Reclaiming May Day: Marching together for all workers

2701.jpgU.S. workers are reclaiming May Day, which they initiated over 120 years ago, and are giving the day new meaning in the drive to end the war and occupation in Iraq.

Reflecting the holiday’s origins when immigrant workers played a big part in the fight for the eight hour day, this year’s observances melded workers’ struggles for decent wages and conditions with the struggles of largely working-class immigrant communities for human and civil rights and an end to criminalization through ICE raids and no match letters. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants were joined by many union contingents as they marched in cities throughout the country.

Longshore workers: End Iraq war
The closure of all 29 west coast ports by longshore workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, marked the first such labor action to protest the war. Their protest was supported by a number of labor councils and unions around the country.

“This powerful action, which was initiated by the West Coast dock workers union, should be taken very seriously by every elected official, every member of Congress, the White House and every candidate running for office,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) told the workers in a message. Lee, a leading opponent of the war, called the ILWU “an outstanding leader of the U.S. labor movement,” and said the action was a sign that American working men and women “know how connected everything is.”

Lee’s message was read at a noontime rally in San Francisco’s Justin Herman Plaza. Earlier, many participants had marched along the Embarcadero from the longshore union hall. Organizers said up to 3,000 members of unions, peace organizations and community groups participated in the two events. While most signs emphasized ending the war, immigrant rights issues were well represented.

The Oakland Education Association’s banners were prominent in the march.

“The connection between the war and education is so direct,” OEA president Betty Olson-Jones told the World. “I often look at the figures for how much has been spent on the war and think how many teachers could have been hired with that money.”

The day shift work stoppage observed by the 25,000 West Coast longshore workers followed a resolution passed last February by the elected delegates of the Longshore Caucus. Employers refused to accommodate the union’s request, though it was consistent with their contract.

“Longshore workers are standing down on the job and standing up for America,” ILWU President Bob McEllrath said in a statement. “We’re supporting the troops and telling politicians in Washington that it’s time to end the war in Iraq.”

While the big shipping corporations aren’t accountable to any country and are only concerned with making money, McEllrath said, longshore workers “are different. We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops and our economy are destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of $3 trillion. It’s time to stand up, and we’re doing our part today.”

Unions & immigrants join hands
In Oakland, Calif., government, health care and service workers, painters, teachers and other union members joined with thousands from Latino, Asian and other immigrant communities in a march from Fruitvale Plaza, in the heart of a heavily Latino neighborhood, to a rally at City Hall.

Demonstrators demanded that the Homeland Security Department abandon its proposed new regulations telling employers they must fire workers who can’t resolve a Social Security no match letter in 90 days, and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) end its anti-immigrant raids and stop interfering in union organizing and other worker justice struggles.

“People are already experiencing more discrimination in hiring and on the job because of the no match letters and the E-verification system,” Maricruz Manzanarez, a service worker at the University of California, told the World. Pointing out that undocumented immigrants “pay taxes,” and want to work to support their families, Manzanarez added, “The biggest need we have now is a comprehensive immigration law” with a “reasonable” path to citizenship.

Protests also took place in San Francisco and Berkeley, while around the Bay Area, university students held walk-outs and teach-ins to protest proposed cuts to the state education budget.

In Salem, Ore., several thousand people gathered at the State Capitol to demonstrate their commitment to defeat anti-immigrant legislation and to demand immigration reform and restoration of the right to an Oregon drivers’ license. Dancers prayed and blessed the crowd, which included many middle and high school students and families.

State Senator Chip Shields reminded the audience that he voted against Oregon Senate bill 1080, which made it a requirement to prove legal presence in the U.S. before applying for an Oregon driver’s license or ID card. He cited trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA as factors that drive people from their places of birth to other places to work.

In Portland, Ore., thousands marched for immigrants’ and workers’ rights, while hundreds of longshore workers joined their union brothers and sisters in shutting down all West Coast ports to protest the war. Workers gathered at noon to throw hundreds of flowers into the Willamette River, symbolizing U.S. and Iraqi war dead.

In Philadelphia, several hundred students from Tilden Middle School joined union and community members in Elmwood Park. Jim Moran of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society told the crowd about the workers’ struggle in the late 19th century for the eight-hour day, while Cathy Brady of the Service Employees International Union announced a project to build a labor monument in the park, honoring past leaders and events in labor history.

In Washington, D.C., demonstrators picketed the offices of the Republican and Democratic National Committees before going to a rally in Malcolm X Park. There Central American and Mexican American immigrants were joined by Native Americans from Virginia as well as African American and white residents. Said Salvadoran immigrant Sonia Umanzor, “We are going to change the face of being a criminal to being a worker who gets up at 5 in the morning to put food on our tables.”

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Rosita Johnson, Bob Rossi and Emile Schepers contributed to this article.