It was the greatest May Day in generations. More than two million immigrants and their supporters took the day off work to demonstrate pride and defiance in the downtown streets of a dozen cities.
In Los Angeles alone, an estimated one million people marched under the banner “A Day Without Immigrants”. Monster demonstrations in late March and early April had stunned the country, but May Day 2006 was simply the largest mass demonstration in US history.
This cycle of protest began as a populist rebellion, instigated by immigrant rights advocates, labour organisers and high school students, against the vicious Sensenbrenner HR 4437 bill.
This bill, which would make undocumented immigrants into criminals, subject to long prison terms, has already been passed by the Republican controlled House of Representatives.
Not only would HR 4437 criminalise the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the US, it would also apply the felony statute to anyone who helps them, whether family member, labour organiser or member of the clergy.
The original goal of the protests – supported by churches as well as the Spanish language media – was simply to mobilise people to prevent the Senate from endorsing the bill. But as the protests grew, participants increasingly began to compare their insurgency with the 1960s civil rights movement. Many of us now understand that we must be committed not just to one day of protest, but to a generation of struggle.
On May Day, this “movement in the making” took giant steps. The marches were characterised by passion paired with discipline. Despite crude Fox TV caricatures of the protests as simple outbursts of Mexican nationalism, they included a broad representation of immigrant groups, their unions, and neighbourhood organisations.
Wearing white T-shirts – symbolising peace but also honouring the working class background of the demonstrators – men and women, young and old, carried a variety of flags.
Some carried the Stars and Stripes, others Mexican flags, along with a rainbow of colors signifying the presence of other immigrant groups – Koreans, Africans and Central Americans in Southern California, and Irish and Brazilians in Chicago and Boston.
In California, where thousands of businesses that depend on immigrant workers were forced to close or curtail operations, May Day had the aspect of a state-wide general strike. Many risked losing their jobs, although in some cases businesses that either sympathised with their workers’ plight or businesses that were owned by immigrants themselves decided to close for the day.
In the end, the full spectrum of the world of toil was marching in the streets, the invisible workforce that supports California’s famed lifestyles became an army, shouting and singing in its own voice.
Here were the farm workers who pick produce in the California fields under the burning sun. Here were the garment workers who toil in Los Angeles sweatshops. Here were the gardeners who prune shrubs and water suburban lawns. Here were the hotel workers who clean and turn down the beds.
Here were the meat packing workers who stock the supermarket aisles. Here were the cooks and the dishwashers from hundreds of restaurants. Here were the nannies and home care workers who change the diapers of young and old.
Here were the construction workers who paint, nail and tile the homes. Here were the children and the students who know no other home but the US.
The role of the labour movement was decisive in the success of the protests. In the past decade, most US unions have shifted ground to endorse the organisation of undocumented immigrants, and in 2000, the AFL-CIO union federation declared its support for an amnesty programme.
The unions provided much of the infrastructure for the May Day demonstrations and it was extraordinary to see so many thousand workers marching proudly behind their union banners and placards.
May Day, of course, was invented by immigrant workers in Chicago in the 1880s, and it is inspiring to see today’s immigrants consciously reclaiming its traditions. Far from being a single issue protest, this spring’s demonstrations reveal a vast energy to struggle for equality in every arena.
It is the hope of many on the left in the US that undocumented immigrants will not only find a path to legalisation, but that with this there should be a strong push to improve wages, benefits and working conditions.
What is truly criminal about the current situation is that many of the undocumented live in a social limbo. They support themselves and their families back in their home countries through arduous physical work, long hours, minimum wages and with no health insurance.
Meanwhile, the conservative media, with the CNN and Fox news networks as the leading culprits, stoke xenophobia with their inaccurate stereotypes of immigrant workers. They argue that undocumented immigrants cost the government money, while studies have proved again and again that immigrant labour brings into the economy ten times what it supposedly takes.
Undocumented immigrants, of course, have taxes taken out from their paychecks and they are important consumers – another important part of the May Day demonstrations was a boycott of all products, gas and services.
While right wing pundits, and some Democrats, condemn demonstrators for waving Mexican flags or singing “The Star Spangled Banner” in Spanish, theypraise the “patriotism” of anti-immigrant vigilante groups like the Minutemen.
They are the darlings of the media, who give equal voice to a representative of this group of a couple of hundred thousand and to the organisers of the May Day march which was over one million strong.
But anti-immigrant vitriol is a useful strategic distraction from the debacle that has become the Iraq war, with its human and economic toll and rising prices at the oil pump.
Too many Democrats, for their part, support some variant of the “guest worker” legislation promoted by the Bush administration – an initiative that would enshrine juridical inequality and super-exploitation in the workplace.
But the Democrats, like the Republicans, are radically out of touch with the reality in the barrios, sweatshops and inner city schools.
The indisputable fact is that the immigrant working class – documented or not – is no longer afraid. They want equal rights now and they witnessed their own extraordinary power and political savvy.
Alessandra Moctezuma in an artist and academic in California.