May 9, 2008

The Political Winds of May

The turnouts might have been much smaller than in 2006 when perhaps millions participated in the Great American Boycott, but pro-immigrant and pro-labor actions yesterday still underscored how International Worker’s Day is making a comeback in US political life. In dozens of communities across the US, immigrant advocates and their allies organized diverse actions.

Activists demanded that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) stop raiding workplaces and deporting undocumented workers, and they urged the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes workers without papers.

“We sent a letter to President Bush asking for a moratorium on the (ICE) raids while the future of our 12 million brothers and sisters is resolved,” said Tedoro Aguiluz, executive director of Houston’s Central American Resource Center.

Large marches drawing thousands were held in Los Angeles and Chicago, while smaller protests took place in Seattle, Tucson, Milwaukee, Miami, Houston, and Washington, D.C., where activists picketed the Supreme Court and the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic parties. In El Paso, Texas, immigrant advocates staged a short hunger strike and a march, while in Albuquerque, New Mexico, community members braved the chilly winds to attend a “family day” celebration convened by the Center for Equality and Rights. At least 30 US cities witnessed a May Day event. Unlike 2007, when Los Angeles police attacked demonstrators and journalists at a May Day rally, this year’s demonstration in California’s largest city proceeded peacefully.

On May Day, immigrants and their supporters marched through the streets of Oakland and San Francisco. Marchers protested a growing wave of raids and deportations, and efforts by the Federal government to force employers to fire workers for lack of immigration visas. Photo by David Bacon.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a group of 9 women held a creative protest in front of the Santa Fe Hilton, where they were formerly employed as housekeepers. Taping their mouths shut with messages like “Fired” and “No rights,” the women charged that they were unfairly dismissed because of worker complaints over hazardous and abusive labor conditions last March.

The action by Latina and immigrant workers was supported the non-profit Somos Un Pueblo Unido organization and the Service Employees International Union.

In a phone interview with Frontera Norte Sur, Marcela Diaz, executive director for Somos, said the women approached her group for help after their firings. Complaining of being forced to clean with dangerous chemicals, the former housekeepers told Diaz and the media they were expected to clean 23 rooms during shifts averaging less than 7 hours each.

According to Diaz, the women averaged $9.50-10.50 per hour in a city known for its California-level cost of living The housekeepers’ wages put them just slightly above Santa Fe’s minimum wage of $9.50 per hour, which was achieved after a long struggle by Somos and other living wage advocates.

Diaz said the workers chose May 1 for their public protest to express “solidarity with workers around the world.” Locally, the former Hilton employees “felt that Santa Fe should know that Hilton workers are treated that way and that they are the backbone of the tourist economy in Santa Fe,” she added.

Billed as a renovated, smoke-free hotel situated amid the marvels of culture and history, the Santa Fe Hilton advertises off-season rooms for between $159 and $209 per night. Quoted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Michael Newbrand, Santa Fe Hilton manager, maintained that the company held “our employees’ safety and satisfaction in the highest regard and encourages workers to effectively alert management of issues that may affect or have affected their work environment.” Newbrand, however, did not address specific complaints by his ex-workers.

Diaz said her organization has assisted the onetime Hilton employees in filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, Employment Equal Opportunity Commission and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Elsewhere, elected officials and other community leaders attended or endorsed different May 1 events. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa contended that stepped-up ICE raids not only threatened the livelihoods of 500,000 people employed in the food and other industries, but jeopardized the broader economy as well. Villaraigosa’s stance was shared by Samuel Garrison, vice-president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

“The raids are terrorizing the workers, and they are worrying businessmen. I think that it is going to cause many businesses to think twice before coming to Los Angeles,” Garrison said.

Though May Day 2008 was barely a blip in the US English-language media, it clearly had an impact on the political scene. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both released statements in favor of immigration reform. Clinton pledged to present a legislative initiative within “100 days of my administration,” while Obama committed to working for a comprehensive immigration law overhaul that would bring “order and compassion to a system that is broken.”

Republican presidential candidate John McCain had no immediate comment on the day’s events.

In an election year, political power was on the minds of May 1 organizers. “Besides demonstrating on this day, we are in a permanent campaign to have the people vote in November,” said Emma Lozano of the May 1 International Coalition in Chicago. “May 1 is another step. I estimate we brought together 10,000 people in Chicago, but in November millions of us will march to the polls. I can be sure of this.” For his part, Juan Jose Gutierrez of Latino Movement USA said activists are aiming to get the immigrant legalization issue onto the plank of the Democratic Party at this year’s convention scheduled for Denver, Colorado.

Growing out of a 1886 Chicago strike and the police killing of workers, May Day was purposely downplayed for political reasons in the United States. Instead, the official Labor Day holiday was designated in September. But the 2006 revival of International Worker’s Day as an international day of mass action by the immigrant rights movement set in motion a new political dynamic in the US that’s now touching other sectors.

In another May 1 event that was largely glossed over by the US mass media, 25,000 West Coast longshoremen conducted day-long work stoppages at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle, or “border-to-border” as one radio host described it, to protest the war in Iraq. Two years ago, business at West Coast docks was disrupted by truckers who refused deliveries to show their support for the surging immigrant rights movement at the time. Many of the participating truckers were immigrants.

Jack Heyman, an official with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that sponsored the work stoppage in defiance of an arbitrator’s ruling, said on Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now program that college students, teachers, truck drivers, postal workers and others in New York, North Carolina and California held small, quiet activities in support of the dock workers. But the “most stunning act of solidarity” came from Iraqi dock workers who also shut down ports, Heyman said. “We’re hoping that these kinds of actions will resonate with other unions and workers,” he said.

Santa Fe activist Diaz said smaller events commemorating May Day have taken place for years, but she credited the pro-immigrant movement for pumping new life into an international commemoration that, ironically, began in the US. “It has gotten more attention lately because of the immigrant rights movement. I hope we continue to bring light to it,” Diaz said.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur an on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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