Unions Played Key Role in May Day Rallies for Illegal Immigrants

Monday, May 1, 2006 was “A Day without Immigrants.” At least that was its official billing. Sponsors of marches and rallies in roughly two dozen cities across the nation had intended to make a Grand Statement: Illegal immigrants are indispensable to our economy. Without them, lawns would not be mowed; drywall would not be hung; floors would not be scrubbed; and restaurant meals would not be cooked or served. And so on May 1, as an act of solidarity, immigrants, legal and illegal alike, would not show up for work.


The boycott was the latest in a continuing series of events in opposition to pending federal legislation (H.R. 4437) that among other things would require employers to conduct a Social Security ID check of prospective employees and set aside funds to construct 700 miles of high-security fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ethnic organizations, most of all Mexican, urged all immigrants in this country to boycott their place of work, and not shop unless they had to. That way, employers would be forced to shutter their doors, and all of America, including Congress, would be sufficiently convinced that the 11.5 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now here must be made into permanent residents and possibly citizens as well. Less obvious was the high profile of certain unions in the boycott. 


Organized labor since the mid 80s has moved away from its historic opposition to high levels of immigration. Whereas union leaders for decades had believed – and with more than passing evidence – that a huge influx of unskilled workers from abroad drives down wages, they have come to view immigrants as the salvation of the labor movement. Their current position is to get as many immigrants here as possible, and then organize them. That way, the primacy of unions in American life would be restored. Such a strategy includes adjusting the status of those illegally here – in other words, granting amnesty. Congress enacted such legislation back in 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), but the law wound up attracting even more illegal immigrants than before. And its sanctions against employers hiring illegal workers proved to be toothless in the face of enforcement manpower shortages and pressure from pro-immigration elected officials. IRCA legalized the status of some 2.7 million of the 3.1 million persons who applied for amnesty; Congress created another half-dozen smaller amnesties after that. The AFL-CIO formally came out in support of amnesty – i.e., lawbreaking – in 2000. The April 2006 issue of Labor Notes, a publication of the Capital Research Center (www.capitalresearch.org), summarizes the transformation of unions into immigration enthusiasts; a more detailed version of the article is set to appear soon as a National Legal and Policy Center Special Report.        


Unions made their presence felt on May Day, especially in Los Angeles, a city where unions are Mexican-dominated. Locals representing janitors, laborers, drivers, hotel employees and healthcare workers turned out for a march along Wilshire Boulevard demanding legalization of illegal immigrants, an event planned by a nonprofit group, the We Are America Coalition. Unions also figured heavily in a separate event, a march to City Hall. Two union leaders, Mike Garcia of Service Employees International Union Local 1877 and Jorge Rodriguez of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), coordinated the two events, which drew an estimated combined 400,000. They and top lieutenants planned routes, provided security, and made arrangements for portable toilets and first-aid stations. Unions raised about 80 percent of the $85,000 needed for the Wilshire Boulevard march and about half of the $40,000 for the City Hall march. Union leaders are ecstatic over the possibility of derailing H.R. 4437. “Whatever the boycott ends up doing,” said Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the AFL-CIO, “it is the first time this (mass mobilization) has been done and I think it sends a message to the Senate, the Congress, and the President that workers are willing to do more, they are willing to risk more.”

In other cities as well, unions played a major role. In Portland, Ore., representatives of Laborers Local 483 and Carpenters Local 247 joined a rally and three-mile march. In Providence, R.I., AFSCME Council 94 and SEIU Local 615 participated in that city’s “Day of Action for Immigrant Justice.” And in Cincinnati, labor unions marched with church groups, college student clubs and community organizations. Yet the overall impact of the rallies was questionable. While there were reports of labor shortages in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, business in the rest of the country went on with only minor glitches. This suggests that if such boycotts were carried out regularly, most Americans would adjust to the reality that they really can survive a day without immigrants – at least those with no legal right to be here. (Los Angeles Times, 5/3/06; other sources).