No Justice, No Work

Immigrants tap May Day's radical roots

It has been called "A Day Without Immigrants."

"The Great American Boycott."

And down in Mexico: "Nothing Gringo."

Immigration protest in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY, May 1, 2006
photo: Dani Golomb
Immigration protest in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY, May 1, 2006

But whatever you call it, the range of actions planned for May 1 to protest House bill HR 4437 and other punitive immigration measures circulating in Congress shows just how diverse and energized this movement to defend the rights foreign-born laborers has become.

When organizers of the massive March 25 protest in Los Angeles first floated the idea for a May Day strike to demonstrate the economic power of immigrants, many readily embraced it.

That's not surprising since in most immigrants' home countries--and indeed, most nations around the world--May 1 is celebrated as International Workers Day, a holiday to honor the establishment of the eight-hour work day (and the striking Chicago anarchists who died to earn it).

But in the U.S., fears of red-baiting caused unions to shun May 1 in favor of the more innocuous Labor Day.

Lingering anxieties over tapping May Day's radical roots may be part of what has brought so many of the immigrants' rights groups and labor unions who helped organize big rallies in recent weeks to pull back from calls for a national strike or boycott. Some activists say ditching work or staying home from school will just put immigrants and their families further at risk--a serious concern considering U.S. Immigrations and Customs agents rounded up nearly 1,200 undocumented workers last week. Others fear that work stoppages and boycotts will cast immigrants as anti-American and anti-business, alienating the very lawmakers they need to win over.

Already, right-wing radio jocks have been lashing out at the "communist" rallies planned around the country. "To the Wal-Mart, comrades," quipped one conservative pundit on the Human Events website, urging red-blooded Americans to redouble their spending on May 1.

Here in New York, the coalition of immigrant rights groups and unions that organized the April 10 rally that flooded City Hall is hoping to shift the debate. Rather than strike or boycott, they're calling on people to leave work or school at noon and form "human chains" for 20 minutes along commercial thoroughfares in various immigrant neighborhoods throughout the city, while holding up signs that proclaim "We Are America" and "I Love Immigrant New York!"

The idea is to highlight the role of immigrants as an "economic engine" in New York City. Thousands are expected to link arms at 12:16 p.m., a time chosen to mark the date (December 16, 2005) when the House passed HR 4437, the bill put forward by Republican Congressman Jim Sensebrenner of Wisconsin that would criminalize undocumented residents and those who help them remain in the U.S. People will be gathering on the streets of Chinatown; Washington Heights; Sunset Park, Brooklyn; Jackson Heights, Queens; and Fordham Road in the Bronx. (For locations, click here.)

"We wanted to create an action that everyone can join, including people who want to boycott and those who cannot because they need to work or attend school that day," explains Ana Maria Archila, executive director of the Latin American Integration Center in Jackson Heights, Queens. "We also wanted to dispel the notion that immigrants are just people who come here to do low-paying jobs that no one else wants to do. Immigrants are also the people who open businesses that revitalize communities and create new jobs, and they are often struggling to keep their businesses open, so closing down for an entire day is very hard for them.

"So the idea is to have employers and workers and consumers linking hands together in a show of unity and celebration, but also of resistance to the attack that's being posed in Congress, because these are provisions that affect the entire immigrant community, not just undocumented workers."

Others in New York are still pushing a boycott. The hard-left anti-war group Troops Out Now!, members of the Million Worker March Movement, and some 50 other immigrant, labor, and community activist groups are calling for "No School - No Work - No Shopping - No Selling," on May 1. They're holding a rally at 4 p.m. in Union Square, followed by a march down Broadway to Foley Square, which still gives people the option to attend work or school if they need to.

"We're asking people to show support in whatever capacity they can. We're not striking, but most of our workers have sick days and vacation days, so they can take the day off," says Chis Silvera, head of Teamsters Local 808, which represents building and railroad maintenance workers in the city. "We're also calling on people to not buy or sell anything between 8 and 4 a.m."

Local 108 of the Laborers, which represents workers in the private trash-hauling and recycling industries, and some DC 37 locals are also encouraging their workers to show support by taking personal time off, Silvera says.

In "El Barrio," the East Harlem community group Cecomex is working with local Hispanic restaurant and store owners to "shut down" the main shopping drag on 116th Street. Some Latin taxi drivers say they'll pull over for an hour at noon.

And in Long Island, some 65 employers, including the Associated supermarket in Hempstead and numerous family-owned businesses, are shuttering their doors on May 1. "More than 60 different business are closing here, including restaurants, beauty salons, and car repair places," confirms Nadia Marin-Molina, director of the Workplace Project, an immigrant rights center in Hempstead. "Most of them are Latino-owned, so they want to show solidarity with their workers."

Next Page »