Millions of immigrant workers take to the streets
On 1 May, millions of immigrant workers took to the streets for their rights, in the largest protest and boycott in the United States in decades.
The protests were huge: in Los Angeles 500,000 to 1,000,000 demonstrated, in Chicago 400,000 to 600,000, hundreds of thousands in New York City, 100,000 in Atlanta, 100,000 in San Francisco, and 75,000 in Denver. In total, protests took place in over 150 cities and across the country.
But the radical new dimension in the situation was the hundreds of thousands of workers who boycotted work and went on strike, the first national political strike in recent memory in the US.
In a magnificent demonstration of the enormous power of the working class, many corporations that rely on immigrant workers were forced to scale back or close down completely, especially retail stores, restaurants, meatpacking plants, and construction sites.
In Los Angeles, truckers shut down the country’s largest shipping port, and an estimated one-third of the city’s small businesses were shuttered. Half of the stores in the city’s fashion and garment district were closed.
In Florida, more than half the workers at construction sites in Miami-Dade County did not show up. In the meatpacking industry, eight out of 14 Perdue Farms Chicken plants were shut down and Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, had about a dozen of its 100 plants shut down. Cargill Meat Solutions, the nation’s second-largest beef processor, “voluntarily” closed, giving its 15,000 workers the day off.
Lettuce, tomatoes and grapes went unpicked in fields in California and Arizona, which contribute more than half the nation’s produce, as scores of growers let workers take the day off.
Israel Banuelos, 23, and more than 50 of his colleagues, skipped work, with the grudging acceptance of his employer, an industrial paint plant in Hollister, Calif. "We were supposed to work," Mr. Banuelos said, "but we wanted to close down the company. Our boss didn’t like it money-wise.” (New York Times, 5/2/06)
Young people were at the forefront of this new movement. Throughout the country, activists organized walkouts in high schools and colleges. The Associated Press reported that “The impact on some school systems was significant. In the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, which is 73 percent Hispanic, about 72,000 middle and high school students were absent – roughly one in every four” (02/05/06).
Nor were the protests limited to the United States. In San Diego, immigrant rights groups organized a march to the US-Mexico border, to meet up with a protest on the other side of the border in Tijuana. Traffic all along the border was slowed down due to the boycott and protestors forced some crossings to close.
Debate within Movement
The strength of the 1 May protests and boycott was all the more significant given the strong opposition from sections of the leadership of the immigrant rights movement.
In the run up to May Day, many of the leaders of some of the largest immigrant rights organizations, politicians, the leadership of the Catholic Church, Latino business organizations, and sections of the Spanish language media, waged a campaign to stop the walkouts from going ahead. These forces feared a strike would alienate their “allies” in Congress, and could embolden Latino workers to make more radical demands, which threaten the profits of Latino business owners.
As the Washington Post put it, “The action may have been stronger had the coalition of grass-roots organizations that advises immigrants not been deeply conflicted over whether to endorse a boycott. Some supported the effort to demonstrate immigrant power, but others discouraged it, saying it was premature because Congress has not taken action since the first demonstrations, and because the strike might induce a backlash by those born in the United States. ‘I think that for the most part, people in the community understood the reasons why . . . we asked them to go to work and go to school,’ said Jaime Contreras [chairman of SEIU union local 82 in Washington D.C. and] President of the National Capital Immigration Coalition of Washington, part of an immigrant coalition that discourages boycotting before Congress can act. ‘Rest assured, if we don’t have a bill we can live with, we will have a general strike and a general boycott.’” (02/05/06)
Unfortunately, this division, and the active campaign to stop the boycotts, meant they were smaller than they could have been. For example, Washington D.C., site of a 100,000 strong rally on 10 April, only had a few thousand on May Day because nearly all of the main activist groups did not support the boycotts.
But, despite this obstacle, the overall response to 1 May was phenomenal, as millions of immigrant workers and youth instinctively understood the need for mass protests and their power as workers by refusing to work.
This groundswell of support from below in a parts of the country even compelled some of those forces who initially opposed the strike call to backpedal. In Los Angeles, the more conservative wing of the movement recognized that the momentum for 1 May was too strong in LA to stop, so they instead called for a separate rally after work hours. This led to two May Day rallies in LA, with a daytime boycott rally calling for papers for all, and an after work protest focused on more moderate demands like a “Path to citizenship” and supporting the Senate bill.
Democratic Party politicians, realizing the massive support for 1 May in the Latino community, opportunistically passed resolutions supporting the protests and boycotts in the California and New York state legislatures.
Disgracefully, many union leaders also joined the campaign against the walkouts and strikes, which reflects their deeply conservative outlook and hostility to determined struggle and militant tactics. Instead, if the labor leaders had thrown themselves at the forefront of the campaign on 1 May, it could have been an historic opportunity to begin rebuilding the US labor movement. With a bold appeal, and fighting demands for living wages and healthcare, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers could be rapidly unionised.
The May Day mobilisation also highlighted the dangerous polarisation in the US working class around the question of immigration. While there is an electric mood of struggle in the immigrant community, there is widespread confusion on this issue among large sections of US – born workers, both white and black.
Across the country, the right-wing is stepping up its attacks on immigrants. They are demagogically trying to appeal to workers’ growing anger at deteriorating living conditions by scapegoating immigrants to divert anger away from the real problems like Bush’s attacks on workers, the growing divide between rich and poor, and the war in Iraq. The Democratic Party, which is tied by a thousand strings to the same big business establishment as the Republican Party, has proven itself totally incapable of effectively answering these attacks.
It is this lack of a viable working class or left-wing political alternative that allows the right-wing to partly tap into the growing anger of workers and exploit it for their reactionary purposes. This sharply underlines the need for a new political force that can unite all working people – immigrant, Latino, black and white – in a common struggle against our real enemy, the corporate oligarchy which arrogantly rules over the country.
A mass party of working people and the oppressed could play a vital political role by taking up the campaign for papers for all, explaining to US-born workers that corporate America wants to keep immigrant workers in second class status so they can pay them poverty wages and bust up union drives, which pushes down the wages and conditions of all workers.
Socialists campaign for the immigrant rights movement to appeal to all working people, by linking the struggle for immigrant rights with living wage jobs and healthcare, for all. This is because the only way racism, and the capitalist system that breeds it, can be successfully defeated, is by building a united workers’ movement.
In an encouraging sign in this direction, while the May Day rallies were mostly Latino, “In contrast to similar demonstrations in the past two months, large numbers of people of other ethnicities joined or endorsed many of the events. In some cases, the rallies took on a broader tone of social action, as gay rights advocates, opponents of the war in Iraq and others without a direct stake in the immigration debate took to the streets.” (New York Times, 5/2/06)
The 1 May protests, strikes and walkouts were a taste of the enormous power of the working class. It gave an annihilating answer to the preachers of patience and moderation, demonstrating how rapidly mass struggles can erupt and the willingness to struggle among workers, particularly the most oppressed and downtrodden sections.
But it also showed clearly that to fully tap into this potential the movement will need to build democratic mass organizations, to provide a vehicle for the millions pouring into struggle to be actively involved with. To go forward to stronger and larger national strike actions it will be necessary to draw together and consciously build a left-wing, working class wing of the movement, to overcome the obstacle of the conservative leaders who fiercely opposed 1 May and who will resist future militant actions or working class demands.
One of the main slogans at the demonstrations throughout the country over the past two months was, “A sleeping giant has awoken.” Indeed, we are seeing the first rumblings of the Latino working class beginning to rise to its feet.
They are announcing to the world the coming storms which will shake US capitalism to its foundations. It is a seismographic indication, pointing to deepening contradictions, which have been accumulating below the surface of society. The constantly growing gap between a tiny financial aristocracy and the vast majority, the ripping up of the social contract, the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina … all of these point to explosive and irreconcilable conflicts that will shatter the supposed “peace and tranquility” of US society.
May Day was born in the United States, on 1 May, 1886. For decades, the working class and socialist traditions of May Day were virtually erased and wiped out. 120 years later, we have seen the re-emergence of May Day in the United States, now the epicenter of global capitalism. Rather than some pale imitation of the past, “The Great American Boycott 2006” is the music of the future.