[Marxism] The May 1 boycott, the Latino movement and the Left

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Sat Apr 22 04:29:01 MDT 2006

I've been following the discussion on this on this list as well as in a
number of other spaces, and there are many more issues involved than have
been explicitly identified.

The first one is this: what is the character of the *movement*? And by that
I mean, where does it's *power* come from, what is *driving* it?

Some have wanted to define this as essentially an immigrant rights movement.
On one level, well, like duh...

But on the level I want to address, I don't think that's really it. This is
not a movement of undifferentiated immigrants. It is rooted in Latino
communities across the nation, and powered by Latino nationalism, and not
just among undocumented workers or immigrants generally.

Many have pointed to the overwhelmingly proletarian composition of the
movement. But it would be radically false to say this is simple a working
class movement. "We are workers" might be the translation of "Somos
trabajadores" but its entire political significance is lost in translation. 

And anyways, I can tell you how many non-Latino workers came out to support
us at the Atlanta demonstration. None that weren't already committed
leftists, and to tell the truth, even a lot of the committed leftists didn't

People have been calling it a "new civil rights movement" and certainly that
is true enough in terms of what it is fighting for. But we should remember
that the civil rights movement was itself an early expression or form of the
national movement of Black people, of the Black Liberation Movement.

And here we have an interesting contradiction. Because all sorts of
coalitions and groupings have been built around the immigration issue in the
past few years, but multinational ones, with a major or exclusive
legislative focus. And a number of those appear to want to speak for this
movement and present themselves as its leadership.

Here in Georgia we have the "Coalition for a New Georgia" which is of this
type. But when the mass upsurge hit, the leading militant Latino immigrant
rights organization did not for a second imagine that legislatively-focused
collection of leftists, nonprofits and politicians, which meets in well
appointed downtown offices of lawyers or consulting firms, and conducts its
business in English, could play a leading role in this movement, and a
different coalition, a different TYPE of coalition was set up, the March 17
Alliance composed exclusively of community activists and leaders and open to
anyone and everyone from our community on a strictly equal basis. Whether
the most prestigious person there or a brand new person who just walked in,
everyone gets 1-1/2 minutes to speak on the agenda item and one vote.

Thursday night we had another meeting of the alliance --we're meeting twice
a week-- and among those present were folks from the chamber of commerce, a
member of the state general assembly, local radio and TV people, lawyers,
student leaders from a couple of high schools, the Nation of Islam (yes, the
Nation has Latinos among its ranks), a couple of representatives from a
Brazilian community group, but the majority of the 60 or more crowded in the
little strip mall restaurant where we met (El Adobe) were just rank and file
working people, many undocumented.

The Hon. State Rep. Pedro Marin sat next to me, no showboating or
grandstanding, no politicking, no special introduction, taking part on the
basis of strict equality with everyone else. I think Pedro understood that
this was his role now, one more member of the community, just like everyone
else. He spoke when he felt moved to, voted along with the rest. I don’t
think his standing in the community will be hurt by it, quite the contrary.

I'm sure at some point soon the newspapers here are going to go to some of
the Latinos in the Coalition for a New Georgia who are NOT part of the
Alianza 17 de Marzo, which has been organizing and sponsoring the protests,
and get them to say some of the sorts of things the New York Times and other
newspapers have been picking up, that protesting alienates our "friends" and
so on, in an attempt to split the community and create confusion. But that's
not going to split the leadership of the movement. Insofar as it is a split
in the overall leadership of the community, THAT split took place a month
and a half ago here, when some of us turned decisively to people from the
grass roots being set into motion by the upsurge while others preferred to
keep playing on Astroturf.

*  *  *

There is a lot of confusion about the character of the May 1 action, as
would obviously be inevitable in any nationwide movement that lacks national
coordination and organs. And there will undoubtedly be a great deal of
variation from one area to another, depending on local circumstances,
including the degree of influence of the militant and reformist wings of the
movement, and this will be heightened by the fragmentation.

Some people were talking about doing a national videoconference call on a
Saturday a couple of weeks back, and I don't know if it even happened, as to
be on it you had to have access to some specialized videoconference
equipment. That told me right away whoever was organizing that wasn't
focused on involving the ACTUAL leaders of the grass-roots movement, but
"official" leaders blessed by Anglo society as part of nonprofits, unions,
universities or whatever. Later for that.

Today, Saturday the 22, there's meant to be some sort of meeting in Chicago
that we've never been able to get any clear information on here in Atlanta. 

The impetus and model for the May 1 action on a national scale in a lot of
ways comes from Atlanta, where our first protest in this upsurge was
precisely such an action, on March 24, and one that was tremendously

Our action was variously called "paro económico" or "boicot economico"
(economic stoppage or boycott) but in conception and the way it was
projected it is really more similar to what in Latin American countries
would be called a "paro cívico" and what in the history of U.S. protest and
social movements would be called a moratorium.

Such an action had long been discussed among the central leaders of the
Coordinadora, the main immigrant rights organization here, and it was
predicated on various things, including centrally that we were fighting
proposed state laws that would not only victimize undocumented workers but
also their employers, and the businesses who deal with them, with all sorts
of onerous document checking requirements, special withholdings from wages,
taxes on remittances, restrictions on state benefits, and so on.

This action was successful beyond all expectations. Entire malls were shut
down. Even some Anglo-owned Mexican restaurant chains were convinced by
their workers to close, and many other restaurants and small service and
retail businesses had to shut down, as did quite a few construction sites
dependent on immigrant labor. This was all done on a few days notice and
with the support or at least grudging acquiescence of the bosses, and not
projected in such a way as that this was a "strike" against THEM but rather
a "stoppage" against laws that would ALSO hurt them by demonstrating the
importance of immigrant labor and consumers.

Video and accounts of this action were all over the Latino national media
that weekend, and while this idea obviously hadn’t been unique in the
slightest to Atlanta, as it was just the Latin American "paro civico"
translated to U.S. conditions, its success here led the organizers of the
hugely successful LA March the next day (March 25) to issue a national call
for two further actions, April 10 demonstrations, that date having been set
or pushed by a mostly non-Latino non-profit I never heard of before, but
accepted because it is the anniversary of Cesar Chavez's death, and the May
1 "Day without an Immigrant -- Great American Boycott of 2006." 

One thing that immediately told me the LA folks almost certainly were
genuine is the awkwardness (in English) of the "Day without an immigrant"
title rather than "without immigrants." It says to me these folks started
with the Spanish name for the action, where the singular is grammatically
and colloquially ok. Another is that their call is not entirely clear on
exactly what the character of the stoppage/boycott on May 1 would be. That's
precisely the sort of situation we face in Atlanta, and what happens in the
meetings is that two or three overlapping but not completely identical
phrases get adopted, and what exactly is going to happen we're going to
learn from how the people respond.

Here in Atlanta, people in the central leadership of the movement would
rather not have had a protest of this kind on May 1, because we already had
such an action a month ago and --very importantly-- because we have lost the
battle on SB 529, the state anti-immigrant bill, which the Republican
governor signed into law a few days ago. That's had a dampening impact on
the mood of people but also, it makes getting the support/acquiescence of
community businesses to this sort of protest more difficult because a lot of
the immediacy and urgency has been removed. And we've already gone to that
well twice in recent weeks, because the April 10 demonstration completely
shut down the area's most important Latino Mall, Plaza Fiesta (with the
owner's support and agreement) as well as many businesses, because so much
of the community turned out and didn't go to work.

Nevertheless, we're going ahead here with a May 1 "paro economico" because
we don't want to break ranks with the national movement. But we're
emphasizing that workers should not put their jobs at risk, the high school
student activists associated with the Alianza are projecting wearing white
rather than skipping classes and as a result of their initiative and with
their participation, we've taken the position in the Alliance that we're NOT
calling on students to skip or walk out. Also, we're not projecting any kind
of rally or march or other mass event.

So it is a less aggressively projected protest than our last two, but we're
doing it because we think it is important to maintain a solid united front
with our brothers and sisters in the movement nation-wide, and even though
we could convincingly argue that from a local point of view, we've already
DONE this one, and this isn't the moment for such an action. From a national
point of view, the compas in LA called it in the wake of and with the
authority of the million-strong March 25 event, AS THEY HAD EVERY RIGHT TO
DO, given that there are no national bodies of THIS movement and the role
and weight of LA in the national Latino community and in this movement.

*  *  *

The U.S. Left (broadly speaking), having been caught *completely* by
surprise by this wave of protests and their character, has played a somewhat
contradictory role. Both wings of the Marcyites seemed to be trying to
interject themselves into this movement with their own calls for May 1
activities; both seem to have pulled back to letting the Latino and
Immigrant organizations take the lead on this. The two socialist
organizations involved are very small but they are allied with somewhat
broader forces, so this is significant. 

Unfortunately, not the same can be said of the CPUSA and its offspring, the
Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. These two groups
are the dominant political tendencies in the United for Peace and Justice
Coalition. And that coalition recently held a press conference with a major
immigration theme in which the May 1 protest wasn't projected. And on its
web site to this day we find nothing on the Great American Boycott.

I believe this sharply changes the character of the April 29 "antiwar"
demonstrations, because U.S. politics has changed radically since that
action was called. TODAY an antiwar movement without immigrants is an
abomination, it is an anti-movement, it is worse than having no movement at

And the test of inclusion is the May 1 day without immigrants great American
boycott. You can like it or dislike it, but among the Latino activists and
groupings that have arisen organically in this upsurge, the call for it has
been recognized as authoritative and even binding. THIS IS WHAT THE MOVEMENT
IS DOING, no matter how many vendidos the white media trots out to oppose

I don't really care what the people who dominate UfPJ politically think
about the tactics. I'm simply not interested. That's something we Latinos
will discuss and decide among ourselves. All I want to know is whether
they're with us or not. And on that, UFPJ's silence on the May 1 boycott is
eloquent. They're boycotting the boycott.

Something similar could be said about a lot of the unions, including
"progressive" unions and locals. The labor fakers as in a tizzy about how
this isn't the right moment for a general strike, and so on, as if anyone
really thought this protest was going to be that in a real sense of the
term. What would have been important is for the unions to have supported the
community initiative and worked with it to figure out appropriate modalities
for implementing it depending on circumstances. Nothing like that is really
happening, not to any significant extent, since the U.S. labor movement
really belongs on a mortuary slab.

A real living, kicking, fighting labor movement in this country is much more
likely to emerge from movements like this Latino movement of undocumented
workers than the moribund structures of the AFL-CIO or "Change to Win." 

Not everybody in the country is like those leftists or union officials. The
Nation of Islam, which does have Latinos among its members, is sending a
representative to our Alliance meetings here in Atlanta, and pledged their
unconditional support and offered various kinds of concrete help. They don't
usually intervene in or relate to movements or initiatives other than their
own, but they have in this case, which makes their gesture especially
appreciated. And others from the Black Liberation Movement have also
approached us.

But when faced with the biggest social movement in decades, and an
overwhelmingly, crushingly proletarian movement, and of the most oppressed
and exploited layers of the working class within the borders of the U.S.,
UfPJ, the group representing the bulk of white left/progressive antiwar
forces has chosen to remain in its comfort zone within the white nation
rather than with us.

Discussing this with a very good friend and comrade, my feelings of
abandonment and betrayal over this and the stance of some other forces, the
person said, "We've got to be like the Irish, Sinn Fein, ourselves alone is
what that means. We're lucky to have part of the Blacks with us, but mostly
we're lucky that no matter what the gringo politicians say, they can't get
rid of us, and they need us more every day."


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