UNITED STATES: Millions of immigrants mark May Day with marches, stay-aways

May 10, 2006

Barry Sheppard, San Francisco

According to combined police estimates, 1.1 million immigrant workers and their supporters marched in more than 75 major cities across the US on May 1. Many more participated in smaller cities and towns. Even accepting the police estimates, which are notoriously low, it's clear that millions participated in this historic May Day, the largest demonstrations ever seen in the US. Over and above those who marched were hundreds of thousands more who boycotted shopping and skipped school or work.

In the San Francisco Bay Area there were huge marches. The largest was in San Jose, with hundreds of thousands in the streets. A massive march filled the main thoroughfare in San Francisco, ending in a giant rally at city hall. A march of 10,000 took place in Oakland. Even in the small city where I live, Hayward, there was a rally of 1000. The Bay Area was not unique in the spread of the actions to even the smaller towns and cities across the nation.

The cops said 500,000 marched in Los Angeles, but it was closer to 1 million. They said that 100,000 were on the streets of New York and 400,000 in Chicago. In Denver, the official estimate was that one-sixth of the total population was out on the streets!

One of the goals of the actions, which were called by the coalition that organised the huge immigrants' rights march in LA on March 25, was to demonstrate the impact of a "day without immigrants".

This goal was surely met. School attendance in cities with large concentrations of immigrants was way down. The New York Times reported that "stores and restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York closed because workers did not show up or as a display of solidarity with demonstrators". In one area of Chicago, only 17% of students showed up. There were TV pictures of empty supermarkets usually patronised by immigrants.

In California's Central Valley, where much of the country's produce is grown, no farm workers came to work. TV showed eerie shots of vacant fields. Much of the construction industry was shut down across the country. Major meat-packing companies, including Tyson Foods, Swift and Perdue chickens, shut down many plants because their immigrant workers didn't show up. The largest port on the west coast, in Long Beach, California, was shut down, because the truck drivers were nowhere to be seen.

Vast swaths of service industries — hotels, restaurants, car washes, and so forth — were affected. Nannies took a day off. Workers who couldn't take the day off went to rallies after work.

Although the actions were predominately Latino, a feature of the day was greater participation of immigrants from other backgrounds — Irish, Polish, Korean, Chinese and Haitian to name a few — than at previous rallies.

May Day was a crushing refutation of the more moderate wing of the movement, which implored immigrants not to boycott, not to take off work or school. These forces, including the Catholic Church, the leaders of the few unions who did support the protests and the more conservative Latino organisations, were joined by capitalist politicians posing as friends of the immigrants and received support from editorials in the major press that sought to tone down the protest. Most of the organised labour movement, to its shame, stood aside.

These same forces also didn't like the central demand of the marches for "amnesty" — the legalisation of the 12 million undocumented people in the US.

The militant thrust of the movement, which was at the same time very peaceful and jubilant, reflected that it is a grassroots movement that has sprung up around the country, built by Spanish-language radio and newspapers, emails and websites. It is not saddled with a bureaucratic leadership, although the more conservative forces and Democratic Party politicians are trying to coopt it.

Another goal of the day was to re-establish May Day in the US Most people in the US had not even heard before that May Day is celebrated around the world. Immigrants knew because it is celebrated in their countries of origin. For the first time, the media had to explain that May Day is the international workers' holiday, although it steered clear of mentioning the origins of May Day — the 1886 fight in Chicago for the eight-hour day — and the day's association with socialism and militant workers' struggles.

In sympathy with their brothers and sisters demonstrating in the US, many Mexicans boycotted US-owned businesses like McDonald's on May Day. A solidarity march in central Mexico City was led by Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos. He read a list of names of US people he identifies with, beginning with the Haymarket Martyrs, executed for their part in the 1886 struggle. Eugene Debs, John Reed, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were others. At the border crossings in southern California, usually the site of heavy traffic, there was an eerie silence with no vehicles crossing from Mexico!

Some talking heads in the capitalist media have warned that the big immigrant demonstrations are creating a "backlash" in "middle America". Nothing is further from the truth. The real bigots are frothing at the mouth, to be sure, but they have been pushed back. The movement has already shifted the discussion to the left, as tens of millions of ordinary people have seen the "illegal immigrants" as human beings for the first time, and have begun to hear their demands. It's hard to hate working-class families you see in the streets or on TV who have come out in their millions to demand simple justice.

From Green Left Weekly, May 10, 2006.
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