On the Streets of Chicago

IT WAS the movement’s dynamics in microcosm. Chicago’s boisterous May Day march for immigrant rights had begun, and Democratic politicians were literally running to try to get to the front.

“They thought they were going to lead the march,” chuckled José Artemio Arreola, a school custodian, executive board member of Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 73, founder of the city’s Casa Michoacan and central figure in Chicago’s huge March 10 protest of 300,000–the first of the immigrant rights “mega marches” that have since swept across the U.S.

Rather than elected officials leading the May Day march, Arreola explained, a group of disabled people were at the front. Arreola and other organizers had sent them off half an hour ahead of schedule in an attempt to manage the flow of the crowd at the pre-march rally at a Near West Side park. Meanwhile, the politicians had lined up an hour earlier outside a Teamsters union truck trailer that served as a sound stage.

Among them was Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton White House official, who now runs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he chooses candidates, directs the flow of campaign contributions and dictates “messaging.”

Emanuel’s invitation to speak at the rally had caused controversy at a meeting of Chicago march organizers two days earlier because of his reported role in pressuring Democrats in swing districts to vote for HR 4437, the proposed legislation that would criminalize the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

According to the Washington newsletter The Hill, Emanuel, who personally voted against the measure, ordered the “yes” votes to take an election issue away from the Republicans–and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) denounced him for doing so.

But at the meeting ICIRR President Juan Salgado, who MCed the May Day rally, advocated for having Emanuel speak. A long debate ensued, reflecting in part a simmering controversy over whether the immigrant rights movement should push for amnesty for all, or support Democratic-backed “compromise” proposals that would include a guest-worker program.

In the end, the organizers voted to have Emanuel speak on the condition that he sign a letter agreeing with the march’s demand for full legalization–although this effort apparently went by the boards in the hectic hours before the march.

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SO THERE was the immaculately dressed Emanuel in muddy Union Park at 10 a.m., introduced to Arreola (“the lead organizer”) before he took to the microphone.

Asked about his role in pressuring some House Democrats to vote for HR 4437, Emanuel turned icy. “You’re repeating a rumor–you have no basis for saying that,” he said, as his two assistants summoned a Chicago police officer to prepare to escort a waiting car to get Emanuel to O’Hare Airport for a flight to Washington.

Once at the microphone, Emanuel kept it brief–and vague. Asked after his speech if he would support a guest-worker program contained in various legislative compromise proposals, he said, “I’m for comprehensive reform” and a “path toward citizenship.”

Other prominent Democrats who spoke at the opening rally gave identical non-answers to the same question.

“My concern is to make sure that [a guest-worker program] doesn’t end up being an international temp agency” said Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, while greeting activists he knows from his days as a Chicago community organizer. But is he against any such program? “I’m not opposed in principle, but we’re working on the details about how this thing should be structured,” he said.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, the most prominent Latino politician in Chicago, captured the crowd’s imagination by discrediting right-wing myths about immigrants. But he made no mention in his speech of proposals for guest-worker programs, even though he had already supported such a measure proposed by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy.

Instead, Gutierrez packaged his position with a crowd-pleasing phrase, calling for a “process of legalization” for immigrants. Later, he dismissed the question of whether guest worker programs mean second-class citizenship. “It just means that they can come, and they can earn their pathway here to the United States of America,” Gutierrez said, leaving aside the question of what rights, if any, guest workers would have.

Also speaking at the pre-march rally was Rep. Jan Schakowsky, who represents parts of Chicago and its northern suburbs. Rather than a temporary or guest worker program, “the best path is to legalization and citizenship,” she said in an interview.

But that doesn’t mean amnesty, she said. “I think what we are talking about with legalization [is that] you have to demonstrate that you are willing to play by the rules,” she said. “But the notion of a sweeping amnesty does not necessarily mean that people earn the right to become citizens, and that’s what we want.”

If the Democrats could skate through the rally without saying much of substance, it’s because they can’t be pinned down on any “compromise” on guest workers as long as the Senate remains deadlocked on the issue. Arreola isn’t worried, however, since he believes that the immensity of the movement will force them to change. “Rahm Emanuel changed a lot,” he said.

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WHILE EMANUEL was jetting back to Washington, Schakowsky, Gutierrez and other politicians took a spot in the march about a mile behind the front line.

The politicians eventually attracted television cameras as the march entered downtown Chicago’s Loop. But the main attraction was the sight of 600,000 people on the move, a mass of humanity that was mostly Latino, but multiracial and ethnically diverse–and overwhelming working-class.

The march filed down restaurant row on Randolph Street, where virtually all of the fruit markets and butcher shops were shut down for the day. In fact, hundreds of businesses across Chicago shut down for May Day, many posting signs issued by march organizers, even though there was not an official call for a boycott.

Arreola said that calling for a boycott could have created problems for the unions in the May Day coalition, so instead, they simply scheduled an all-day event and encouraged people to come. Calling a boycott, he argued, was beside the point. “If I tell you I am going to kick you, and I kick you, or I just kick you, the result is the same,” he had joked a few weeks earlier.

Boosting the turnout was a major effort by several big unions who had negotiated time off for workers to attend the rally, including Arreola’s SEIU Local 73 and SEIU Local 1, as well as UNITE HERE, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and some Teamsters locals.

More politicians spoke at the final rally, as did several members of the clergy. But the prominence of organized labor in the movement and the working-class character of the march has shattered politics as usual across the U.S.

The Democrats will doubtless try to contain the movement by making a deal with Republicans today, and promising improvements if they can take Congress away from the Republicans in the November elections.

But this is a movement that’s begun to sense its power. Millions are fighting for justice and equality–and they won’t be satisfied with politicians’ vague promises much longer.




LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker