"WE ARE THE WORKERS, THE MIGHTY MIGHTY WORKERS"
International Workers Day 2011 in New York City
By Gregory A. Butler
On a day that for 125 years has symbolized workers unity, the observation of International Workers Day in New York City was divided.
This is the second year in a row that the city had two rallies on May Day, thanks to the sectarianism of the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition (led by New York City's union leaders and the leaders of the Communist Party, USA), who were unwilling to work with the May 1st Coalition (led by the city's immigrant workers groups and the Workers World Party).
The basic reason for this divisiveness is because the May 1st Coalition is willing to criticize the Democratic Party and President Obama for their attacks on immigrants and the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition is not.
I'll get into the specifics of the differences below.
First, let's talk about the two rallies.
The May 1st Coalition's rally at Union Square started first, at 11AM.
The 14th St side of the square was filled with about 2,000 workers from various nationalities, with many carrying the flags of their homelands. As a show of unity, many groups had given their members red t shirts, the color symbolizing working class unity - the writing on those shirts may have been in a bunch of different languages (from Spanish to Hindi) but they were all red, symbolizing the solidarity that unites our entire class.
The May 1st Coalition had called for "No Work, No School, No Shopping" that day, and indeed many of the immigrant restaurant workers and vendors at the march were giving up a day's pay (on a busy weekend shopping day) to attend this rally.
The rally was very colorful and the speeches (in English and Spanish) from the improvised stage (the back of a rented flatbed truck) were quite radical, particularly from the several speakers who were themselves undocumented immigrants.
The speakers called for an end to mass deportation of immigrants, legal status for the 14 million undocumented immigrants currently in the US, an end to America's wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, self determination for Puerto Rico and an end to US government support for the military dictatorship in Honduras. They also pledged solidarity with the Wisconsin state workers, and all the other public sector workers in the country facing the loss of their union rights (including workers in Massachusetts and New York, where the attacks are coming from Democratic governors!)
The NYPD was apparently impressed by the radicalism of this march too, judging by their grossly disproportionate response.
The peaceful crowd of workers and students was surrounded by at least 200 police officers with civil disturbance helmets on their heads, the bulky outline of bullet proof vests clearly visible under their shirts and heavy grey tactical gloves on their hands. White shirted police captains paced nervously behind the lines of riot-clad gear cops, all dressed up for combat but with nobody to fight since it was a peaceful rally.
The captains' nervousness may have been partly because of the green baseball cap-clad volunteer attorneys of the National Lawyers Guild who stood at strategic points on the sidewalk, carefully watching the cops to see to it that everybody's rights got respected that day.
As the diverse but spirited marchers lined up to march down Broadway, the police ushered the crowd into one lane with cops on scooters keeping the other two lanes clear for road traffic.
The May 1st Coalition's marshals led the marchers in a mix of chants in English and Spanish as the march paraded downtown. Middle class White shoppers stared in slack jawed bewilderment at the red shirted procession proceeding down the avenue while immigrant vendors stood aside from their wares and stopped selling to watch the march in a spontaneous show of solidarity with the protest.
When the march reached Worth Street, the police and rally marshals ushered the marchers to make a left turn and head towards Foley Square.
That worked until the Vamos Unidos contingent made that left turn.
On a prearranged signal, the members of that Bronx-based Mexican street vendors union kept going straight onto the sidewalk (ironically enough, right in front of the federal building that houses the NYC offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement!) and walked down to City Hall Park for a minirally of their own.
They were followed by the members of DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) a South Asian immigrants rights organization, most of whose members at the rally appeared to be teenagers or young adults.
The cops dissolved into helpless frustration at this - the officers frantically urged the breakaway marchers back onto the agreed upon route, while a frantic red faced police captain bellowed "hey, you people are supposed to go that way!" and anxious May 1st Coalition marshals tried to persuade the two groups to rejoin the march.
However, they were having a one sided conversation with about 200 red t shirted backs, who ignored them and went on about their business of walking down the sidewalk to City Hall Park.
With all the attorneys watching, the NYPD couldn't stop them.
After all, they were just peacefully walking down the sidewalk, not blocking traffic or interfering with other pedestrians, so there was no lawful basis to interfere with them (and way too many lawyers on the street to unlawfully stop them).
The rest of the marchers joined the the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition's march, already in progress.
It was obvious this was an event with a much higher budget.
Thanks to the vast financial resources of the Service Employees International Union, AFSCME, the Laborers Union and the Machinists Union, the square was dominated by an enormous stage with a huge jumbotron video screen mounted on top of a massive scaffold and a rock concert-quality sound system. The crowd had also been provided with portable toilets and free bottled water.
The unions had even hired a professional publicist from a legitimate public relations agency, The Advanced Group!
It would have been nice if the political content of this rally had matched its budget.
Unfortunately there were no denunciations of the Obama administration's deportation of 800,000 immigrants, or its disgraceful bailout of Wall Street while American workers struggle with joblessness and foreclosures and no mention whatsoever of the wars America is currently waging in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
The speeches were the standard militant sounding (but not too militant!) speeches from high ranking union officials that you all too often hear at union rallies, alternating with labor oriented American rock and pop tunes.
The voices of actual rank and file workers were almost entirely absent - basically, workers were there to be seen and not heard.
At the May 1st Coalition rally, one way the participating organizations had shown working class unity was by giving their members red shirts. Even though they were from different organizations and were born in different countries, they were all united with the color of working class unity on their backs.
Not so the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition's rally. There each union had its own color t shirts - federal safety orange for the Laborers, purple for the SEIU, green for AFSCME, black for the Machinists, and of course nobody in red! (God forbid that anybody think they were communists!)
Attendance wise, about 4,000 people were at the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition rally. That's actually a pretty small number, considering the fact that 1199 has 100,000 members who work in NYC, 32bj has 70,000, DC 37 has 120,000 and the Mason Tenders District Council has 12,000.
Including the other unions in the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition they have close to 350,000 members!
Did they even try to mobilize their membership to attend this event?
The sad thing is, all of this division and sectarianism was unnecessary.
This has been a very momentous year for the American labor movement.
After 30 years of retreat, the state workers of Wisconsin drew a line in the sand and reminded America's employing classes that those of us who do the work that makes them rich have rights that they are bound to respect.
This momentous mass movement of workers has pushed America's official labor leadership to, for once, actually make a show of trying to resist the worst abuses of the bosses.
One dramatic symbol of that was the We Are One rallies the week of April 4, the 43 anniversary of the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King.
New York City had several rallies sponsored by individual unions on the day of the anniversary and a huge citywide rally on Saturday, April 8 that drew over 15,000 workers (the biggest labor rally in the city in over a decade).
So it would be reasonable to expect a huge rally on May Day.
After all, it wouldn't just be the unions mobilizing for it, but also dozens of immigrants rights groups and the entire New York City far left - with the people power of the immigrant groups and the left and the money and professional public relations consultants of the labor movement, this could have been a very big mobilization.
The May 1st Coalition and its affiliates have been organizing May Day rallies for the past 7 years and they were a part of the Great American Boycott, the May Day 2006 nationwide immigrant workers general strike that involved 4 million workers walking off the job to demand immigrants rights.
So, obviously a group with that kind of influence, combined with all that union money, could bring out a lot of workers on May Day.
Unfortunately, the sectarianism of the union leaders and the Communist Party leaders got in the way.
The sectarianism of the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition is rooted in the fact that the immigrants rights groups in the May 1st Coalition are quite a bit more radical than the mainstream labor unions.
This comes in part from the fact that their members are far more radical than the typical American born worker, due both to the fact that workers in their homelands in Latin America and Asia tend to be a lot more radical than the US working class and due to their precarious conditions in this country, first and foremost the repression that they face solely because of their immigration status.
Also, these groups haven't been as corrupted ideologically and financially by ties to the business world, since the bosses aren't particularly interested in trying to buy the loyalty of these workers with a higher standard of living, because the whole point of using undocumented immigrant labor is sweatshop wages.
To give the reader an idea of just how radical these immigrant workers groups are, the Workers World Party, an unapologetically communist organization, is actually one of the more conservative groups in the May 1st Coalition!
This radicalism comes out dramatically when it comes to attacking the Obama Administration for its war on immigrant workers.
President Obama, in his 3 years in office, has deported over 800,000 immigrant workers - more deportees than any president since Dwight Eisenhower deported 2 million immigrants back in the 1950s!
Considering that 392,000 of those half a million deportations were within the last 12 months, it's very possible that Obama just might break Eisenhower's record!
The members of the May 1st Coalition are enraged about this - especially since newly naturalized Latino and Asian immigrants contributed lots of votes to Obama, and many immigrants, citizen and noncitizen alike, volunteered for his campaign!
Due to the legitimate rage of these workers against the President, the May 1st Coalition's constituent groups have been very vocal in their criticism of the Obama Administration.
By contrast, the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition is far more conservative.
The Communist Party, despite its radical sounding name, has been a silent junior partner of the Democratic Party since 1936 and it will never criticize any incumbent Democratic President.
The main unions in the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition, are local 32bj and 1199 United Healthcare Workers East of the Service Employees International Union, District Council # 37 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the Mason Tenders District Council of the Laborers International Union of North America.
AFSCME, the Mason Tenders District Council and the SEIU are part of from the corporatist wing of the labor movement. These unions believe that class struggle is passé, and the future of American labor lies in low wage collaboration with Corporate America and the Democratic Party.
There are lots of immigrants in local 32bj, 1199, DC 37 and the Mason Tenders District Council who feel the same way about the president's attacks on immigrants as the members of the groups in the May 1st Coalition do.
Unfortunately, the leaders of those unions really don't care what their members think, especially when it gets in the way of their corporatist policies.
To keep the members from getting in the way of the corporatist agenda, all of those unions are carefully structured to insulate the leaders from the desires and needs of their members.
So, needless to say, the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition couldn't allow themselves to share a platform with the May 1st Coalition.
They pulled the same stunt last year, for basically the same political reasons, setting up their own rival rally with tamer slogans that didn't challenge the government or the Democratic Party.
Incidentally, local 32bj and 1199 had a similarly sectarian attitude towards the We Are One rallies organized by the New York City Central Labor Council back in April. They had refused to join with the rest of the New York labor movement in those rallies also, apparently since their leaders felt that a public challenge to the State of Wisconsin's unionbusting was too radical for their taste.
In any case, the spirit of militancy and labor unity inspired by the Wisconsin struggles eventually embarrassed the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition to make an attempt at unity with the May 1st Coalition.
To that end, just 4 days before May Day, Kevin Lynch, the longtime Communist Party, USA and Democratic Party activist and Sonia Ivany of the AFL-CIO's official Latino group, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, made an agreement on behalf of the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition with the May 1st Coalition's representatives, Teresa Gutierrez of the Workers World Party and Chris Silvera, the head of Teamsters local 808 and also a longtime supporter of the Communist Party.
There would still be two rallies but the May 1st Coalition's rally would start first at Union Square, at 11 AM and then would march down Broadway to the Foley Square site of the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition's rally, which would start up at 1 PM.
The deal was far from perfect and still had two separate rallies with different speakers and demands.
Some in the May 1st Coalition were dissatisfied with that deal.
Vamos Unidos, a Mexican street vendors association based in the Fordham section of the Bronx, publicly condemned the agreement.
In their statement, Vamos Unidos denounced the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition for its continued support for the Obama administration's anti immigrant policies, failure to deal with mass unemployment and foreclosures, and its multibillion dollar Wall Street bailout.
The vendors pledged that they would march from Union Square to Foley Square on May Day, but they would refuse to join the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition's rally.
As I discussed above, that's exactly what they and DRUM did with their boycott of the Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition's rally.
It was unfortunate that they were compelled to respond so dramatically, however they were only responding to the divisiveness created by the Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition.
Hopefully, a lesson has been learned here.
The Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights Jobs for All Coalition and their constituent organizations (32bj, 1199, DC 37, the Mason Tenders District Council, Machinists District Lodge # 15 and the Communist Party) will, hopefully, get over their sectarianism next May 1st and use their money and resources to bring out their members in mass numbers.
Madison, Wisconsin had 60,000 workers at their May Day rally last Sunday - how come we only had a combined 6,000 in a city that's 40 times larger?
With all the attacks on labor and the working class, from both political parties, our class needs to unite and fight. There's no time for petty divisiveness now!
- commentary by GREGORY A. BUTLER, LOCAL 157 CARPENTER
FOR GANGBOX: CONSTRUCTION WORKERS NEWS SERVICE
"UNION NOW, UNION FOREVER"
Originally published on Thursday, May 5, 2011