A May Day call for our rights

May 7, 2013

The celebration of May Day, the international working-class holiday, saw a resurgence with the rise of the immigrant rights movement beginning in 2006. With Congress preparing to decide on proposed immigration legislation, immigrant rights groups in several cities saw this as an opportunity make their voices heard. In many places, they joined trade union members and other workers in fighting for respect on the job.

Here, Eloisa Burgos, Geming Lai and François Laforge provide reports about three events in different cities around the country.

FROM CITY University of New York students holding butterflies to symbolize the beauty of migration, to workers speaking out in front of exploitive companies in midtown Manhattan, the solidarity of May Day stood out in every corner of New York City.

The actions began early in the morning when about 200 members and supporters of Transport Workers Union Local 100 marched outside union-busting shops and consulting firms.

At noon, twice that number marched through midtown Manhattan on an "Immigrant Worker Justice Tour." The demonstrators targeted exploitative companies, such as McDonald's, Atlas Media and Capital Grille, where workers are organizing for decent conditions.

The "tour" ended at the offices of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to highlight criticisms of the immigration bill created by Schumer and the rest of the Senate's "Gang of Eight."

Throughout the day, most people criticized the bipartisan immigration bill that focuses more on securing borders and collecting back taxes than on providing a comprehensive path to citizenship. One popular sign at the rally and throughout the day featured the face of Schumer behind barbed wire with the words: "No to Schumer and the Gang of 8" in Spanish.

Marching on May Day in New York City
Marching on May Day in New York City

A convergence of 300 students from Cooper Union, Columbia University, New York University (NYU), New School, CUNY Graduate Center, Medgar Evers College, Queens College and Bard College began at Cooper Square at 3 p.m.

While the numbers were larger last year, this year's convergence was much more political. NYU students began the day earlier with a speak-out at Washington Square Park, which turned out about 60 students.

At the larger convergence at Cooper Square, political chants quickly ignited overwhelming crowd responses. One speaker shouted via the People's Mic: "We shouldn't have to pay so much [bleeping] money and take on such absurd amounts of [bleeping] debt so a tiny group of millionaires can give each other severance packages and NYC apartments."

The highlight of the day was a march from Union Square that drew thousands of people from unions such as TWU, United Federation of Teachers, AFSCME District Council 37 and the Service Employees International Union. The largest union contingent was Laborers Union.

A supporter of the Laundry Workers Center, which fights for the rights of laundry workers, said that it can be very difficult to organize workers who are undocumented because they are afraid to fight for their rights. "We work at different places that have numerous problems, and if we don't talk about it, nobody will talk for us," said Joshua Duah,

The biggest mobilization was from immigrants rights groups. With drums, chants and an overwhelming amount of onlookers who were peaking from their windows and taking pictures from the sidewalks, the march was about two miles long from Union Square to downtown Manhattan.

Elizabeth, a member of Fundacion Caricatura (Cartoon Foundation), told us that she was there to demand a new immigration bill that would allow for parents to be able to reunite with their children:

We came here to work, not to hurt anyone. All that we want is to have the opportunity to become legalized so that we may reunite with our families...We are at this protest to tell Obama that we need to be with our children.

AT THE University of California (UC) Berkeley, about 150 people rallied in Sproul Plaza on May 1 to celebrate International Workers' Day and the Immigration Reform Day of Action.

Members of various unions with members on campus, including AFSCME Local 3299, Communications Workers of America Local 9119, Teamsters Local 2010 and United Auto Workers Local 2865, joined students and community members for the demonstration.

Student-labor solidarity activist Devonte Jackson said, "Today, we stand in solidarity not only with workers in this university, but internationally."

"The attacks on unions, collective bargaining, and the ability to organize is an effort to weaken the 99 Percent, to the benefit of the 1 Percent," said Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in the departments of Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies. "And we need to say that it is the unions, it is the workers, it is the labor organizers that changed the history of this country."

Members of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/Xicana Aztlán (MEChxA) performed a skit as Teatro Campesino, referring to a United Farm Workers' tradition of using theater to tell the stories of workers' struggle. The performance showed how UC administration employs discriminatory hiring, denies job security and attacks labor unions in order to squeeze more value from the labor of university employees.

The UC administration has put constant effort into derailing the workers' contract negotiation process. And it has been complicit in the deportation of workers involved in labor organizing, including custodian Jesús Gutiérrez, a three-year UC employee and member of AFSCME Local 3299.

"We have a broken immigration system, and there are people in our community who have been deported," said Berkeley City Council member Jesse Arreguín. "We can no longer divide families and use ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] as a way to try to suppress workers' rights."

Last October, the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to reject any cooperation with Secure Communities, an ICE program to detain and potentially deport non-citizens who are arrested. Arreguín urged the UC administration to do the same.

Laura Rivas, a staff member of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, is troubled by the current federal immigration reform proposals. She said she opposed the proposed further militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and that the proposed guest-worker program "doesn't really allow [migrants] to have a place in this country...We need to tell them [Democrats and Republicans] that we stand for full human rights for all people, and this is not the kind of reform that we want. We want justice."

Demonstrators later marched in the streets surrounding campus and finished the rally with a speak-out outside the Office of the Chancellor in California Hall.

UC workers and students have a tradition of struggle against exploitation and oppression, and signs point to the continuation of that tradition in the near future.

UAW Local 2865 head steward and graduate employee Amanda Armstrong spoke outside California Hall about the contract negotiations that graduate student instructors, readers and tutors are going through.

She talked about the important demands the union is putting forward, such as an unprecedented cap on class size, better wages and health benefits for student-workers and families and an end to discriminatory hiring. "People don't win anything without collective struggle, without mutual solidarity, without mass strike, without mobilizing," Armstrong said.

AFSCME Local 3299 members at the UC medical centers, who are working to bring attention to patient-care violations and the elimination of hundreds of frontline care jobs, were taking a strike-authorization vote from April 30 to May 2. Results are expected this week.

IN HIGHTSTOWN, N.J., several months of preparation culminated in a rally and a march of more than 300 people on May 4 to celebrate International Workers' Day. The event was put together by Unidad Latina en Acción-NJ (ULA-NJ), a grassroots organization seeking to empower immigrants to fight for their rights. Many other grassroots organizations also supported the event by sending members and representatives.

ULA-NJ works on several campaigns, such as recovering unpaid wages, defending and educating immigrants on their rights, promoting better relations between immigrants and native workers and stopping the deportations of undocumented immigrants. Because May Day is a celebration of working-class unity across nationalities, sexes and races, ULA-NJ has been organizing the event every year since our inception in 2008.

The Hightstown population is around 30 percent immigrant, a great proportion of them Ecuadorians. These workers are employed in local businesses and nearby warehouses such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Crate & Barrel, among others.

Because of its large number of undocumented immigrants, Hightstown was declared a sanctuary city in 2006 by council ordinance. However, over the past few years, more immigrant detention centers were built in New Jersey, state politicians have attempted to introduce "secure community" program, and, most crucially, immigrants' self-confidence has decreased drastically due to the recession, which resulted in the failure of a few warehouse workers union drives.

Today, there's mounting evidence that the local police illegally cooperates with ICE to deport people. On top of work discrimination and the racist behavior of a vocal minority of townspeople, immigrants face a barrage of institutionalized racism.

For example, every year, ULA-NJ has to consult ACLU lawyers to "convince" the local authorities to grant us rally permits without charging us exorbitant "fees" or restricting our route to remote streets. This year, the newly appointed police director was even vocal about his anti-immigrant bias when we dealt with him on the phone.

Nevertheless, most local residents support immigrants and have risen up to defend them when attacked by unscrupulous city council members.

Recent successful campaigns led by ULA-NJ, such as a protest of an ordinance that would limit the number of taxis and organizing to bring to justice employers who are stealing their immigrant workers' wages, surely contributed to the larger-than-usual May Day turnout.

Another factor comes from strong expectations--curbed by a healthy dose of disbelief--on the part of immigrants and activists that a comprehensive immigration reform will pass.

This renewed political involvement is to be welcomed but, unlike many mainstream organizations and unions, ULA-NJ has serious reservations concerning the reforms proposed by the Gang of Eight. Members see that both Republicans and Democrats are pushing for business-friendly reforms that will help bring a large influx of immigrant labor while driving down the cost of U.S. labor.

This is why the fight for immigration reforms needs to be independent and defiant. We will continue our struggle to put an end to the systemic discrimination between native and immigrant labor! Our next campaign will be to stop the deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Unidad Latina en Acción presente!

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