A May Day rally where it all began

CHICAGO--The bonds between the organized labor movement and immigrant rights groups were evident here at a May 1 rally at the Haymarket Square memorial in the West Loop. While thousands gathered in Union Park for a mass march and May Day rally at Federal Plaza members of numerous unions, led by this city’s Central Labor Council, began their observance of the international workers’ holiday at the exact spot in this city where it all began.

The 4-year-old monument on Des Plaines Avenue between Lake and Randolph Streets stands where, in 1886, eight labor activists, standing atop a wagon, urged an eight-hour workday. Their convictions and the execution of some of them after a police attack on their rally stirred millions around the world to declare May 1 as International Workers Day.

Jorge Mujica, an electricians union organizer and community activist who worked hard to organize the big march and rally downtown said he wanted to come first to the gathering at the Haymarket Memorial to emphasize the link between the struggles of organized labor and the struggles of immigrant workers.

“Unions have organized and put out fliers and called upon people to march today,” he declared. “They are building a united effort of labor unions and immigrant workers – they are uniting all workers.”

The same theme was echoed by others at the Haymarket event. Ramon Becerra, the president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said, “unions understand that immigrant workers are workers and that we all swim together or else we all sink together.” Becerra said that “employers hire undocumented workers because they know they can really exploit them and when you have one group that you can exploit extra hard then you can better keep everyone else under your thumb.” He praised the labor movement for taking the approach that all workers, regardless of immigration status, should be represented. “Its simple – one for all and all for one,” he said.

Jorge Acosta, who attended the rally, is not a member of a union. He works as a day laborer doing landscaping in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. “You are like a nobody when you don’t have a union,” he said. “I’ve been fired for no reason at all because they can do whatever they want with you. With a union you can at least feel like a human being.”

Joe Baulkis, a Teamster who works for UPS on the city’s south side, said, “We need to overhaul labor law so that it is easier for everyone to have a union. We need the Employee Free Choice Act, so that a majority in favor of a union can get one – no more phony elections manipulated by the bosses. We also need health insurance for everyone.” Baulkis said the 2008 elections were important, for these reasons. “The first step is to throw the Republicans out of the White House and the Congress.”

Larry Spivack, president of the Illinois Labor History Society, also spoke. His group led the successful struggle to build the memorial at Haymarket Square. He praised efforts by labor and others to re-claim May Day for American workers who, he said, “inspired this holiday – the most widely celebrated holiday in the world.”

The memorial, during its short history, has been the site of some incredibly moving events. One such event occurred when two leaders of Iraq’s labor movement placed a plaque at the site last June 23 as U.S. union leaders looked on.

During that ceremony Faleh Abood Umara, general secretary of the 26,000-member Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, said, “This touches me deeply because in Iraq today, as in America then, workers are killed just for trying to make a living.”

The plaque reads, in Arabic and English, “May the bonds of international labor solidarity help us all in our struggles for justice, peace, democracy and workers’ rights.”

The irony of union leaders coming from Iraq, where the Bush administration says it is fighting for freedom, to the United States to support the struggle for democracy at American workplaces, was not lost on U.S. union leaders gathered at that Haymarket Square event. Cynthia Rodriguez, representing the Service Employees International Union, said at that time, “Our fight is your fight – we can’t let Bush privatize your oil, just as we can’t let Bush privatize the public trust in this country.”