With the U.S. Working Class Under Attack… Unions Can Reclaim May Day in Solidarity with Immigrant Workers

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1997: Farmworkers demonstrating, Salinas, CA. Photo: Robert Gumpert

The buzz about a Day without Immigrants on May 1, 2017 is growing. Spanish radio is already churning with calls for strikes, rallies and demonstrations on May 1. This movement recalls the giant mobilizations of May 1, 2006 that occurred in response to proposed draconian anti-immigrant federal legislation called the Sensenbrenner Immigration Bill.

May Day has its historic origins in the nineteenth century struggle for the eight-hour day. In many cities on May Day in 2006, the marches and rallies proved to be the largest in history. Industries that relied on immigrant labor were paralyzed as millions of workers responded to the call for a Day without Latinos (also called the Great American Boycott). Labor participated unevenly in these rallies and mostly in places where the membership in service unions was predominately Latino. This year, in the turmoil surrounding the Trump Presidency, May 1 could be a great opportunity for the labor movement to flex its muscles and build its future.

Labor’s participation is important to the future of American politics. For example, look at the history of politics in California. Turn back the clock 23 years to 1994 when then Republican Governor Pete Wilson faced a fierce re-election battle. He launched a “Trump-like” assault on “illegal” immigration replete with videos of masses of Mexicans streaming across the border and threatening California. It was a brazen racist ploy called Proposition 187, introduced to bolster his reelection bid. Union leaders in California faced a critical decision about whether to participate in the massive Los Angeles mobilization against Prop 187.

In a meeting of labor leadership, some union leaders argued that it was important not to participate in the Los Angeles’ May 1 march so as not to alienate “Encino Man” — the Reagan Democrats of the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere. In the midst of a heated discussion, AFL-CIO Regional Director David Sickler made a dramatic plea to Los Angeles’ trade unionists:

“If we don’t march with these Latin workers, we will lose the confidence and trust of whole generation of Latinos.”

Sickler’s argument won the day, and Los Angeles’ labor turned out for the march. That action, and many others, solidified the labor/Latino nexus. In one generation, California went from “Reagan-land” to solid Blue Democratic.

Again the same challenge faces labor, however now it’s on a national scale. And the opportunity for the labor movement is equally huge. Supporting the upcoming May 1 protests, strikes and other actions will clearly demonstrate that unions are ready to be a champion of the rising Latino demographic. Conversely, sitting on the sidelines will mark us as bystanders to racist repression.

Recently building trades labor leaders blindly and naively embraced Trump’s agenda by meeting with him at the White House just days after his inauguration and lauding his commitment to build infrastructure and oil pipelines — but with no commitment to pro-labor codes like prevailing wage or project labor agreements. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka — usually a strong voice for racial justice — recently embraced Trump’s talk of immigration reform after his speech to a joint session of Congress. Again, a major labor leader is blindly and naively playing into Trump’s racist rhetoric. These actions by the building trades and the leader of the AFL-CIO undermine the U.S. labor movement’s need to squarely be on the side of immigrants battling Trump’s racist rhetoric, executive orders and travel bans.

There are many possible levels of participation for labor and unions on May 1. Each union must determine what’s the most appropriate way to participate based on its members needs and consciousness. In California, SEIU’s United Service Workers West, representing over 60,000 janitors, security guards and airport service workers has announced on Facebook its support for a May 1 strike. The United Food and Commercial Workers, representing supermarket workers in Southern California and the hotel workers union (UNITE HERE) are both assessing their actions in California. California is fertile ground for these protests with a sympathetic and supportive political infrastructure and a demographic tidal wave that means that Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in the state — out numbering Anglos 39 to 38 percent.

These calls for strikes may snowball. On the hastily organized February 17 “Day without Immigrants,” tens of thousands of mostly Latin service workers in many cities and towns stayed home (in many cases with the support of their employers). Earlier in February, Comcast employees at the company’s headquarters walked out to march and rally against Trump’s immigration policies. There is no reason not to expect similar dramatic actions on May Day. The social fervor is such that strikes in certain sectors and workplaces are very possible and possible with relative impunity.

With the prospect of large rallies and marches on May 1, some other unions are talking about participating in an organized way — even if it means after work or on off shifts. Just visibly marching with banners and signs in support of immigrant rights would be important and impactful to the thousands of immigrants who will brave deportation to hit the streets. Unions at the national and local level have an opportunity to speak with one voice in defense of immigrants. In specific locations like Los Angeles, these unions and others may hold joint press conferences and public events. Equally important will be actions in the “heartland” where immigrants may feel more politically and organizationally isolated than on the coasts.

Some unions have already begun “Know Your Rights” solidarity trainings to prepare workers for Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) raids that could take place in the community and the workplace. Union halls could become “Sanctuary Sites” for the undocumented. And now is a timely moment for always appreciated contributions of money, materials and office space to immigrant rights groups.

In addition to SEIU’s United Service Workers West, several national political and immigrants’ rights groups are organizing for the May 1 Day Without Immigrants including: Solid (an open-source project offered by Brandworkers), Strike Core, Cosecha, and the Beyond the Moment March.

May 1 is the traditional international day of working class solidarity, a holiday born of the U.S. struggle for the eight-hour day. It can be reclaimed with gusto this year as a focused attack on the anti-immigrant policies of Trump. But more than that, it is a day to cement the alliance between labor and the immigrant working class.

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About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

Rand Wilson

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy. View all posts by Rand Wilson →

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