The New Face of the Labor Movement

Random Lengths News | May 10, 2006
The first day of May was unusually quite in San Pedro even for a Monday. From liquor stores to the neighborhood mom and pop shops they shut their doors either in solidarity or lack of customers; down on the waterfront work ground to a near standstill as the un- unionized truckers boycotted the terminals. This is what a day without immigrants feels like yet there are still no reports as to the real economic ripple this day caused. In Los Angeles and Wilmington things were different.

On May Day, immigrants and their supporters filled the streets of Los Angeles twice in one day—a huge march downtown, and another through the Wilshire district’s Miracle Mile. There were so many people that those participating said they were sin numero— uncountable. Marchers of all races and nationalities protested the bills in Congress that would criminalize 12 million undocumented people, build a wall between the US and Mexico, set up guest worker programs, allow indefinite detention and drive from their jobs those without papers.

They called for amnesty—permanent residence visas that would give the undocumented immediate legal status and rights and equality—while opposing second-class status as temporary or guest workers. They carried thousands of American flags, chanting Aqui Estamos y No Nos Vamos! -- We’re Here, and We’re not Leaving!

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants had taken off work or school to come to the marches, and refrained from buying anything, to show their economic importance. Even the LA Metro let marchers on for free.

March organizer Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican American Political Association and the Hermandad Nacional Mexicana, said, “On May 1st immigrant workers demonstrated their power in the national immigration debate. Their absence from workplaces, schools and stores sent a powerful message that that they will not be shut out of this discussion. They are rescuing from anonymity the struggle for the 8-hour day, begun in Chicago over a century ago by the immigrants of yesteryear. They are recovering the traditions of all working people.”

Troqueros in Solidarity with Pro-immigration Marchers

At 10 a.m. of May Day 20 miles down the 110 Freeway at Banning Park, a crowd of approximately 300 appeared for a rally supporting the port drivers that chose not drive trucks transporting cargo into the nation’s economy. The predominantly Latino port drivers—collectively inspired, but acting individually—decided to join Monday's rallies for not only immigrant rights, but for the improvement in working conditions for port truckers.

Their collective action forced a vast warehouse and distribution network and the nation's largest seaport complex to work furiously over the weekend to make up for deliveries that wouldn't be made Monday. They helped ensure that many businesses would close or not function as normal.

The members of the Los Angeles Troquero Collective voted to walk off the job in solidarity with the pro-immigration demonstrators marching in downtown Los Angeles, for the right of all truckers to unionize and a 25 percent salary increase.

Because most own their trucks, the drivers are classified as independent contractors and are paid per load by the trucking companies with which they do business. The truckers are barred by federal law from joining to set minimum rates and they can't engage in collective bargaining. This designation has also made organizing difficult—but not impossible.

Two years ago, Random Lengths News published a story about the troqueros, known as the Independent Truckers of California (ITC), fight against the ever-increasing price of diesel. In a dramatic one-day work stoppage, troqueros jack-knifed big rigs and closed down the I-5 freeway for an hour and slow convoyed down the 110 Freeway, effectively grinding the Port of Los Angeles to a halt.

ITC organizer, Armando Gonzales was among the truckers in the 2004 shut-down and was among other truckers at Banning Park on May Day who was calling for a general nationwide “Day Without An Immigrant” strike, across all industries, to protest HR 4437.

“The pulse of the population is right for this,” Gonzales said. “It’s a really hot time. HR 4437 is an attack against Hispanics in general.”

However Gonzalez prefers to keep the “Sensenbrenner issue” separate from truckers’ labor issues. This past Monday’s action, he says, “was not about truckers’ rights. This was about truckers giving support to May 1.”

Gonzalez believe the time is ripe to launch a coordinated action among long-haul and port drivers and the community against oil companies for fuel prices— inspired by the people of Beeville, Texas.

“We have all the social connections to take this to a national level. We’re looking to do something over the next month and a half––a boycott or strike.”

A Power Awakens Nationwide

May Day marches and boycotts under the banner of “A Day Without Immigrants” impacted millions of people nationwide in the largest one-day general strike in American history. Police and corporate media estimates low-balled the number of marchers at about a million, while activists claimed as many as a million in California alone, adding 100,000 each in San Francisco and San Jose to the two separate marches in Los Angeles that combined to about 800,000.

Elsewhere police estimated 400,000 marched in Chicago, and 75,000 in Denver, but there were marches and rallies in over fifty cities, many where political demonstrations rarely catch public notice. Thousands marched down Main Street in Dodge City, Kansas. Even in South Dakota, they marched. Was it one million or two? No one could say. But whether they marched or not, millions boycotted work that day.

The divergence in estimates was typical of how political movements are seen through different eyes—a difference that echoed across the country in a wide variety of forms. Some tried to pit immigrants and blacks against one another.

At a rally in Manhattan’s Union Square, the Reverend Jesse Jackson shot back. "You can't talk about globalized capital and exporting jobs and not talk about global human and labor rights for immigrant workers," he said. "Immigrants aren't sending good jobs overseas, corporations are."

The marches were muted somewhat, from fears of sparking a backlash—which is why Los Angeles had two marches, one directly in the middle of the workday. But columnist and Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzales, said, “This movement is already a backlash - against decades of anti-immigrant scapegoating and hysteria in Washington. Congress ignores this cry for recognition at our country's peril.”

A Spanish version of the Star Spangled Banner recorded the week before also triggered clashing perspectives. The recording, clearly intended as a bridge-building gesture, was seized on ferociously as a lightening rod for nativist sentiments, as if translating it into another language somehow defiled its purity.

The nativist attack had Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa responding defensively, and calling for people to only sing the song in English. But online bloggers quickly discovered that Bush himself had gotten campaign mileage out of using a Spanish-language version during his 2000 campaign, and pop singer Jon Secada even sang a Spanish-language version at Bush’s inauguration in 2001.

Yet, all the high-flown political posturing and reinterpretation could not obscure the central message of this day, that the most humble, anonymous and forgotten among us are the very life-blood that makes our nation work.

In his column, read on air Gonzales, described how virtually every store on the “normally bustling St. Nicholas Ave. in Washington Heights” was closed for the day.

“Around 12:30 p.m., Luis Carillo and Abimael Classen stood in front of their shuttered Chavin Hardware store near the corner of W. 178th St.,” Gonzales wrote.

"We're closed to support the immigrant protest," Carillo told Gonzales, who explained, “Carillo came here from Peru more than 35 years ago, and has long since become a citizen. He realized his American Dream. Now, it was time to take a stand for those less fortunate, he said.”

Gonzales ticked off the businesses closed: “The Capri Restaurant on the corner. The Los Primos Fruit Store. The big Bravo Supermarket down the street. The Happy Land Chinese Restaurant.”

But it wasn’t just big city small business districts that were noticeably effected. The food processing industry was particularly hard hit. Among meat processors, number one Tyson Foods closed nine of its more than 100 plants, according to CNN, while number two, Cargill, closed plants in Iowa, Kansas, Illinois, Texas, Nebraska and Colorado, and number three Swift & Co. “closed four out of five beef plants and two out of three pork plants.” In addition, Perdue Farms closed eight of its 14 plants.

Despite plenty of warning, allowing them to change schedules, some food chains had to cut back service, too. McDonald's spokesman William Whitman, said, "Some of our employees may be participating in today's activities. We respect their right to do so. To meet our customers' needs, some of our restaurants may be operating with limited crew, limited hours, or drive-thru service only."

Although nativist sentiments will surely be felt in the days to come, statements such this from McDonald’s, respecting the rights of workers who have never had a realistic chance to organize, reflect an epochal change, an awakening of power that will only grow with time.

Random Lengths News

Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
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