May Day events dramatize immigrant, labor connection


A “National Day Without Immigrants” and other May Day events dramatized the link between immigrants and the labor movement, a connection many say is providing new energy to the effort for worker rights in the 21st century.

Across the United States, some 1 million immigrants stayed home from work Monday, May 1, as part of a coordinated “Day Without Immigrants.” Many other immigrants and supporters participated in events to call for comprehensive immigration reform providing a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, family reunification for immigrants, better educational opportunities and stronger worker rights standards and enforcement.

The actions come as Congress is debating changes in immigration laws and the issue is before many state lawmakers – including the Minnesota Legislature.

In Chicago, more than a half million people marched through the Loop to the Haymarket Memorial commemorating the workers – many of them immigrants – who fought for the eight-hour day. Other rallies were held in Los Angeles, New York, Denver and Washington, D.C. The Port of Los Angeles-Long Beach closed for lack of truck drivers, while many meatpacking operations shut down due to lack of workers. The California state Senate passed a resolution backing the economic boycott.

In Minnesota, about 3,000 people attended a rainy event in Powderhorn Park, where they made signs and listened to speeches. At the worker rights’ table, immigrants who were taking the day off listed a number of worksites affected by the boycott, including restaurants, hospitals and meatpacking plants. Some organizations, such as Jewish Community Action and the Resource Center of the Americas, closed for the day to support the day without immigrants.

Members of AFFIRM, the Alliance for Fair Federal Immigration Reform of Minnesota, distributed fliers in downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul to promote immigration reform, while students at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul held a forum on the issue. The religious coalition ISAIAH and the Hispanic Ministry Office of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese sponsored Stations of the Cross starting at the Basilica of St. Mary and ending at Government Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. In Owatonna, Centro Campesino held a vigil.

“It’s a matter of international and local human rights. People need events like this to get re-charged and build our strength,” said Marcel Castro, painter and rally organizer.

“I think the vast majority of our plant didn’t show up today,” said Nelson Gonzalez, a worker at Dakota Premium in South St. Paul. “I’m here because we need legalization legislation now — not in six to 11 years, but now. It’s the only way we’re going to have strength to fight for everybody.

“We’re going to organize more conferences and marches, but until the labor movement puts more of its power behind this fight — to mobilize the millions of its members, we won’t get too far. It’s something that could unify labor and build our strength for future struggles. The key is unity– native born and immigrant workers organizing together.”

Several participants said they are concerned about proposals that make the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the United States felons – and require criminal charges against anyone who assists them.

“The politicians in Washington are trying to scapegoat immigrant workers and criminalize them,” said Joe Callahan, a member of United Auto Workers Local 879. “There’s been strong resistance to this, which is the best thing that’s happened in the U.S. in 30 years.”

Eduardo Cardena, a volunteer with Centro de Derechos Laborales (Workers Rights Center) and rally organizer, said “The institutions that are supposed to be providing justice for immigrant workers, such as the Department of Labor, aren’t doing their job and so our workers’ rights committee is an attempt to create a different model of organizing… getting people in the community together to learn from each other. Some unions in the area have been great about this as well, but more unions need to be helping their immigrant members with their basic needs– sending and receiving faxes, holding English classes.”

August Nimtz, a professor at the University of Minnesota, likened the recent wave of immigrant organizing to the civil rights movement.

“For me it’s a new civil rights movement,” he said. “I’m a product of the civil rights movement, wouldn’t be teaching if not for the civil right s movement and just like the civil rights movement broke down divisions within the working class, this movement is doing the same.”

Local organizers of the National Day Without Immigrants will discuss their next steps at a meeting Saturday, May 13, at the Resource Center of the Americas, 3019 Minnehaha Ave. S., (corner of Lake and Minnehaha), Minneapolis. Everyone is welcome.

The different issues entangled in the current immigration debate in Minnesota and the nation will be hashed out by a panel including Pakou Hang, a Hmong political activist; Teresa Ortiz, of the Resource Center of the Americas; Barbara Ronningen, Minnesota state demographer; and Joel Wurl, associate director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. The program, “Labor and Immigration: A Community Panel,” will take place Monday, May 8, at 7 p.m. at Neighborhood House, 179 E. Robie St. in St. Paul. It is part of the free “Untold Stories” labor history series.