Will Public Workers and Immigrants March Together on May Day?

Posted on 29 April 2011

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By David Bacon

One sign carried in almost every May Day march of the last few years says it all: "We are Workers, not Criminals!"  Often it was held in the calloused hands of men and women who looked as though they'd just come from work in a factory, cleaning an office building, or picking grapes.  The sign stated an obvious truth.  Millions of people have come to the United States to work, not to break its laws.  Some have come with visas, and others without them.  But they are all contributors to the society they've found here.

This year, those marchers will be joined by the public workers we saw in the state capitol in Madison, whose message was the same - we all work, we all contribute to our communities, and we all have the right to a job, a union, and a decent life.

Past May Day protests have responded to a wave of draconian proposals to criminalize immigration status, and work itself, for undocumented people.  The defenders of these proposals have used a brutal logic: if people cannot legally work, they will leave.

But undocumented people are part of the communities they live in.  They cannot simply go, nor should they.  They seek the same goals of equality and opportunity that working people in the U.S. have historically fought to achieve.  In addition, for most immigrants, there are no jobs to return to in the countries from which they've come.  The North American Free Trade Agreement alone deepened poverty in Mexico so greatly that, since it took effect, six million people came to the U.S. to work because they had no alternative.

Instead of recognizing this reality, the U.S. government has attempted to make holding a job a criminal act.  Thousands of workers have already been fired, with many more to come.  We have seen workers sent to prison for inventing a Social Security number just to get a job.   Yet they stole nothing, and the money they've paid into Social Security funds now subsidizes every Social Security pension or disability payment.

Undocumented workers deserve legal status because of that labor - their inherent contribution to society.  Past years' marches have supported legalization for the 12 million undocumented people in the U.S.   In addition, immigrants, unions and community groups have called for repealing the law making work a crime, ending guest worker programs, and guaranteeing human rights in communities along the U.S./Mexico border.

The truth is that undocumented workers and public workers in Wisconsin have a lot in common.  In this year's May Day marches, they could all hold the same signs.  With unemployment at almost 9%, all working families need the Federal government to set up jobs programs, like those Roosevelt pushed through Congress in the 1930s.  If General Electric alone paid its fair share of taxes, and if the troops came home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we could put to work every person wanting a job.  Our roads, schools, hospitals and communities would all benefit.

At the same time, immigrants and public workers need strong unions that can push wages up, and guarantee pensions for seniors and healthcare for the sick and disabled.  A street cleaner whose job is outsourced, and an undocumented worker fired from a fast food restaurant both need protection for their right to work and support their families.

Instead, some states like Arizona, and now Georgia, have passed measures allowing police to stop any "foreign looking" person on the street, and question their immigration status.  Arizona passed a law requiring employers to fire workers whose names are flagged by Social Security.  In Mississippi an undocumented worker accused of holding a job can get jail time of 1-5 years, and fines of up to $10,000.

The states and politicians that go after immigrants are the same ones calling for firing public workers and eliminating their union rights. Now a teacher educating our children has no more secure future in her job than an immigrant cleaning an office building at night.  The difference between their problems is just one of degree.

But going after workers has produced a huge popular response.  We saw it in Madison in the capitol building.  We saw it in the May Day marches when millions of immigrants walked peacefully through the streets.  Working people are not asleep.  Helped by networks like May Day United, they remember that this holiday itself was born in the fight for the 8-hour day in Chicago over a century ago.

In those tumultuous events, immigrants and the native born saw they needed the same thing, and reached out to each other.  This May Day, will we see them walking together in the streets again?

Find May Day events in California here, or visit www.maydayunited.org.


Guest columnist David Bacon is a writer, photojournalist and former union organizer. He spent 20 years working with the United Farm Workers, the United Electrical Workers, the International Ladies' Garment Workers, the Molders Union and others. He is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008), Communities Without Borders (2006), and The Children of NAFTA: Labor Wars on the US/Mexico Border (2004). This article originally appeared on the California Labor Federation’s Labor’s Edge.

What part of breaking the law don’t you get? What left wing liberal propaganda, we have illegal workers taking jobs from Americans when we need them most; and farming jobs are only a small percent of all the illegals in this country. And yes, someone stealing a social security number and getting a job is breaking the law; they need to go to jail! And to compare union workers who are United States citizens with illegal workers is an insult to all the union workers out there. They milk our society and drain our resources. Go into a hospital and find out how many illegals pay their medical bills? We can’t welfare Mexico, and the last poll that I saw 80% of American approved of the Arizona laws, and I am one of them.

Simple minded.
The author makes one valid point - The North American Free Trade Agreement was indeed a wicked action. Did your Senator vote for it? (I don't think Feinstein did, but perhaps she just didn't vote - I don't recall that she spoke against it).
The rest of the article is mostly malarkey. General Electric's taxes wouldn't begin to solve our financial problems. Those problems are caused by too much government buying votes by taking money from some and giving it to others. (OK - that's pretty simple minded, also)
With regard to immigration, the key questions for realists are how many people with what capabilities will best serve to "preserve the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity." Bleeding heart idealists, of course, don't think in those terms. In fact, they don't think. They feel. If they were in a life boat that could safely hold 12 people, they would keep pulling in more until the boat sank and everyone drowned.
So - suppose we just open the borders and invite the third world to come in. Does the author really believe that the addition of 2.7 billion very poor and illiterate people would serve Californian's interests? If not 2.7 billion, how many? I'm fairly certain that the author doesn't have a number in mind.
The reason that states are passing laws that in some sense restrict immigration is not because people in those states are racist xenophobes. It is because people in those states are realists, and, having analyzed the data, conclude that additional people, especially poor people, will diminish rather than improve the quality of life.
The author presents no data in support of his emotion based conclusions. He does not deal with the matter of the several million poor immigrants - legal and illegal - who are costing California billions. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich claims that the cost of illegal immigration to Los Angeles County taxpayers exceeds over $1 billion dollars. See his web site, URL below. No one has refuted his numbers. Why not? Because they are accurate.
Indeed, if millions of poor were such a blessing, why does California suffer from such severe financial and social problems?


Good piece. You explain the issue well.
One thing that seems clear, there is a small group of people who follow web sites and blogs to respond to anything about immigration. They are the same people who were birthers until yesterday.
They don't seem to read the articles they are responding to.

As to the claim that undocumented receive benefits, except for emergency health care and food, they don't.
The laws prohibiting undocumented from getting government benefits are; The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation act of 1996, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility ACt of 1996. It is Public law 104-208.

For all you left wing liberals listen up! Seventy-one percent of poll respondents said they'd support requiring their own police to determine people's U.S. status if there was "reasonable suspicion" the people were illegal immigrants, the poll found. Some of the polls have it as high as 80%, most Americans want them out! I don't know anybody who is against LEGAL immigration, they need to go to the back of the line and learn the LANGUAGE, and everything that is required to become a legal resident. If they are to lazy to do that then they need to get out! It is called personal responsibility; something liberals know nothing about. If I moved to another country I would follow the laws and learn the language; PERSONAL RESPOSIBITY!


August 11, 2009—Figures from the Department of Public Social Services show that children of illegal aliens in Los Angeles County collected nearly $22 million in welfare and over $26 million in food stamps in June, announced Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich.  Projected over a 12 month period – this would exceed $575 million dollars.

Annually the cost of illegal immigration to Los Angeles County taxpayers exceeds over $1 billion dollars, which includes $350 million for public safety, $400 million for healthcare, and $500 million in welfare and food stamps allocations.  Twenty-four percent of the County’s total allotment of welfare and food stamp benefits goes directly to the children of illegal aliens born in the United States. 

“Illegal immigration continues to have a catastrophic impact on Los Angeles County taxpayers,” said Antonovich.  “The total cost for illegal immigrants to County taxpayers exceeds $1 billion a year – not including the millions of dollars for education.”

Hey Duane Campbell, are you really that gullible?

The True Believers are unmoved by logic or facts. You will not hear from them an argument based on numbers and reason.

As I have said Duane, there are two reasons I have become resigned to all the right wing knuckle dragging trollers that come to this site and spout nonsense: One, they give the site more hits, and two, they actually make the arguments made by the authors stronger and more credible. Its not that difficult to see truth, versus fear...so keep all the Fox News, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh inspired ignorance coming!!!