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?
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). Learn more about the author.