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No Justice, No Work

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

It has been called "A Day Without Immigrants."

"The Great American Boycott."

And down in Mexico: "Nothing Gringo."

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."

Hundreds of City University and high school students--many of them the children of undocumented residents--are staging walkouts, and organizers say buses have been chartered to bring New Jersey day laborers into the city.

Though widespread, the actions in New York aren't expected to be anywhere near as massive or militant as those out West.

In Los Angeles, the "hotbed of the boycott," organizers say two million or more could leave schools and jobs, despite calls by the Mayor and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to wait and rally in the evening. The Los Angeles Unified School District has all but endorsed the demonstrations, instucting principals to walk out with students in order to help keep order. Teachers will be joining them: Organizers estimate half the teachers in L.A. are walking out.

And many workers will protest with their employers' blessing: In the past week, nine meatpacking plants and 120 produce distributors have announced they're shutting down on May 1.

Scores of Mexican and Central American port truckers, or "troqueros," in California, Washington and Oregon are reportedly refusing to transport goods that day.

South of the border, there will be blockades to stop people from shopping in the U.S. led by university students and "braceros," the aging Mexican farm workers who came here under America's last "guest-worker" program and are still fighting for the back pay they lost when they were forcibly deported during "Operation Wetback" in the 1950s and 1960s.

New York's labor unions say legally they can't endorse a strike or work stoppage over immigrant rights, and some say that "sends the wrong message" or is just not in their interest at this stage. (The city's embattled Transit Workers are already threatening their own work "slowdown" to break the stalemate over their contract.)

"We also support the call for no shopping," says Rhadames Rivera, vice-president of the healthcare workers union 1199, SEIU. "But to call on our lowest-income workers not to go to work would be inappropriate at this time."

Yet elsewhere, big labor is signing on. On Monday, the Chicago Federation of Labor voted for its member unions to join a midday march (that's expected to draw 300,000 or more), and to support all workers who take the day off. Organizers predict widespread work stoppages, but say workers may make up the time by going to work on Saturday.

"This has the potential to become one of the biggest and widest actions that have ever happened in the history of this country," boasted Jessie Diaz, one of the organizers of the half-million-strong rally that swamped Los Angeles on March 25.

"The call for a one-day boycott is spreading through the grassroots like wildfire in the West and Southwest, and even in New York," Diaz added, speaking at a press conference with Troops Out Now! and other members of the May 1 Coaliton in Union Square last week. "We've been out talking to people in the subways and in the restaurants, and let me tell you, the people here are ready."

In fact, in some places, news of firings and detentions of undocumented workers is just making people more fired up. Diaz says he's not worried about creating a backlash against the campaign for amnesty, even as anti-immigrant vigilantes like the Minutemen spread nativist fears among whites and African Americans.

"They keep on saying that immigrants drain the economy, and that America is now becoming a Third World cesspool," Diaz notes. "Well, if that's true, then on May 1, when we don't buy and we don't sell and we don't go to work, then we're going to see a big boom in the American economy. And if not, well, we rest our case."


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