Thousands in San Jose call for immigration reform and workers’ rights

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Calls for justice for immigrants and rights for workers rang out all across San Jose as around 20,000 people, according to police estimates, marched three miles from predominantly Latino east San Jose to a rally at San Jose City Hall. The march drew a broad spectrum of supporters from community, religious, and labor groups; among the unions represented were UFCW, AFSCME, SEIU, UNITEHERE, Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), Painters and Tapers, and United Association of Plumbers and Steamfitters.

The march started from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, where a teach-in on immigrant rights was held. Fr. Jon Pedigo gave the march a rousing start, calling out to loud cheers “¡Viva la justicia! ¡Vivan los imigrantes! ¡Viva la lucha!” Pastor Jeff Smith of the local NAACP delivered an invocation, saying, “We are the dreamers of the day, and we will ensure human rights for everyone to fulfill their dreams.” Other speakers laid down the three fundamental requirements for just immigration reform:

1. Stop deportations and keep families together.

2. Immediate legalization of undocumented immigrants and a clear path to citizen ship.

3. Equal labor rights for all.

Union members on the march clearly saw just immigration policy as vital to labor’s interest. Sal, a representative of LIUNA local 270, pointed out that 85% of his union members are immigrants. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said of immigration reform. “We understand that immigration is not the cause of unemployment-it’s the policy of the government’s ‘free trade’ agreements that force people to emigrate in search of a better life. Is that a crime? If capital can move freely, why can’t labor?” Dozens of marchers in LIUNA’s bright orange T-shirts backed up his words.

Wayd La Pearle, business representative for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 393, sounded a similar note. “We all have to stand together,” he said, “immigrants are workers too.” He told of immigrant workers who have to travel 90 to 100 miles for construction jobs paying only nine or ten dollars an hour, with no benefits-and if they get hurt on the job, because they’re under the radar, they have no workers’ comp and lose their job.

Celica Rodriguez of the Services, Immigrant Rights & Education Network (SIREN), one of the organizers of the march, insisted on the link between current progress on immigration reform and the growth in political activity in the immigrant community: “It’s taken us decades to get here, and now is the time. With record-breaking numbers of immigrants that went to the polls we really energized Congress to act. It’s the politicians’ job to negotiate and compromise-it’s our job to tell them what we want!”

The faith community came out in force to support immigrants. The Rev. Brenda Vaca, pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church, brought a contingent of her parishioners and said she was drawn “by God’s love for justice and compassion, and for families to stay together.” The Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones of San Jose’s 1st Unitarian Church said she came because “we want people to realize that life is better when we understand that we’re all one family.”

Rooted in the U.S., the long tradition of May Day as an international workers’ holiday was very much on the mind of the marchers. As they filled the plaza before City Hall, speakers recounted the story of the Haymarket Martyrs, the original inspiration for May Day, and called for a moment of silence for all workers who died in struggles for workers’ rights. Immediately after, the crowd burst out singing “Solidarity Forever” in English and Spanish.

Speaking to the closing rally, Ben Fields, Executive Officer of the South Bay Labor Council, declared, “We cannot have a just society without a fair immigration system. The exploitation of undocumented workers often goes unnoticed.” He told of a firm based in San Jose that is intimidating workers struggling for a union contract by playing on their immigration status. He emphasized that the struggle for the rights of immigrants concerns all working people. Immigration reform, he said, is needed not only because it’s morally right but also because it will help generate good jobs and strengthen the economy.

Fr. Jon Pedigo brought the rally to a rousing conclusion, calling on the crowd to stay informed, engaged, and together and closing, to loud cheers, “If we want to be victorious, we must be united. Amen! ¡Sí se puede!”

Photo: Henry Millstein/PW


Henry Millstein
Henry Millstein

Hank Millstein is a long-time peace and labor activist. He's a fiction writer and journalist and a member of the National Writers Union.