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May Day Rallies Celebrate Unity; Labor Unions and Immigrants Plan to March Side by Side

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The May Day rallies set to take place this Sunday follow massive pro-labor protests in Wisconsin to protect collective bargaining rights of public workers. Since 2006, when more than a million people marched across the United States against a harsh anti-immigrant bill, May Day has also become a key date of protests by immigrant rights groups. This year, labor and immigrant activists will march together in a move organizers say symbolizes their decision to join forces. We speak with Clarence Thomas of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union Local 10, which shut down the ports of Oakland and San Francisco on April 4 in solidarity with workers in Wisconsin. We’re also joined from Milwaukee by Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, a key organizer behind 2006’s 70,000-strong march in Milwaukee. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: This Sunday is May Day, May 1st, also known as International Workers’ Day, a holiday that celebrates workers’ rights and the achievements of organized labor, such as the eight-hour workday.

This year’s May Day follows massive protests in Wisconsin to protect collective bargaining rights of public workers. In recent years, May Day has also become a key date of protests by immigrant rights groups. On May 1st, 2006, over a million people marched across the country against a harsh anti-immigrant bill that was ultimately defeated. It was the largest May Day protest in the United States in years and helped revive the holiday.

Here in New York, the labor and immigrant rights movements usually hold separate rallies. But this year the two will come together in a move organizers say symbolizes their decision to join forces. Labor leaders are coming from around the country to participate in the New York rallies, including our guest Clarence Thomas. He says he’s the real Clarence Thomas, of the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union Local 10. The local has often been called “the conscience of the labor movement.” It has a long history of shutting down the ports of Oakland and San Francisco in protest, as they did most recently on April 4th in solidarity with workers in Wisconsin. Now they’re being sued by the employers association at the ports, the Pacific Maritime Organization, in order to prevent future closures.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On May 1st, 2006, she was key organizer behind the 70,000-strong march in Milwaukee. At the time, the march was described as the largest in Wisconsin’s history. That number grew to 80,000 people the following year. This Sunday, National AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka will speak at Milwaukee’s May Day march for immigrant and workers’ rights.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Clarence Thomas, you’re in New York. Why here?

CLARENCE THOMAS: I’m in New York because on October 17th, 2004, Local 10 initiated the Million Worker March movement. We assembled in Washington, D.C., at the Lincoln Memorial, making such demands as an end to the war in Iraq, protection of Social Security, also protecting public schools, and also cutting the military budget.

But one of the things that came out of that mobilization was a call by the — for the labor movement to reclaim May Day. So many of our younger members in the trade union movement have very little knowledge about May Day. They associate it with countries overseas celebrating International Workers’ Day, and as was alluded to by Juan earlier in the program, it started here in the United States with the fight to establish the eight-hour workday and to eliminate child labor exploitation. That labor history speaks to how the labor movement was able to make it possible for workers — not only members of the labor movement, but all workers — to have pensions, collective bargaining, and so forth. But I think that when we call for the reclaiming of May Day, what it does is to reconnect us with our militant history. And so, that ties in directly to the action that was taken by the ILWU Local 10.

Let me, first of all, say that I’m here today not representing the local. I am speaking as a rank-and-filer. Some of the opinions that I’m expressing are my own. But having said that, it is important to note that the union has a long and storied history around the question of engaging in solidarity actions. In the 1970s and the 1980s, we refused to handle cargo that was destined to Chile and to El Salvador. And in the 1980s, for 11 days, we refused to handle cargo that came from South Africa, sending shock waves all across the world. And when Nelson Mandela came to the Bay Area in 1984, he cited the ILWU Local 10 for its action in raising the consciousness of the anti-apartheid struggle.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, and how have you been able to have these, in essence, political work stoppages that are almost unheard of anywhere else in the country?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Well, in some instances, what has happened is that the union has been able to have its union meeting dates changed. And for one shift out of a month, we have a union meeting, and it stops all work in our port. In this particular instance, it was completely voluntary, which means that we did not have a change in our work meeting date. Workers voluntarily decided not to go to work in response to the attacks on the public sector workers in Wisconsin and 15 other states throughout the country.

It’s also important to note that on the 4th of April —- that is the anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Six months before his assassination, he spoke at Local 10. The occasion was a seven-city fundraising tour, headlined by Harry Belafonte and Joan Baez, for the purpose of raising money for SCLC. He spoke on that day, and -—

AMY GOODMAN: Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Yeah, Southern Christian Leadership Conference. September 21st, 1967, six months before his assassination, he became an honorary member of Local 10. So there are deep roots with respect to Dr. King, his legacy, and the action taken on April 4th.

AMY GOODMAN: And you are being sued now.

CLARENCE THOMAS: We are being sued. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies, terminal operators and stevedoring companies, is suing the union because they want to stop such further solidarity actions from taking place. And I think it’s important for your viewership to understand this: one of the reasons that we don’t see more solidarity action coming from unions is the threat of the employer for lawsuits, secondary boycotts and so forth. This is a means of intimidating the rank and file. We believe that, in light of these attacks on the working class, that the rank and file must have rank-and-file unity. And we believe that solidarity is not an empty slogan. Solidarity means making a sacrifice. And on April 4th, our members did not go to work. We did not get paid. And for 24 hours, international commerce was shut down. And we believe that more unions need to do the same.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And just to make clear, because you represent all the workers in the port, the white-collar workers as well as the blue-collar workers. In essence, when you stop, all of the importing into the Bay Area of California is shut down.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Port of Oakland, as I understand it, is the fourth largest port in the nation. It is the economic engine for the entire region. And so, you’re absolutely correct. We send agricultural products to Asia. We also send, you know, high-tech items, as well as importing a number of commodities from Asia. We say that we are responsible for the movement of international cargo. It all happens through the ILWU.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what’s been the reaction of your international to the activities of the local? Has there been any friction there?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Well, that’s a very good question, because the way that we got started with this action was that the AFL-CIO executive committee made a decision that it was going to adopt a resolution calling for no business as usual on April 4th. And we received a memo from our international president, who sits on that committee, Bob McElrath, letting all of the ILW affiliates know that we were to mobilize in our own way. Now, we have autonomy with all — all of our locals have autonomy. But we have historically not relied on the international to give us direction as to which way we should mobilize, because, after all, this is the local of the legendary Harry Bridges.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re also joined by Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee. You are mobilizing for May Day there. Could you talk about the preparations and what you’re hoping to accomplish with the mobilization Sunday?

CHRISTINE NEUMANN-ORTIZ: Well, we’re very excited because the level of collaboration and — what we anticipate — we already know because of the level of interest in organizing — is going to be unprecedented, in terms of the rank-and-file union members and the Latino and immigrant community, which has, since 2006, every year, mobilized in the tens of thousands. And each year has always been supported by labor and has had a greater diversity each and every year. But this year, because of the attacks on public employees, like teachers, we know that, you know, there’s a level of support and mutual support. And that’s really what is historic about this march, is these movements coming together at a scale that hasn’t been seen before.

AMY GOODMAN: Christine, it’s also significant we’re talking to you in Milwaukee. The AFL-CIO president is going to come and join you, Richard Trumka. But Milwaukee, of course, is in Wisconsin. You have been very active in the protest against Governor Walker. The significance, what it means for people in Milwaukee, for immigrants overall, the legislation that has been passed?

CHRISTINE NEUMANN-ORTIZ: Well, we — from the very get-go, as a worker rights organization, we were very involved in supporting and sending buses on a daily basis to the capital to defend Governor Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights. And, you know, right now what’s being followed with the budget is also an attack on immigrant rights and poor people.

In terms of immigrant rights, one of the biggest threats that’s pending, you know, in the budget is the repeal of in-state tuition rights for immigrant youth that was won in 2009, as well as the institutionalization of discrimination against legal immigrants, low-income families that would be denied access to food stamps or healthcare because they’re non-U.S. citizens, as part of this broader attack on poor people’s access and privatization of the public sector, like public education and so forth.

But one of the biggest things that’s motivating the Latino and immigrant community as part of this broader platform that we have is that there’s a pending Arizona copycat bill that’s being circulated in the state legislature by Representative Pridemore. And Governor Walker, during his campaign, had said that “If I were the governor of Arizona, I would have signed that bill,” which obviously means, now that he’s governor, that if this bill were to get that far, he would sign it. And we have been organizing around that since we became aware that it was being circulated for about a month prior to this march. And we’ve had a number of unions, maybe now close to 10, including the South Central Federation of Labor, that have passed resolutions rejecting this bill and also asking for — or building for May 1st, we’ve had a statewide letter with over a thousand Latino small businesses, and among others, that have signed this letter to say, “We don’t want this bill here.”

And this will — we’ve had mass meetings with Latino immigrants for, you know, three Sundays in a row, with close to a thousand people who’ve unanimously voted to walk off their job, if need be, if this bill were actually to start moving forward in the legislative process in the same way that we saw the collective — the attack —- the bill that took away collective bargaining rights start to move. So, there is a level of support in organizing that’s been seen. But this will be our first public action in terms of sending a message to Governor Walker that we don’t want an Arizona copycat bill in Wisconsin. We want a -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Christine, I’d like to bring Clarence Thomas back in on this whole issue of how the immigrant rights movement has in essence resuscitated May Day and now is building closer ties with the organized labor movement. You mentioned Harry Bridges before.


JUAN GONZALEZ: He was an Australian immigrant, a radical labor leader in this country. Here in New York City, the most — perhaps the most militant union, the Transport Workers Union, was organized by an immigrant, Mike Quill, and then later led by another immigrant worker, Roger Toussaint, that — the importance of how immigrants have continually renewed the radicalism and the fighting capacity of the American labor movement?

CLARENCE THOMAS: Well, first of all, they are the most exploited sector of the trade union movement. And as such, the issues that they face have to do with the fundamental rights of workers. When we look at the aftermath of what happened with the Great American Boycott —- believe that late in 2006 -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Six, mm-hmm.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Yes, well, the repression that took place with ICE breaking up families, the intimidation factor — when you talk about Harry Bridges, for 21 years he faced the courts for denaturalization hearings four times. He was alleged to be a member of the Communist Party. He was — he was vindicated. He always said that “95 percent of what they were saying about me was true.” But he wasn’t a member of the party.

But the point of it is, is this. The trade — the labor movement is very small, when you talk about the percentage of workers that are represented by a union. The overwhelming majority of workers don’t belong to a union, so that the labor movement has the responsibility for charting a course for all workers. That’s why it’s so important that this year that we’re going to have a united May Day action. May Day has been reclaimed by the American labor movement, and we’re proud to see that happen.

I just want to make one quick announcement. We will be assembling on Sunday at 11:30 at Union — in Union Square. And we hope that everyone will come out and show their solidarity.

AMY GOODMAN: And just an interesting point: isn’t it true Labor Day was America’s way of dealing with May Day, which was considered too socialist? May Day is celebrated all over the world.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Absolutely, Amy, and I’m glad that you brought that up, because Labor Day has no historical significance at all, and it was an effort to break up the international labor solidarity for the American working class.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you very much, Clarence Thomas, for joining us, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10. As you say, the real Clarence Thomas. And Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, joining us from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which will also have a major march on Sunday, on May Day.

CLARENCE THOMAS: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much. By the way, do you — are you able to just walk right into the Supreme Court when you want?

CLARENCE THOMAS: I may be able to do it now, after being on Democracy Now!

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to talk about Bradley Manning. Where is he now? We’ll be joined by Glenn Greenwald. Stay with us.

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