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May 1… 1886, 2006, 2007

30 April 2007

Last May 1, in Slate Magazine, labor historian Nelson Lichenstein wrote:


Democrats and some leaders of D.C.-based immigrant groups worry that the call to boycott work and shut down Latino-dependent businesses will generate a backlash. Republicans and nativists see them as un-American.


But all this is beside the point, a tiff that misses the marches’ transformative impact. These May Day demonstrations and boycotts return the American protest tradition to its turn-of-the-20th-century ethnic proletarian origins—a time when, in the United States as well as in much of Europe, the quest for citizenship and equal rights was inherent in the fight for higher wages, stronger unions, and more political power for the working class.


Because today’s marches are on a workday, they recall the mass strikes and marches that turned workers out of factories that convulsed America in the decades after the great railway strike of 1877, the first national work stoppage in the United States. Asserting their citizenship against the autocracy embodied by the big railroad corporations, the Irish and Germans of Baltimore and Pittsburgh burned roundhouses and fought off state militia in a revolt that frightened both the rail barons and the federal government. Hence the 19th-century construction of all those center-city National Guard armories, with rifle slits designed to target unruly crowds. The protesters wanted not only higher pay and a recognized trade union but a new birth of egalitarian freedom. Indeed, May Day itself, as an international workers holiday, arose out of a May 1, 1886, Chicago strike for the eight-hour workday. The fight for leisure—clearly lost today—was a great unifying aspiration of the immigrant workers movement a century ago with its slogan, “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will.”


Last May Day’s student walkouts caught me by surprise… I wish I’d saved the photo of the boycott and march in Kodiak Alaska (but apparently the original Jornada link is on strike). The March school walkouts surprised everyone, and the talking heads didn’t quite know how to cover them. CBS News still has a March 26, 2006 AP wire service story available: Immigration March Draws 500,000 in L.A .


The “spin” was that it was a Spanish language radio station in Los Angeles had started the walkouts. Okie-dokie, but how do you explain then the walkouts in places like Charlotte North Carolina or Carrolton, Texas? And, it does beg the question of why our media missed a major story if they had warning – and why – in the 5th largest Spanish speaking country – major news sources aren’t checking out what their colleagues are writing and talking about.


No… they missed the REAL story. The professional babblers couldn’t quite grasp that kids had used technology – cell phones and e-mails – to organize a mass movement without adult supervision. The kids made it real, and brought home the immigration story to everyone.


It was a little too real. Everyone forgets that even then, “more than three-quarters of Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants who have spent many years in the United States to apply for citizenship, according to a poll conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corp.”

It looked like there might be real change, and the “responsible adults” — the human rights organizers, the Catholic Church, the Labor Unions, those Latino and Democratic Party officials Lichenstein mentioned  – only hoped to make some vague point about how immigrants were part of America. 

The Las Vegas strike (in a city that would collapse without immigrant labor), looked more like a Fourth of July parade than a serious attempt to close businesses down:

I don’t think the immigrants who rioted in 1877 or who started marching in 1886 were trying to appease the Lou Dobbs of their day.  They were trying to get their rights.  And, if they pissed a few people off — like the high school kids did the month before — that goes with the territory. 

I never understood how a boycott, that was advertised as not meant to hurt business… or was only half-heartedly supported by it’s backers (the Mayor of Los Angeles insisted the students stay in school, and the Cardinal of the same city suggested people go to a special Mass instead… which may have pleased God, but wasn’t going to force economic or political change in the sinful world).  At best, it was a symbolic event, and any impact was subtle at best. 

While you’ll notice that the loudest congressional voices calling for anti-immigrant legislation were all defeated in the November 2006 elections, immigration raids have increased, 

It wasn’t losing a day’s work that scared the right and the establishment – it was the strength of the labor movement. Or the startling fact that the U.S. still has – and needs – labor unions. The old mantra, “the immigrants are doing the jobs Americans won’t do” is more or less correct. The right-wingers had no real comeback, except to claim that native born workers WOULD fill these jobs if it wasn’t for the foreigners. Which makes one wonder why the first round of immigration raids was at unionized plants. Maybe to bring in native born non union workers?

The raid in New Bedford on the sweatshop only came after people started noticing that the raids were against union shops. And, given how sleazy the employers were, it was a safe raid. Not that any native born workers are going to fill the jobs that have opened up.

But, without May 1, 2006 to bring the issues up, would we be talking about Ritmo, or Hutto, or laughing at the whole ridiculous idea of a border fence? Would we still be taking the Minutemen as anything other than a pathetic bunch of overweight remnants of the Wenwe tribe (as in … “when we ran things…” — which they never really did, being pawns in the whole system all their lives)? Would the Mex Files have as many readers as it does?

What May 1, 2007 brings, I don’t know. Crowds will be smaller than last year, but there more people recognize the importance of the issues:

Last year’s May 1 boycott brought out more than a million protesters across the nation. But later rallies failed to produce large turnouts, as legislation stalled in Congress and bipartisan proposals for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship have become more conservative.

The developments have disheartened many would-be marchers, but organizers said the frustration with Congress also brought out new supporters.

“It used to be that Hispanic immigrants, those who came legally, were more conservative on the issue,” said Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American who heads the Democratic Party’s Miami-Dade County chapter.

“But now it’s become so wrapped up with issues of racism and identity, even Puerto Ricans and Cubans care about immigration,” he said.

It’s always been said that the secret to U.S. political stability has been the ability of the “establishment” to coopt change, and that the “business of America is business.”  People aren’t going to boycott (though maybe they should), but hopefully, they’ll keep up enough noise and under the radar cyber-pressure to force business and the “establishment” to pay attention to the issue. 

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