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graphic by Beth Martini

The Restaurant Organizing Project held a national educational event on May 3rd in celebration of May Day. 

Restaurants are run by immigrant workers. The question of how labor interacts with demands for legalization and against xenophobia are of fundamental importance to any effort to transform the industry. 

What follows is a transcript of a talk given by Justin Akers-Chacón on immigrant worker militancy, historically the leading edge of the transformative labor movement in the United States.

Justin Akers-Chacón is an activist, labor unionist, and educator living in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. He is a Professor of Chicana/o History at San Diego City College. His other books include No One is Illegal (with Mike Davis) and Radicals in the Barrio.

Thank you for inviting me to be here to talk about this important subject. I’m not a restaurant worker, [but] I worked in two restaurants before. So I’m in solidarity with this important work. What I wanted to do today was just share a little bit of information about the immigrant rights movement, and its transformative capacity and touch on a few points that I think might be relevant for organizing today.

I live in a city called Chula Vista, which is the main city between San Diego and Tijuana on the border. On May Day 2021, we had a car caravan, probably about 200 cars, that went through different sites, including the Otay Mesa Detention Center, a private, for-profit facility administered by ICE, but run by a corporation called Core Civic, which houses about 700 people who committed no crime, but are the victims of a system of repression. [The] car caravan [also] went to the San Diego Convention Center, which currently is caging about 1450 migrant and refugee children. This was just a couple days ago. 

May Day here in San Diego is an important day because of May 1, 2006. Because of that, here we are 15 years later, still doing big actions that call out the need to fight for workers rights. And a big component of that is solidarity and justice for immigrants and refugees and the need for legalization. My union, the teachers union, [has] a big contingent and the local Labor Council mobilizes hundreds of people to come out and stand in solidarity together, including for immigrants. That’s one of the legacies of the mass movement here in San Diego in 2006.

On May Day 2006, there was an unprecedented mass mobilization of workers across the country. Unprecedented in the sense that it was anywhere from about three to five million people who came [out] explicitly around a workers’ demand: legalization for millions of undocumented workers. [An] explicitly political demand. It spread across approximately 700 cities. And not just major cities, but small towns across the country. [In] Los Angeles, a conservative estimate would be [that] about 1.3 million people came out to the streets throughout the city and effectively shut down the second largest city in the United States for the whole day. And didn’t just shut it down because everybody stopped working, but literally every major street and boulevard and thoroughfare was wall to wall people. 

There were different demands that fit into this larger demand: legalization now, or amnesty now. This is an important thing to understand in terms of organizing. In US labor history, this demand has explicitly meant “unions now.” The right to form, the right to join a union. 

Why did several million people come out? Why was it so explosive? In some ways it was organized, [but] in many other ways it was a spontaneous outpouring. 

How was it organized? In 1986, the US government passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, [of] which one of the major provisions was amnesty. [The] provision allowed undocumented people who meet who met the requirements, at that time very inclusive, to legalize their status and become citizens. About 3 million people between 1987 and 1992 became citizens. During that period of time, the mid 80s [through] the mid 90s, there was a massive expansion of unions. Primarily unions that immigrant workers went into, in sectors that were [already] unionized where immigrant workers were concentrated. Millions of people become legalized, move into the US, [join unions] and become union organizers. 

Between 1992 and 2003, there was a coordinated effort by many unions to actually go out and organize immigrant workers into unions. Mobilized workers who now have the protection of the union and the protection of citizens. Over that period of time, immigrant workers spread into many different industries. We see a transition away from certain industries being concentrated to other industries now reflecting more of an immigrant workforce. 

In the late 1970s, with the expansion of the immigrant workforce in several industries, labor organizers in the Southwest began to recognize that workers coming into the steel industry [and] farm labor, were actually more prone to organize unions than their US counterparts. In many cases [they] actually organized their own independent unions. Some unions [realized] the importance of recognizing the demographic shifts in the workforce [and] began to actually incorporate undocumented workers into their unions. Because of this, we see a trajectory of more unions shifting towards organizing immigrant workers. The more those [unions] grow, the more they begin to put pressure on the rest of the union movement. That the future of the labor movement is actually organizing immigrant workers. From a historical standpoint, it’s always been that way. It’s never been different. Immigrants are at the front echelons at every juncture of the class struggle in this country. 

By 2000, the AFL-CIO had officially changed. As long as it’s been in existence the AFL had been anti-immigrant, even though it built up its first ranks primarily around immigrant workers. And when they merged with the CIO in 1955, the CIO went from pro-immigrant union organizing to capitulating to [the] anti-immigrant position. From 1955 to 2000, the AFL-CIO actually lined up with the right-wing on calling for the exclusion of immigrants. But in 2000, the AFL-CIO announced, “we want another legalization, we’re going to call for another amnesty” and allocated resources for immigrant worker-led union locals to actually organize something called the immigrant workers Freedom Ride. A national campaign, modeled on the civil rights movement, of car caravans going city to city, culminating in New York in a final rally of tens of thousands calling for a new amnesty. The largest union federation in the world, calling for another amnesty against the US government, at that point not entertaining one. 

[In] the mid 90s, undocumented workers and US born workers, in industries where there were both represented typically made similar wages. By the early 2000s, the US capitalist class, although there were always divisions within politics over implementation, [have] the general sentiment [that] US economy can no longer afford amnesties. Amnesties are bad for business.  In 2003, while the US labor movement was calling for a new amnesty, the Bush administration took legalization off the table and put forth the Guestworker Program instead. 

The Freedom Rides represented the potential for there to be another legalization, another surge of people into unions, and, by legalization, a boost in  wages across the board for legalized workers, US born workers and even undocumented workers who didn’t qualify for the legalization. [When] you have a surge of people joining unions, [it becomes much harder] to subdivide by citizenship status. 

Between 2003 and 2006, we see a complete about face. The Republican Party became openly anti-immigrant, espousing more criminalization, closing the border, etc. In the legislative session that year, Congress, controlled by Republicans in the House, introduced the Sensenbrenner-King Bill, which would effectively make it a felony to be undocumented. The parameters of debate became legalization or being made into a felon. 

[Two weeks after May Day 2006] the Bush administration started the process of organizing workplace raids. Where I live in San Diego, we went from the largest mass movement in San Diego history, a massive flourishing of organizing, to shifting to defend restaurant workers at the French Bakery in Pacific Beach in San Diego, and spent six months defending about 30 workers who had worked there for 10 to 20 years. ICE came in with automatic weapons and arrested them for committing no crime, a shift in the federal government towards repressing workers in the workplace. These same workers were part of the May 1st action, [part of] a trend of targeting politicized workers. 

We see the shift from amnesty to criminalization. And we see an emphasis then shifting towards getting the Democratic Party in office to pass legalization. The campaign promise of 2008, the campaign promise of 2012, and the campaign promise of 2021. All three were abandoned almost immediately once the Democrats achieved office. 

But immigrant workers, even in a state of atomization [and] disorganization, in many cases still have concentrated power in some sectors of the economy, have continuously expressed opposition in various forms since 2006, and will be at the forefront of the next wave of labor organizing and labor struggle in the years to come.