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More than 120 activists from around the U.S. met in Chicago April 22 to coordinate plans for national May Day protests for immigrant and worker rights.
While Congress debates "compromise" legislation on immigration that will likely include a guest-worker program, the Chicago conference voted to call for amnesty for undocumented workers.
The conference didn’t make a national call for the May 1 protests to include an economic boycott and walkouts from schools and jobs. But attendees voted to support the right of local committees that wish to participate in such actions.
This was in contrast to a press conference several days earlier by the National Capital Immigration Coalition (NCIC) in Washington, D.C., that urged workers and students not to leave their jobs and schools that day.
The debate over tactics and strategies for the movement was reflected in the Chicago conference in presentations by Nativo López, president of the Mexican American Political Association, who argued in favor of a boycott, and Juan Carlos Ruiz of the NCIC, who called for a focus on the "legislative process" instead.
The conference was hosted by the Chicago’s March 10 Movement, which mobilized some 300,000 to take over the city’s downtown that day–and was attended by leading figures in the Los Angeles March 25 Coalition, which turned out 1 million people two weeks after Chicago.
Those two massive protests became the model for a wave of immigrant rights demonstrations in cities around the U.S.–including traditionally conservative bastions like Dallas and Phoenix. Together, the protests have mobilized millions, shaking up U.S. politics overnight.
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ERNESTO NAVA is the sort of hard-working small-business owner that the Republican Party claims to represent. Born in Mexico, he’s been a resident of the U.S. for 25 years, and runs a nightclub popular with his city’s burgeoning Latino population.
Nava’s business, however, happens to be in Milwaukee, just a few miles from the suburban areas north and west of the city that are represented by Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner–the author of HR 4437, proposed legislation passed by the U.S. House that would criminalize both undocumented workers and anyone who provides them with aid.
The threat of Sensenbrenner’s proposal led Nava to organize 150 other Mexican business owners to close their doors March 23 and help put an estimated 30,000 immigrants on the streets for a demonstration. They are organizing to do it again on a bigger scale on May Day.
But Nava’s anger at Sensenbrenner and the Republicans doesn’t mean he’s lining up behind the Democratic Party. Nava pointed out that Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, signed the Real ID law that puts the state in line with federal legislation authored by Sensenbrenner requiring immigration status to be included on driver’s licenses by 2008. The Democrats "betray their own ideas," Nava said.
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HIS FRUSTRATION was shared by many of the people who attended the April 22 conference in Chicago, aiming to forge an alliance based on grassroots mobilization.
The meeting gathered activists of all kinds–mainly, but not exclusively, Latino–including union organizers, community organizers, labor rights advocates, members of immigrant rights groups, academics and students.
Some had built new organizations out of the recent mobilizations. For example, Olga Bautista helped initiate the Southeast Chicago Coalition for Immigrant Rights just five days before the March 10 protests. In those few days, the group managed to turn out 2,000 Mexican Americans from the neighborhood.
Since the April 22 meeting was organized on short notice, attendance from some parts of the country was lacking, notably from the Northwest and Southwest. Nevertheless, the conference served to consolidate an emerging national network opposed to the various schemes for guest workers and a multi-tier system of immigration status for undocumented workers
Several activists reported on the efforts to reach out to non-Latino immigrants in building for May 1. In Chicago, the Council of Islamic Organizations is mobilizing through the mosques for May Day, issuing a poster that announced: "Muslims join Latinos."
Rosendo Delgado, coordinator of Latinos United of Michigan, described how the Islamic Association of Michigan mobilized its members to support 15 women fired by the Wolverine Meat Packing Co. for participating in the March 27 protest in Detroit. A letter to Wolverine management from the Muslim group’s coordinator, Mohammad Hafeez, pledged to "join with our Latino-Hispanic brothers and sisters to fight against your inhuman, immoral and unfair policies against humanity."
The focus on workers reflected the involvement of the labor movement, particularly in Chicago–as well as the choice of May 1 for a national demonstration.
"It was immigrants’ fight 120 years ago that won us workers’ rights," Cynthia Rodriguez, vice president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, said after the conference. "Once immigrants have amnesty–because that’s what we’re fighting for–what happens then? What about health care? Will they have living wages?"
Rodriguez was speaking as an individual, not as a spokesperson for the SEIU. In fact, the labor movement is divided on whether to support the guest-worker programs now before Congress. Backing the proposals would be a big step backward from the AFL-CIO Executive Council vote in favor of amnesty back in 2000.
In Chicago, unions have set aside those differences to support the May 1 mobilization. "Immigrant rights are workers’ rights," Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon said at an April 24 press conference.
Key to the labor turnout is UNITE HERE, the union that represents a heavily immigrant workforce in textiles, light manufacturing and hotels.
Two UNITE HERE staff members at the April 22 conference, Margarita Klein and Sergio Monterrubio, reported that several employers have already negotiated an agreement to close May 1, realizing that workers would take the day off anyway. "I’ve had workers who I’ve never been able to get to a union meeting call me and say, ‘We don’t want to work that day–what do I do?’" Monterrubio said.
Along with UNITE HERE, SEIU Local 1, which represents janitors in the private sector, sent representatives to the April 22 meeting, as did United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880. Those unions plan a major presence in Chicago May 1, as do the Laborers and the Teamsters.
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ONE LEADING union activist involved in the Chicago protest is José Artemio Arreola, a custodian in the suburban Oak Park school district and a member of the SEIU Local 73 executive board, as well as a founder of Casa Michoacan, a club for immigrants from that Mexican state.
Arreola said in an interview that planning for the response to the Sensenbrenner bill began last December at the SEIU Latino caucus meeting in Puerto Rico, shortly after HR 4437 was passed.
While Spanish-language disc jockeys were credited by the mainstream press for mobilizing protesters, activists like Arreola played a central role in getting the movement underway.
After the massive March 10 protest in Chicago, Arreola took a six-month leave from his job to organize around immigrant rights full time, with the SEIU agreeing to pay his base salary. Soon afterward, Arreola and Cynthia Rodriguez traveled to Los Angeles, where they established links to the March 25 Coalition and began to create the network that led to the April 22 meeting.
While the Chicago coalition isn’t calling for a May 1 boycott, it is urging everyone to attend a 10 a.m. march May 1 and an afternoon protest at the Haymarket monument–a full day of action that will preclude work and school for many.
On the other hand, the LA coalition’s call for an economic boycott and to skip work and school has been sharply opposed by the LA political establishment, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Cardinal Roger Mahoney and María Elena Durazo, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
The LA unions and their allies will mobilize for events on May 1 anyway–although at a separate locations. And as many at the Chicago conference pointed out, divisions are inevitable in view of proposed legislation that may include a nominal "path to citizenship," but will aim at creating second- and third-class citizens.
Against this trend, the conference voted on points of unity that include support for amnesty and full civil rights, opposition to any guest-worker plan, an end to deportations and an expedited process of family unification. The conference also voted to initiate regional immigrant rights conferences in May and June, a national conference in July and a national protest in September.
Nativo López predicted that May Day will see Latino immigrants leaving their jobs and schools to march. The workers at the Archdioceses of Los Angeles, who plan to ignore Cardinal Mahoney’s advice, told him so, López said. "They said, ‘Vamos a la huelga’"–we’re going on strike.