Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“For years we celebrated May Day as a workers’ day, but now it’s been beautifully taken over by the immigration issue,” said Lorena Gonzalez, who just stepped down after eight years heading the San Diego-Imperial Counties Central Labor Council to run for the state Assembly, at a May Day rally at the San Diego Civic Center Plaza. “We’re going to have good immigration reform that benefits all workers. We will all benefit when 11 million workers can come out of the shadows.”
Gonzalez’ presence at the event was symbolic of a sweeping change in the American labor movement’s historically anti-immigrant stance. It wasn’t until 2000 that the national AFL-CIO convention switched its position on immigration and passed a resolution supporting rights for undocumented people in the U.S. And the conversion of May Day from a semi-official workers’ holiday into a day devoted to immigrants’ rights began in 2006, after Republicans in the House of Representatives pushed a highly punitive anti-immigration bill written by Congressmember James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin). Millions of U.S. immigrants and their supporters turned out in the streets to protest the Sensenbrenner bill. The bill passed the House but died in the Senate, though elements of it are still on the table as proposed amendments to the comprehensive immigration bill currently under Senate consideration.
The dominance of immigration issues at this year’s May Day celebration became clear when contingents arrived in the Civic Center Plaza carrying both U.S. and Mexican flags, and when many of the speakers in the Plaza spoke in Spanish. “This is an historic day here,” said event MC Pedro Rios. “We’re uniting with workers not only from the U.S. or the Americas, but the world. Our struggle is not unique. Today we want to lift up a typical situation the janitors are dealing with” — which was explained by the speaker he called up, Rosa Lopez, in untranslated Spanish.
A number of speakers expressed concern about the increasing use of E-Verify, a Web-based system that supposedly enables employers to find out if workers and job applicants have the legal right to work in the U.S. E-Verify has made so many mistakes — not only identifying undocumented workers as legal residents but red-flagging legal residents and even U.S. citizens as so-called “illegals” — that one writer joked it should be called “E-Falsify.” Nonetheless, at least three states require employers to use E-Verify on all new hires, and Republicans in Congress are demanding that its use be mandated nationwide. Hermán Ramirez, organizing director of Local 135 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), said that when his union tries to enroll workers, “the first thing we’re asked is, ‘Will the company E-Verify and deport us?’”
The most powerful story told about E-Verify was given in Spanish (with an interpreter translating into English) by a woman identified only as Virginia. “I came from Vera Cruz because I’m a single mother and I needed to pay for my daughter’s education,” Virginia said. “I’ve worked in housekeeping and hotels. It’s difficult work and poorly paid. Two years ago I started working at the Hilton in Mission Valley, and often we’d work through lunch breaks to finish the rooms we were assigned. When my co-workers started fighting for a union, I joined because I realized we deserved good pay, a fair workload and the ability to provide for our families. In March this year the hotel was sold, and the new owner did not guarantee our jobs. We did a civil disobedience action, and the owner said they’d hire us back but would check our papers through E-Verify. When the company advised me and 14 other co-workers that we did not pass, we knew we had to fight back. We staged a 14-day hunger strike, but the company fired us anyway.”
Virginia described herself as “undocumented and fired,” but said she and her fellow workers will have to “keep fighting. We have to win comprehensive immigration reform to live in peace, and also union [recognition] so we can live and work in peace and dignity.”
“I learned at six years old that workers are the foundation of this country and the world,” said student activist Malia Rodriguez. “Congress has to give the workers’ rights because workers are their foundation.”
Other speakers at the event included Barrio Logan community leader and former City Council candidate Christian Ramirez and Guillermo Gomez of Union del Barrio. The event ended with an invocation by Rev. Wayne Riggs of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, after which the participants staged a march to Chicano Park and held another, longer rally there.