angeles, an estimated 5,000 people turned out for some seven different marches on May 1. About 2,000 each turned out to marches organized the May 1st Coalition and the Southern California Immigration Coalition (SCIC), with 1,000 turning out to another march called by MIWON and the County Federation of Labor.

Later in the day, about 800 people and a contingent from American Apparel drawing attention to their "Legalize America" campaign took part in a march organized by the March 25th Coalition. About 200 came out to a community march in Maywood, led by the organizers of the campaign for a sanctuary city.

On the march for immigrant rights on May Day in New York City
On the march for immigrant rights on May Day in New York City (Frankie Cook | SW)

All the marches stressed the broken immigration system, with the three largest making the connections between workers' rights issues and immigrant rights issues, whether through an explicit stance against guest worker programs, support for EFCA or support for an "economy that works for all."

Despite the fact that there were separate marches, the events were filled with people who had hope for a change in immigration policy.

In Seattle, everyone from immigrant rights activists to labor unions to LGBT groups marched 5,000-strong for the Employee Free Choice Act, a people's economy, health care for all, an end to the Iraq War, and a moratorium on anti-immigrant raids and detentions.

"May Day is crucial for activists who are seeking to combat all the social injustices facing society today," said James Bichler, an Seattle Central Community College student who led a victorious fight against class cuts earlier this spring. "In the face of a vast economic crisis and leftward-shifting attitudes, what could be more important than a day dedicated to working-class struggle around the world?"

In Washington, D.C., about 3,000 protesters, led by the National Capital Immigrant Coalition, came together to march. More than 50 organizations participated in the mobilization, including several unions and many community-based organizations.

All along the march route, cars honked in support and several hundred people joined the march along the way. A feeder march of 800 came from CNN where protesters took on Lou Dobbs' racist attacks on immigrants.

Speakers included children from Minnesota whose mother was recently deported and Rev. Graylan Hagler, who emphasized the importance of solidarity between African American and immigrant communities.

Emcee Gustavo Torres stressed that "Obama is our president not our savior," arguing that only struggle will win broad legalization for the undocumented.

In Chicago, some 2,500 people marched with the theme of "Without legalization, there can be no equal labor rights"--despite an attempt by city officials to get organizers to cancel the march on the basis of the swine-flu health risk.

Several student groups came out as well as contingents of Teamsters and day laborers. Speakers included veteran activist Jorge Mujica; Armando Robles, president of UE 1110 at Republic Windows & Doors, where workers occupied their factory in December; Margarita Klein of the Workers United Union; Rigo Padilla, a Harold Washington College student who faces deportation; and Orlando Sepulveda of the March 10th Coalition.

Following the demonstration, some 100 people gathered at celebration organized by Haymarket Books, which featured veteran political campaigner and author Tariq Ali, author and Socialist Worker columnist Sharon Smith; Jorge Mujica; Martin Unzueta of the Chicago Workers Collaborative; and Raul Flores, shop steward at Republic Windows. Speakers emphasized the need to reclaim May Day and the role of immigrant workers in reviving the May Day tradition.

In Portland, Ore., a multiracial crowd of 2,500 turned out, linking together several demands, including an end to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids, quality health care for all, no cuts to education, and a halt of evictions and foreclosures.

Adam Sanchez, chief steward with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 5, elicited cheers from the crowd when he said, "Just like in the 1930s, when my union, the ILWU, was born out of a massive general strike in San Francisco that spread to the entire West Coast, it is going to take much more labor militancy and the rebuilding of a rank-and-file class-based left in this country to ensure that the AIGs, the Goldman Sachs, the auto execs--that they're the ones paying for this crisis and not working people."

Protesters marched through downtown Portland chanting along the way "Sí se puede," "Gay, straight, Black, white, same struggle, same fight" and "Don't give in to racist fear, immigrants are welcome here."

Another rally held in Salem earlier that day drew more than 3,500.

In San Francisco, some 1,500 union members, activists, teachers and students, including a contingent from Mission High, turned out for the march organized by the SF May 1 Committee.

"I hope that this shows Obama that the immigrant rights movement hasn't disappeared," said 23-year-old Teresa Reyes. "We may be smaller, but we are still here. And we will stay here until we get full amnesty."

Protester Maria Gomez said, "The rain won't keep us inside. Neither will the swine flu. We need to show people that immigrants are humans, too, and deserve the exact same rights as the rest of us."

Among the demands made were to stop raids and deportations, legalization of undocumented workers, ending the criminalization of immigrants, demilitarization of the border and opposition to guest-worker programs.

San Francisco is supposed to be a sanctuary city, pointed out California state assemblyman Tom Ammiano. "California should be a sanctuary state," he said.

Other speakers included Angela Davis and Jane Kim of San Francisco Unified School District.

In New York City, about 1,000 people braved the rain to gather in Union Square for a rally featuring striking workers from the Stella D'oro bakery in the Bronx. The struggle of the mostly immigrant workforce has become a rallying point for labor and immigrant solidarity activists across the city.

Contingents organized from grassroots immigrant rights groups as well as small groups of workers who came out from individual workplaces. This included the United Day Laborers of Woodside, who are organizing against police harassment.

In San Diego, 500 people marched to demand immigrants' rights. The march drew many students from San Diego City College, where it began, and from neighboring San Diego High School. Several organizations mobilized substantial numbers, including the Raza Rights Coalition and the United Domestic Workers of America.

In Providence, R.I., activists marked May Day with a boisterous rally in front of ICE offices. "This year we are holding the demonstration at ICE to their reject their tactics and the terror attacks by [Gov.] Carcieri," said Alfonso Velasco of the Community Defense Network of the Olneyville Neighborhood Association.

A broad network of groups turned out 250 people out for the event. Juan Garcia spoke for many when he said "[immigrants] contribute to the local economy in invaluable ways. It is time that the nation remembers that immigrants built this country and that we continue to do so. We want legalization not criminalization. We want human rights for everyone."

In Rochester, N.Y., 100 demonstrators marched in a rally called by the Rochester Alliance for Immigrant Rights and endorsed by a dozen other organizations with four demands: legalization for all undocumented immigrant workers and their families; stop the racial profiling of immigrants by the state troopers and border patrol; let the rich pay for their crisis; and pass EFCA.

Sam Bernstein, Michael Chase, Victor Fernandez, Mike Grigsby, Shaun Harkin, Zach Mason, Eric Rehder, Roberto Resto, Jen Roesch and Avery Wear contributed to this article.

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