New York reclaims May Day

NEW YORK – The workers of the world united here, literally, May 1 in a historic rally, organized by the labor and immigrants’ rights movements. Its aim was simple: demand government action on jobs, end harassment of immigrant workers, and “reclaim May Day.”

The rally was planned well before the Arizona anti-immigrant law was passed, but repeal of the law became a significant rallying cry of the demonstration. The other main demand was for jobs for all.

May 1 – May Day – is celebrated around the world as a day honoring international solidarity and workers’ rights, but until recently it was largely forgotten in the U.S., though it originated in Chicago out of the fight the eight-hour workday. Over the past several years, this date has become synonymous with the immigrant rights’ movement as a day for large rallies in cities across the U.S.

This year in New York, labor unions came together with immigration coalitions to “reclaim” the holiday. International solidarity and unity of the world’s working class against the capitalist class have always been the main themes of May Day, so the alliance of the two overlapping movements proved a good fit: organizers estimated that 20,000 – 25,000 people turned out.

“I’m so proud to be here with what America is,” Rep. Charles Rangel, who shared the stage with Rep. Nydia Velazquez, told the crowd. “Here we have people from Puerto Rico, people from Taiwan, people from Africa, people from Europe, people from Israel: that is the United States of America.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn remarked that New York “is and will stay an immigrant city.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker, who is both the top African American and top woman in the nation’s labor movement, made the case that immigrant rights are bound up with the rights of all workers.

Noting that thousands of workers have died in workplace-related injuries, Holt Baker asked, “Is it in our nation’s interest to have workers too scared to report hazards? Too frightened to stand up for their rights and basic protections on their job, like minimum wage, or the right to form a union?” Second-class status, she argued, divides working people and allows working conditions to slide downwards. “We need an America that guarantees safe workplaces, and protects workers’ rights – all workers’ rights – regardless of race, regardless of gender or ethnicity or nationality or immigration status,” she declared.

“What has happened in Arizona is abominable,” New York City Council member Melissa Mark Viverito told the rally. “We need to make sure that what happened in Arizona is the exception and not the rule in this country.” Viverito, co-chair of the council’s progressive caucus, said the federal government should expedite a review of the Arizona law, so it can be rolled back as unconstitutional before it goes into effect.

Calling for a city boycott of Arizona, Viverito said, “We must ask our officials to look at ways we can disinvest our money, our pension money, from corporations in Arizona to send a very strong message about where we stand.”

New York is the perfect backdrop for a holiday like May Day. The city’s working people come from virtually all nations in the world and speak more than 800 different languages, making the city the most linguistically diverse on the planet. In addition, New York is known for its strong labor movement: the union density is far higher than in most American cities, many tens of thousands of workers are organized, and labor routinely plays a significant role in local, state and federal elections.

Photo and video: PW/Libero DellaPiana