Home / General / This Day in Labor History: May 1, 2006

This Day in Labor History: May 1, 2006

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On May 1, 2006, approximately one million people of Latin American descent boycotted their jobs to make a point about the centrality of their labor to American life and the unjust conditions so many of them faced. Day Without an Immigrant was a one day strike to prove a point.

The United States has, at best, had a complicated relationship around immigration. What that relationship most certainly has been is hypocritical. Americans celebrate immigration so long as it is the past. Having married into a large Irish-American family, I can see how that pride of the past is very real. It’s much the same with Italian, Polish, and in Rhode Island, Portuguese families. The obsession with DNA testing to show “what you are” was huge among Americans in the late 2010s. We celebrate ethnic group pride days. St. Patrick’s Day is a giant excuse for everyone to embrace their Irishness, which is evidently defined by questionable beer and even more questionable corned beef.

But of course the Irish were despised by the descendants of the English Protestant immigrants who had first come to what is the United States and engaged in widespread genocide and slavery to make their fortune. Then the Irish rose in society by the late 1800s and new immigrant groups–Italians, Slavs, Jews, Poles–came to the U.S. Many Irish soon learned it was in their interest to hate these new groups and the racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Catholicism of white Protestants had not lessened. In the West, white hatred of Asians reached violent heights. So, in 1924, the U.S. closed the doors to most immigrants, setting up national quotas and rolling those back to be based on the 1880 census instead of 1920, just to make sure the dirty garlic eaters couldn’t come. That the U.S. denied many Jewish immigrants asylum from Nazi Germany is a national shame that many of us don’t even know about. The white ethnic divides crumbled during and after World War II, when military regiments mixed people from around the country for the first time, when most of the white ethnic soldiers were the children of immigrants anyway, and when a generic whiteness began to appear that could combine all these different shades of white into a general anti-blackness.

By 1965, the rise of Great Society liberalism led to the reopening of American doors to immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1965 kept national quotas but also vastly expanded them to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Significant acceptance of refugees from our defeated Vietnam War allies led to large new communities of southeast Asians appearing all over the nation, from New Orleans and California to Minnesota and even Rhode Island, which has a fairly sizable Cambodian community. Changing conditions in Latin America, especially from American dumping its corn on the Mexican and Central American markets, destabilizing rural life there and leading to widespread migration, led to a vast rush of immigrants coming from the South. These were far more than the national quotas of Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador. But desperate people are going to move and they came anyway, papers or not.

This led to another backlash against immigration, one that remains very strong among whites today, many of whom have Irish and Italian and Polish last names. After all, the Trump administration was staffed by the Jewish Stephen Miller, the Irish Mick Mulvaney, etc and supported by the Irish Sean Hannity and the Italian Maria Bartiromo, etc. Scared whites, outraged that they might hear Spanish at their local buffet restaurant in Alabama, (I use this example specifically; there was a story in the Albuquerque Journal around this time, when the Minutemen idiots were out playing cowboy on the border to round up immigrants. The Journal interviewed one and this buffet thing in Alabama was the reason he gave for being concerned about immigration), fled to a new version of old racism, opposing immigrants, talking about the hordes entering the nation to destroy Real Americans and their pizza and St. Patrick’s Day.

At the same time, the Latino community, and especially the Mexican-American community, was growing rapidly in both size and political awareness. Many were second or third generation. This was a long way from 1966. And they were getting sick of the racism against them. Give George W. Bush a tiny bit of credit for one thing–he was for more immigration and a certain level of immigrant rights. Sure, this was because he was part of the cheap labor wing of the Republican Party and he certainly wasn’t going to unite with Democrats or anything on it. But he was also out of touch with his own party, who was turning into the far right racist political party that it is today. In 2005, the racist Republican James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin introduced a bill called the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. This was a proto-Trump bill intended to built a militarized wall and placed harsh criminal penalties on immigrants. The Republican Party ate this up, as did some Democrats. It passed the Republican controlled House before dying in the Senate.

The bill may have failed, but the racist rhetoric around it galvanized Mexican-American activists to make a point using one great power that all people have–withholding their labor. Groups such as Hermandad Mexicana, connected to the Mexican American Political Association, created the idea for a one day strike by Mexican and other Latino workers to remind everyone of the centrality of themselves to the American economy. Construction, landscaping, restaurants, housecleaning, basically the entire labor force supporting the lives of rich white people was in danger. The organizers decided to use May Day, ignored in the United States but the international workers’ holiday, to make their point. Mexican-American organizations around the country got involved, as did some other immigrant rights groups.

This all made both the white elites and more conservation Mexican organizations quite uncomfortable. Both President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger were opposed to it. Bush urged everyone to protest on a weekend. Can’t get in the way of that key but invisible labor after all. Ahnold said a boycott “would hurt everyone,” though he didn’t say why. Even LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was super nervous about it, urging the protest to be after school so kids won’t miss a day of class and hoping all the protestors would wave American flags instead of Mexican flags.

But the groups had major support as well, especially from the AFL-CIO. For so long, the labor federation was between horrible and questionable on immigration, but after the Sweeney revolt in 1995, the movement strongly embraced immigration as people of color are the future of the working class. Sweeney had named Linda Chavez-Thompson as his VP and although that is a completely titular role (if the president dies, the Secretary-Treasurer takes over), it was still a symbol that Mexicans were more than welcome inside the labor movement. So the federation dumped a bunch of resources into this and got its members out in solidarity.

Did the Day Without an Immigrant accomplish anything? Depends on how you define that. It certainly didn’t impress Republican racists. But it did raise the profile of Mexicans in the nation and especially in the work force. That has only increased in the years since, as has the Republican freakout about it. I do wish that there had been more follow-up actions, but that did not happen.

A few years ago, 2018 or 2019, I was giving a talk out in Washington state. One of the people there asked me if I considered the Day Without an Immigrant a strike. I said yes. She agreed, but said she had been in arguments with labor people that it was not. This feels like an unnecessarily strict definition of a labor action to me. Not only did the AFL-CIO support it, but it was literally designed to withhold labor from employers. What is a strike if not that?

This is the 480th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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