May 1st Immigrant Strike

Bennett Baumer Apr 29, 2006

Sensing growing power that immigrants carry in the United States, organizers are pushing the envelope and calling for a general strike and commercial boycott on May 1. Millions of immigrants who have toiled quietly in poor working conditions under fear of deportation took to the streets this spring to demand immigration reform. The first mega-march in Chicago on March 10 took even the organizers by surprise, and subsequent large rallies have emboldened those advocating for a general strike.

“History will be made on May 1. This will be the culmination, the apex of this incredible social movement that has developed in the past several months,” said Armando Navarro, coordinator of the National Alliance for Human Rights in Los Angeles.

The ad-hoc coalitions that have sponsored the rallies are diverse and include organizations with contradictory agendas. Organizations as different as worker centers, unions and anti-war activists mobilized their constituencies, along with Spanish-language corporate media outlets and other business groups. The groups differ on whether to participate in the May 1 general strike and commercial boycott. This latest round of protests will take place as Congress returns from a two-week recess to consider several competing immigration initiatives.

Organizers of the May 1 (International Workers’ Day) actions see the recent wave of protests as the new civil rights movement, and say it draws on a broader base of support than the Chicano and other Latino movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, immigrant rights organizers say they wrestle with divisions within coalitions and anti-immigrant sentiments held by native-born whites and Blacks.

“Some take it personal when they can’t get a job. I tell them to try and see the big picture, that this is a countrywide problem and that we need to find a solution,” said Carlos Montes, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 660 in Southern California. “People look for a scapegoat instead of looking at the real problems… The problem is not blacks or Latinos but poverty and racism.”

Montes’ union local, which represents municipal employees, is backing May 1 actions, though letting members decide whether or not to strike. Many union members are barred from engaging in unauthorized strikes and most immigrants are not protected by a union contract and could be easily fired.

These concerns have lead many New York City groups to offer limited support for the May 1 actions.

“Many of the groups in New York City are not calling for an economic boycott or a strike,” said Norman Eng, community coordinator of the New York Immigration Coalition. Eng’s group is urging others to participate in “human chain” events where immigrants take their lunch break to hold up signs on the sidewalk. “We are working with businesses so that they can put signs in their windows and support immigrants.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is strongly opposed to a general strike and boycott. The Chamber supports a senate compromise that pits undocumented immigrants against one another by offering legal status to some and deportation to others. Business influence in immigration coalitions is raising some eyebrows.

“These larger monied interests are trying to persuade us for any form of legalization and [they] use the marches for any policy, like the Senate compromise,” said Jei Fong, organizer with Chinese Staff and Workers Association.

John Tarleton contributed to this report.

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