May Day for Immigrants

In our conversation I told him that to find the answer it is necessary to go back to the city of Chicago, to May of 1886, when the 10 to 18-hour workday was enough reason to inspire an industrious town to fight for an 8-hour workday. That is to say, a dignified workday.

Likewise I told him that this reality, without a doubt, let loose a series of confrontations between two groups: the working class, or laborers, and owners of industry, that is to say, in biblical language, a confrontation between the mass proletariat and the ruling class.

In our reflection I clarified that the government — to not lose sight of business management tradition in the United States — opted to support the bosses. Since there were strikes [like the ones proposed for this Monday], demonstrations and physical confrontations, the mass media — also to point out tradition — on the one hand gave the workers support and on the other hand demonized and criminalized the struggle.  Nevertheless the working class was organized and carried out its demands and claims through a movement of general strike, which fell on May 1, 1886.  From here on May 1 appears linked to the struggle of the working people, preserving in an ideal way their victories in labor reform. Of course, you also had an endless number of labor struggles taking place throughout the world. [The recent mass unrest in France and the Transit Worker strike last year in New York City just months ago are testament to the ongoing struggle between the working class and management]  

So why then do we have division at this time regarding the call for a national boycott in support of immigrant rights?

On the one hand, in this occasion, the call to boycott did not come from union leaders or from elected officials. That is to say, the call itself was realized from a community base. For some people this is a serious conflict because they base their struggles in partiality and activities that feed their egos through patriarchal ruling ideologies.

To this, we need to add the idea of a call of solidarity in support of the May 1 boycott. There are people realizing what my grandma, Doña Barbara, use to say: envy is an evil counselor. We need to keep in mind that May 1 is a date that has been practically [and deliberately] erased from historical context in the United States. To that extreme, our government and corporate system, with the blessing of the unions, changed the date we celebrate the efforts and struggles of our workers to Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday in September. This day is distinguished for promoting rest, picnics, barbecues and overall consumerism [Labor Day "specials" are popular with retailers] instead of reflecting on the reality of the working class.

This matter of choosing May 1 hurts a lot because for many people in government and in unions [what’s left of them], with exceptions of course, May 1 smells of socialism, communism, the power for the working class, etc.  Instead of being spooked like frightened children by opposing political theories [which change year to year — just look at "communist" China] we need to remember that, more importantly, this is a day of commemorating working struggle, labor emancipation and the re-establishment of justice. It is for this that it seemed to me the ideal day to call a boycott.  

It was interesting to see the Mexican Consulate as one of the first in publicly stating that they would not support the boycott. With so many Mexicans in this country, President Vicente Fox decided to stay in line and protect free trade. [Possibly the last political breath of el PAN for some time] Then they tell us, unofficially, that they support the boycott under the table but, to not antagonize President Bush, they had to publicly stay clear. When will these people understand what my grandma used to tell me: "Grandson, he who bends over a lot shows his ass."

In the same way the Church as an institution that blesses the ruling class was hooked in the same ambivalent process bending over a lot. Now the leadership is telling us that they will have their places of worship open on May 1 so that the people can go to pray. As if this is going to resolve our problem. Already the Venezuelan prophet Ali Primera has told us, "It’s not enough to pray; there is a lot more that we need to find peace."

In other words, the stress over those who carried out the May 1 movement — the grassroots organizers — and the inconvenience of the day that was chosen are two fundamental reasons that explain the division that we have at this time, where the leadership of the immigrant community decided to boycott the boycott.  

Another reason, or excuse, for the divisions over the boycott is that this action is dangerous because people will risk loosing their jobs, businesses will suffer and participants and organizers of the boycott risk retaliation from the government. If this is the case then I have bad news: the boycott as a measure of resistance is exactly in protest against any and all dismissals, unjust payments, violation of human rights, illegal arrests, criminalization of immigrants, deportations and murders. How much longer should we wait?

Inside this reality there are those in the boycott that will go the extra mile. I say extra because they will lose their wages for that day. While there are other people, who because of their contracts or work agreement can simply charge the absence (sick day, emergency, etc.) and get paid for it. Then, of course, there are the few who may not be able to take off that day. If this is true, and we believe in justice, could we not share our salary from this day with those in need? Or perhaps, to be on the same level of common sacrifice, where we all dance or break the record player, why not donate our salary from this day to a community organization? As my grandma use to say: "Here he is where the pig twists its tail."  

From here then I invite you to throw away any silly divisive ideas that establish adoration to status and, with fear or without fear — that is, without being cowards — shout loudly that "¡El 1 de mayo, es pa’la calle que vamos!" ("On May 1 is to the streets we go!") Also, I invite people to bring out flags of their respective countries and show their pride. We’ll meet here, in New York City, in Downtown Manhattan at 4:00PM in Union Square, 14 Street and Broadway.  

And just to inform those who did not already know, God has confirmed and endorsed the May 1 boycott. Therefore, don’t stay inside Church praying because God will be outside, with the people. God will be where he has always been: walking and feeling the joys and anguish of our lives and taking the side of those who have been excluded and marginalized.

REV. DR. LUIS BARRIOS is professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York City. He is also a prominent community and spiritual leader in New York’s Latino community, a priest in the Episcopal Church and Spiritual Advisor for the Church of San Romero de las Americas. This article originally appeared in NY Latino Journal Photo by Rafael Merino Cortés/grupoHuracán