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Over 1,000 March for Immigrant & Workers' Rights on Labor Day

by Brad Sigal |
September 6, 2006
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St. Paul, MN - Over 1,000 people marched on the West Side of Saint Paul on Labor Day to demand legalization for immigrant workers and workers' rights for all. The West Side is one of the main centers of Latino immigrants and Chicanos in the Twin Cities.

The rally began in Castillo Park then marched through the largely Latino immigrant neighborhood with chants of "¡Sí Se Puede!" ("Yes We Can!"), and "¿Que queremos? – ¡Legalización!" ("What do we want? Legalization!"). In Castillo Park, various speakers stood in front of a banner saying "Immigrant Rights are Workers' Rights", and encouraged marchers to continue the struggle for equality for immigrant workers and workers' rights for all. According to Maria Peña of the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Coalition (MIRAC), "I feel it was important and strategic to pick Labor Day for this mobilization. Immigrants are one part of the working class that is under attack, and because there are also other workers under attack, that's a point in common that can give rise to working class solidarity."

The march was organized by the MN Immigrant Rights Action Coalition (MIRAC) and the Alliance for Fair Immigration Reform (AFFIRM) together with unions including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 3800, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789, UNITE-HERE, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 82 and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) at Northwest Airlines, who are in a sharp fight with Northwest and may go on strike as soon as next week, also organized a contingent of flight attendants to participate. They came in their bright green "CHAOS" t-shirts. CHAOS stands for "Create Havoc Around Our System" and is the AFA's strike strategy to defeat Northwest Airlines' concessions. AFA also had their own rally later in the day to mobilize their members and build support for their possible strike.

The immigrant and workers' rights march was initially supposed to be part of the annual Labor Day picnic that is usually organized by the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly, the coalition of all the unions in St. Paul. But the Assembly cancelled their picnic less than a month before the date, claiming they didn't have the money pull it off. Some insiders say that money ran short because of lost income due to last year's split in the AFL-CIO. Many believe the demands for immigrant workers' rights was also a factor in some of the more conservative unions pulling away. The immigrant rights groups decided to go ahead with the immigrant and workers' rights march anyway, and many individual unions participated in the march despite the Trades & Labor Assembly dropping their official support.

According to AFSCME Local 3800 Vice President Cherrene Horazuk, "It was unfortunate that St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly cancelled the Labor Day Picnic. It caused the mainstream media to talk about it as a sign of how weak labor is. In place of the traditional Labor Day Picnic, however, two great rallies were organized by unions and immigrant rights groups engaged in struggle. The future of the labor movement is in these groups who are fighting back against corporate greed and the global policies that attempt to pit workers in the US against workers in other countries. The unity of immigrant groups and labor unions marching together on Labor Day was incredibly inspiring."

The march was primarily Mexican and Latin American, but included many U.S.-born workers and people of other nationalities as well. Speakers included Francisco Segovia of MIRAC, Javier Morillo of SEIU, Don Seaquist of UFCW, as well as representatives from other communities such American Indian Movement youth organizer Jason Firewolf, Palestinian-American Anti-War Committee member Sabry Wazwaz, and Somali Muslim Imam Hassan Mohamud.

A large group of Latino workers from outstate Minnesota came to the rally by bus with Centro Campesino, an organization that works in Southern Minnesota towns with large Latino concentrations. They carried signs that said "Moratorium Now!" and "Permanent residency is the way". Marta Portillo and her family drove two and a half hours from St James, MN to attend the rally. She said, "We came because we consider the demands just and we are part of this community. Legalization is just. It's a human right. I think the march was successful."

Two important individual cases were highlighted at the rally. Elvira Arellano addressed the rally via a phone hookup from Chicago. Arellano is a national symbol of the immigrant rights movement. She has taken sanctuary in a Chicago church, to resist deportation orders that would separate her from her son, who is a U.S. citizen. Her struggle has put a human face on the struggle for legalization, and has catalyzed the movement nationally to call for a moratorium on deportations. According to Maria Peña, "The fact that there was a direct message from Elvira Arellano, who is a symbol of resistance, added a lot to the march today. It put women up front. The movement is becoming more conscious and this march had an important reflection of women being more visible."

Silvia Ibañez spoke from the María Iñamagua Campaign for Justice. María Iñamagua was an Ecuadorian immigrant in Minneapolis who died while in custody awaiting deportation. She had complained of severe headaches while in custody and was ignored for weeks, until she died in custody. The campaign won a recent victory when the federal government agreed to investigate her death.

Speaking of the relations between immigrant workers and the unions, MIRAC member Francisco Segovia said, "It's very interesting that it has fallen to immigrants to start a new page in the history of workers in this country. The new workers are an essential base of the economy. The life of the unions depends on their ability to understand this situation. I think the traditional unions have to understand that conditions have changed and they will be left behind if they don't learn and understand the new dynamic. Because the working class will continue to move forward."

MIRAC member Erika Zurawski said, "Focusing on the struggle of immigrant workers on Labor Day was important. Immigrant workers reclaimed May Day on May 1, and today immigrant workers led the way on Labor Day too, after the citywide union officials cancelled their Labor Day event. Immigrant workers are revitalizing the struggle for equality and workers' rights for all in the US."

The Twin Cities immigrant rights movement is planning another action for September 30, a week before Congress adjourns. September 30 is a national day of action called by the recently-formed National Alliance for Immigrant Rights (NAIR), to send a message to Congress to not pass anti-immigrant legislation at the end of the session.

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