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Workers, immigrants rally in Oakland on May Day

on May 3, 2009


photo by Howard Hsu/Oakland North

The incessant rain didn’t stop over a thousand immigrant workers, youth and families, and their supporters, from taking to the Oakland streets Friday afternoon in commemoration of May 1st, International Workers’ Day. Skipping over puddles, completely drenched, the marchers made their way from Fruitvale Plaza to City Hall in a little under two hours.

The crowd ranged from teenagers running around unsupervised, to elders with canes, to entire families with small children in tow. And although predominantly Latino, the contingent also included Asian immigrant groups, and a small group chanting in favor of Temporary Protected Status for Haitian immigrants in the wake of hurricanes that recently ravaged the country.

Although commemorated around the world, May 1st has taken on a particular meaning in the US ever since the massive marches of 2006, when millions of immigrants took to the streets. Back then, they were protesting HR 4437, better known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, (which among other things, made it illegal to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants, and mandatory for police to collaborate with Immigration), as well as the call for legalization of undocumented immigrants. Now, while legalization is was still on everyone’s mind, the poor economy, and the spike in immigration raids and deportations in the Bay and around the country, has given immigrants more to chant about.

Consuelo Noriega was marching with Mujeres Unidas y Activas, an organization representing Latina immigrant women. Noriega said that for the women she was marching with, the effect that deportations were having on families was a main reason for being there. Often, when women are picked up by immigration, said Noriega, agents do not give them a chance to make arrangements for how their kids will be taken care of. “[Immigration agents] just take them,” said Noriega, “They don’t care what happens to the kids. It’s the worst thing that can happen to a mother.”

With the familiar “Si se puede” echoing through the Oakland streets, passing cars honked to show support, and marchers responded with cheers. Police motorcycles occasionally roared past, and above the crowd the hum of helicopters. All along International Avenue, onlookers, most of them Latino immigrant residents, would often join in with the chanting and, clapping or holding up their fists as the crowd drifted past, urging them to march along.

Beyond immigration issues, marchers representing various labor organizations were there to call attention to issues affecting all workers, be they immigrants or US-born.

Several teachers union members and representatives marched, mainly denouncing budget cuts that have made their jobs harder. “Education is really on the chopping block,” said Michael Eisenscher, who was  representing the Peralta Teachers’ Federation and East Bay Labor for Peace and Justice. “And a lot of kids are going to pay for it. A lot of parents are going to pay for it when their kids don’t get an opportunity to learn what they need to know to have a decent job.”

The economy has had an impact on the labor movement as a whole. Wei-ling Huber, president of UNITE-HERE local 2050, the union representing hotel and restaurant workers in the area, explained that the economic meltdown has meant a tougher climate for negotiating contracts with employers.“Employers are saying that with the economy so bad,” said  Huber,“They can’t give wage increases. Or they might even be saying [they] need to cut medical benefits. But when times were good it wasn’t as if they were sharing the wealth.”

Labor also brought a national struggle to the march: the effort to get the Employee Free Choice Act approved by Congress. The law, if passed, would make unionization easier throughout the country, including in southern states with anti-union “Right to Work” laws. The act would oblige employers to negotiate in the case of a vote favoring unionization, or take part in an arbitration process, thereby reducing worker intimidation.

It was as if the convergence of all these issues affecting workers and immigrant communities rose up in a single voice, a spirited cacophony of slogans and cheers at the steps of City Hall. Although there were fewer marchers this time around than in previous years, the important thing, said many, was to get the message out to those in power.

“We’re here to remind the Obama administration that we went out to vote,” said Manuel de Paz, who was marching with East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a coalition of churches first founded to help Central American refugees fleeing US-backed civil wars in their home countries. Decades ago, de Paz came as one of those refugees, and now, he said, he is giving back by continuing to call the US government’s attention to the plight of immigrant communities.

“We went out and told people to vote. Obama is accountable to us.” That accountability, said de Paz, is “not just political, but human.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
Oakland North

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