This May Day, Don’t Go to Work, Take to the Streets and Strike

Michelle Chen

A migrant-led insurrection is daring, but hardly shocking. Historically, immigrants have often led the most radical actions, from wildcat strikes in the fields to hunger strikes at detention centers. More surprising, perhaps, is the groundswell of protest from more mainstream unions and even some employers. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

From the Mus­lim ban to the bor­der wall, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s first 100 days have unleashed a blitzkrieg of ter­ror. But on May 1, the com­mu­ni­ties he thought he’d backed into a cor­ner will put him on the defen­sive with equal and oppo­site force.

Maria Fer­nan­da Cabel­lo, a leader of the grass­roots orga­niz­ing net­work Movimien­to Cosecha, issued a call to action at an April ral­ly in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., announc­ing planned actions in more than 80 cities, poten­tial­ly involv­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of people.

We think that we can win by using the biggest pow­ers in the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty: our com­merce and our labor … We work every day and we buy every week,” she said. Legal or not, We’re in every major indus­try in this coun­try, and with­out us, it would­n’t run.”

The last mobi­liza­tion on such a mas­sive scale in 2006 aimed to pres­sure Con­gress on immi­gra­tion reform leg­is­la­tion. This time, with right-wing hard­lin­ers con­trol­ling all branch­es of gov­ern­ment, the resis­tance has tak­en a bold­er, more mil­i­tant thrust. Activists, immi­grants and oth­ers are draw­ing their own bat­tle lines this time, not in leg­isla­tive cham­bers but on the street and the shop floor, fueled not just by labor con­flicts but by deep­er ques­tions of eco­nom­ic and social jus­tice and civ­il rights. And an alliance of grass­roots cam­paigns—includ­ing the Fight for 15, Jobs with Jus­tice and com­mu­ni­ty-based work­er cen­ters — is bring­ing the ranks of tra­di­tion­al labor on board. Through­out April, grass­roots work­er-led demon­stra­tions have sprung up across the coun­try, mobi­liz­ing around migrant rights and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, build­ing momen­tum toward the big day.

Rosa Lopez, a leader of SEIU Unit­ed Ser­vice Work­ers West (USWW), which rep­re­sents more than 40,000 jan­i­tors and oth­er ser­vice staff, spoke at the Cosecha ral­ly, dar­ing Trump to break up her com­mu­ni­ties — empha­sis on the plural.

We are tired of all of the racism and hate that is being spread toward our com­mu­ni­ty of immi­grants and also our African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty,” she said in Span­ish. Speak­ing as a work­er and moth­er, not just a migrant, she urged, It’s impor­tant to do rad­i­cal things in this moment so that we can make peo­ple under­stand … that we need to come unit­ed in this struggle.”

A migrant-led insur­rec­tion is dar­ing, but hard­ly shock­ing. His­tor­i­cal­ly, immi­grants have often led the most rad­i­cal actions, from wild­cat strikes in the fields to hunger strikes at deten­tion cen­ters; their will­ing­ness to take risks is the rea­son they made it here after all. More sur­pris­ing, per­haps, is the groundswell of protest from more main­stream unions and even some employ­ers, such as pro­gres­sive restau­ra­teurs and Yemeni-Amer­i­can bode­ga own­ers who protest­ed Trump’s anti-immi­grant poli­cies. Although USWW held an offi­cial strike vote for May Day, there’s no ques­tion that, as the admin­is­tra­tion clamps down on cities that don’t coop­er­ate with its depor­ta­tion dri­ves, the bound­aries of law and order on May 1 will be will­ful­ly test­ed and breached.

For estab­lished unions, the May Day moment hear­kens back to ear­li­er cam­paigns like Jus­tice for Jan­i­tors, also led by SEIU. In 1990, a peace­ful mass protest in Los Ange­les led to a vio­lent clash with police and a major union vic­to­ry. Today, the dis­rup­tion that Trump’s poli­cies have trig­gered have opened anoth­er chance for labor to react with strate­gic spon­tane­ity. If noth­ing else, it’s incum­bent on labor to present an authen­tic plat­form for work­ing people’s inter­ests to counter the van­i­ty pop­ulism of a bil­lion­aire celebri­ty president.

The risk isn’t an obsta­cle but the objective.

We under­stand that there’s risk involved,” USWW pres­i­dent David Huer­ta, told Buz­zFeed, but we’re will­ing to take that risk in order to be able to move for­ward in this moment, while the most mar­gin­al­ized are in the crosshairs of this administration.”

So work­ers are prepar­ing for the strike while also gear­ing up for the poten­tial con­se­quences — by warn­ing their boss­es of the fall­out they’ll face if they refuse to stand on the right side. Any work­places that retal­i­ate against strike par­tic­i­pants would be boy­cotted until the jobs are restored.

For all the cor­po­ra­tions and busi­ness­es that are threat­en­ing to fire their employ­ees on May 1,” Cabel­lo said, If you choose to go against the peo­ple, the peo­ple will go against you.”

Accord­ing to the Food Chain Work­ers Alliance, a nation­wide labor coali­tion rep­re­sent­ing rough­ly 300,000 work­ers, some restau­rant own­ers and high­er-pro­file employ­ers have made a point of pub­licly cham­pi­oning the pro-immi­grant protests and even embraced the idea of their work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ing in the strike actions. But wor­ries are brew­ing that oth­er work­ers could face retal­i­a­tion upon return­ing to the job.

We have a ton of high-road’ employ­ers, many of whom are sanc­tu­ary work­places’ through a few of our mem­ber orga­ni­za­tions, such as ROC [Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ters Unit­ed], who are 100 per­cent sup­port­ive. Most of these employ­ers are just shut­ting down on May Day,” explained Jose Oli­va, co-direc­tor of the Alliance, via email. How­ev­er, there are oth­er work­ers who are tak­ing a huge risk going on strike on May Day, so we are not tak­ing any­thing for granted.”

The Alliance has estab­lished a fund to pro­tect strik­ers and recruit­ed pro-bono lawyers — anoth­er fresh­ly politi­cized sec­tor that has ral­lied in defense of immi­grants’ rights since the election.

As the pop­ulist ener­gy dri­ving Trump’s ascent spi­rals into chaot­ic paral­y­sis in Wash­ing­ton, the one cer­tain­ty com­ing out of Trump’s first 100 days is that the polit­i­cal cen­ter has been shak­en. May 1 will man­i­fest the sharp end of the dou­ble-edged polit­i­cal sword the elec­tion gal­va­nized: Now, work­ers have a chance to con­front Trump by turn­ing the tricks of his trade back on him — deal­ing in the lan­guage of power.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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