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.