May Day 2006: Millions March, Boycott, Take Off Work and School for Immigrant Rights

By Barry Sheppard

San Francisco – Police estimates total 1.1 million immigrant workers and their supporters marched in over 75 major cities across the country. Many more participated in smaller cities and towns. Over and above those who marched were hundreds of thousands more who boycotted shopping, and skipped school or work.

Even accepting the police estimates, which are notoriously low, it’s clear that millions participated in this historic May Day, the largest demonstrations ever seen in the United States.

In the San Francisco Bay Area there were huge marches. The largest was in San Jose, with hundreds of thousands in the streets. A massive march filled the main thoroughfare in San Francisco, ending in a giant rally at City Hall. Another march of 10,000 took place in Oakland. Even in the small city where I live, Hayward, there was a rally of 1,000.

The Bay Area was not unique in the spread of the actions to even the smaller towns and cities across the nation.

The cops said 500,000 marched in Los Angeles, and it was probably closer to one million. They said that 100,000 were on the streets of New York, and 400,000 in Chicago. In Denver, the official estimate was that one sixth of the total population was out. And so on.

One of the goals of the actions, which were called by the coalition that organized the huge march in L.A. on March 25, was to demonstrate the impact of a “Day Without Immigrants.”

This goal was surely met. School attendance in cities with large concentrations of immigrants was way down. The New York Times reported “stores and restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York closed because workers did not show up or as a display of solidarity with demonstrators.” In one area of Chicago only 17 percent of students showed up. There were TV pictures of empty supermarkets usually patronized by immigrants.

In California’s Central Valley, where much of the country’s produce is grown, no farm workers came to work. TV shots of the vacant fields were eerie. Much of the construction industry was shut down across the country. Major meatpacking companies, including Tyson Foods, Swift, and Perdue chickens, shut down many plants because their immigrant workers didn’t show up. The largest port on the West coast, in Long Beach, California, was shut down, because the truck drivers were nowhere to be seen.

Vast swaths of service industries — hotels, restaurants, car washes, and so forth were affected. Nannies took a day off.

Workers who couldn’t take the day off came to rallies after work.

Although the actions were predominately Latino, a feature of the day was greater participation of other immigrants — Irish, Polish, Korean, Chinese and Haitian to name a few.

May Day was a crushing refutation of the more moderate wing of the movement, who implored immigrants not to boycott, not to take off work or school. These forces, including Catholic Church, the leaders of the few unions who did support the action, the more conservative Latino organizations, were joined by capitalist politicians posing as friends of the immigrants, as well as editorials in the major press seeking to tone down the protest.

These same forces also didn’t like the central demand of the marches, for the legalization of the 12 million undocumented, for “amnesty.”

Most of the organized labor movement, to its shame, stood aside.

The militant thrust of the movement, which was at the same time very peaceful and jubilant, reflected that it is a grass roots movement which has sprung up around the country, built by Spanish language radio and newspapers, emails and web sites. It is not saddled with a bureaucratic leadership, although the more conservative forces and Democratic Party politicians are trying to co-opt it.

Another goal was to re-establish May Day in the U.S. Most Americans had not even heard before that May Day is celebrated around the world. The immigrants knew because it is celebrated in their countries of origin. For the first time, the media had to explain that May Day is the international workers holiday, although it steered clear of the origins of May Day in the 1886 fight in Chicago for the eight hour day, and its association with socialism and communism and militant workers’ struggles.

Many of the immigrants who are coming to the U.S. from Mexico and Central and South America have been driven, ironically, by Washington’s policies. Many have come as political refugees from places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, ravished by U.S.-sponsored wars.

U.S. imperialist penetration has impoverished tens of millions more who then are driven by desperation to risk life and limb to emigrate to the U.S. Imperialist “globalization” has intensified this trend in recent years. A case in point has been the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexican peasants, tens of millions of whom have been driven off their lands by competition with U.S. agribusiness. These displaced peasants congregate in the big cities to live marginal existences. Many try to find a way to get to the U.S.

In sympathy with their brothers and sisters demonstrating in the U.S. on May Day, many Mexicans boycotted U.S.-owned businesses like McDonalds. A march in central Mexico City was led by Zapatista leader Marcos in solidarity with May Day USA. He read off names of Americans he identifies with, beginning with the Haymarket Martyrs, who were executed for their part in the 1886 struggle, and including Eugene Debs, John Reed, Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurly Flynn, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and more. At the usually heavily trafficked border crossings in southern California, there was an eerie silence with no vehicles crossing from Mexico!

Some talking heads in the capitalist press have warned that the big immigrant demonstrations are creating a “backlash” in “middle America.” Nothing is further from the truth. The real bigots are frothing at the mouth, to be sure, but they have been pushed back. The movement has already shifted the discussion to the left, as tens of millions of ordinary Americans have seen the “illegal immigrants” as human beings for the first time, and have begun to hear their demands. It’s hard to hate working class families you see in the streets or on TV come out in their millions to demand simple justice.