We are CA: A community celebration of 25 years beyond Prop 187
March against Prop 187 in Fresno, 1994 / David Prasad (Creative Commons)

This article won a third place award in the category “Best Labor History Story” at the 2020 Labor Media Awards, presented by the International Labor Communications Association.

LOS ANGELES—On Saturday, November 9, the immigrant rights community, joined by dozens of labor unions, their members and families, will come together in a festival to celebrate the powerful immigrant rights movement that arose out of Prop 187.

Twenty-five years ago, on November 8, 1994, the anti-immigrant ballot measure Prop 187 passed in the state of California by a vote of close to 59% due to the fear-mongering of racists, frightened of a growing community. It won everywhere in the state except for eight counties in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Prop 187 sparked a movement that fired up generations of disenfranchised immigrants and their allies, emboldening them to fight an unjust system and make their voices heard.

Dubbed the Save Our State (SOS) initiative, the Republican-sponsored Prop 187 would have prevented undocumented immigrants, who at that time numbered an estimated 1.3 million in California, from using non-emergency health care, sending their kids to public schools, and availing themselves of other services in the state. It would have required teachers, doctors and police officers to report anyone they suspected to be undocumented. Gov. Pete Wilson threw his enthusiastic support behind the initiative as a means of assuring his re-election that same day.

The law never went into effect, however. It was challenged in a legal suit the day after its passage, and on November 11 a federal district court declared it unconstitutional. The state appealed the ruling, but in 1999, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis halted any further appeal. Prop 187 was effectively dead on arrival, and buried five years later.

The campaign against xenophobic Prop 187 mobilized millions. Students organized massive walkouts, and unions representing hundreds of thousands of Latinx and Asian workers joined the fight. Prop 187 marked a milestone in organized labor’s consciousness: While up to that point many U.S.-born workers and their unions held protectionist views regarding immigrants as a threat to jobs, a new generation of union leaders who rose up in the crucible of the fight came to see that all workers, whatever their immigrant status, were in the labor movement together, needed and deserved union representation, and would be stronger as allies against capital.

Prop 187 united progressive-thinking Californians as never before, bringing a wave of liberalism that rolled across the state, crushing a system that would deny a fair measure of justice and equality to its most vulnerable workers and families. Year by year, ever since, the Republican Party in the state has gradually declined into virtual obsolescence. California is now by almost any measure the most progressive state in the country.

The Nov. 9 Rally for Justice, Immigrant Rights & Equality takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Organizers have planned the critical programmatic content to happen between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. It will take place at Los Angeles State Historic Park, 1245 N. Spring St., Los Angeles 90012.

Why now?

There is no mistaking the reasons why the immigrant and labor communities are choosing to highlight this anniversary in 2019. If in 1994 the people’s movement “turned the tide and crushed the racist narrative,” in the words of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the Fed now says, “Show this regressive administration that we still stand united against hate. We will not hide in fear, but we will celebrate how far we’ve come from California’s regressive past.”

March against Prop 187 in Fresno, 1994 / David Prasad (Creative Commons)

The rally is also intended as a kickoff to a year of activism. Organizers recognize the need for every resident of the state to be counted in the 2020 Census, and the importance of registering to vote in advance of the presidential primary in March, and the general election next November.

The Nov. 9 celebration will include free food, live music, community vendors, a resource fair, immigration legal services, and fun activities for the family. There will also be a walk-through gallery of Prop 187 photos and memorabilia. Community leaders such as Calif. State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, Calif. Secretary of State Alex Padilla, and former State Sen. and candidate for U.S. Senate Kevin De León, all of whom emerged from the Prop 187 fight, are expected to attend.

At a pre-rally build-up gathering at the County Fed on Oct. 23, unions such as UNITE HERE, UTLA, SEIU, USW, Teamsters, IATSE, AFSCME, as well as the UCLA Labor Center, Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), Workers United, and the AFL-CIO itself, committed to pulling out well over a thousand union members and supporters to the Nov. 9 celebration.

Ron Herrera, the newly elected president of the L.A. County Fed, urged rally attendees to wear their union t-shirts and jackets. “Be recognized by your colors!” he said. The day would be “a vehicle of empowerment” and a foundation for the Get Out the Vote campaign in 2020.

Attendance at the rally is free, but the County Fed asks you to register in advance. That will give the organizers a better idea of how many people to prepare for. Information on registration, and further information in Spanish, is available here.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.