WORKERS along America’s West Coast are mobilising for ‘strikes with the community’ this May Day in opposition to President Trump’s war on immigrants.
Shop steward Tomas Mejia sensed something was different when 600 janitors streamed into the Los Angeles union hall on February 16 – far more than for a regular membership meeting. Chanting ‘Huelga! Huelga!’ (‘Strike! Strike!’), they voted unanimously to strike on May Day.
The janitors of SEIU United Service Workers West felt driven, Mejia says, ‘to strike with the community’ against the raids, threats, and immigrant-bashing hate speech that the Trump administration has unleashed.
‘The president is attacking our community,’ said Mejia, a member of his union’s executive board.
‘Immigrants have helped form this country, we’ve contributed to its beauty, but the president is attacking us as criminal.’
Following the Los Angeles vote, union janitors elsewhere in California have also voted to ‘strike with the community’ on May 1. As the meetings gathered steam, Mejia reports, workers in schools, grocery stores, restaurants, and farms started talking about joining the walkout too.
And the strike is going on the road: SEIU-USWW is partnering with the human rights group Global Exchange, worker centres, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, and faith groups to organise a ‘Caravan against Fear’ that will tour California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in April, staging rallies, cultural events, direct action trainings, and community strike votes leading up to May Day.
In recent years, May Day has seen demonstrations to support immigrant rights. This year’s mobilisations will centre on defending immigrants, but weave in other issues as well, such as climate justice and the de-funding of public education. Up and down the West Coast, we are likely to see the largest May Day strikes since hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers walked off the job in 2006.
A thousand miles to the north of Mejia’s home city, leaders of the unions representing Seattle public school teachers, graduate employees at the University of Washington, and staff at Seattle’s community colleges have called for a strike to protest against the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants, Muslims, workers, women, and members of the LGBT community.
The public school teachers and UW graduate employees are scheduling strike votes in the coming weeks. ‘We’re horrified about what Trump has done,’ said Alex Bacon, a community college administrative assistant and member of AFSCME Local 304.
And given the Trump administration’s support for ‘right-to-work’ legislation and slashing health care and retirement programs, he said, ‘even if we’re not in the crosshairs this second, we’re next.’ A March meeting organised by the county labour council and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant brought together immigrant community leaders and representatives from two dozen Seattle-area unions – including Labourers, Teamsters, Boeing Machinists, stagehands, hotel workers, and city and county workers – to plan a May Day of mass resistance.
Participants acknowledged the need for creativity rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. A week later, the labour council committed its support for an immigrant-led May Day march, in a resolution urging unions ‘to consider all forms of action on May 1, 2017, whether striking, walking out, taking sick days, extended lunch hours, exercising rights of conscience, organising demonstrations or teach-ins, or any other acts of collective expression that builds solidarity across communities.’
Labour Council head Nicole Grant described May Day as just the beginning of a ‘summer of resistance,’ showing that working people can and will respond to Trump’s attacks with disruptive action. We won’t take down this president in one day,’ added Sawant. ‘But on May Day we are taking our resistance to another level.’
Climate justice activists are also joining in the May Day movement. In Washington state, the Sierra Club and other environmental organisations are calling for an ‘Earth Day to May Day Action Week,’ blending Earth Day April 22 and a ‘March for Science’ into a full week of workshops and protests culminating in a big May 1 mobilisation.
Nationally, many union leaders haven’t weighed in on the May Day strike movement, in part because their contracts with employers include no-strike clauses. Mejia acknowledges the risk of striking, but says, ‘The government is criminalising us.’ The bigger risk, he says, would be to not fight back, because inaction will only embolden Trump and his billionaire backers. Key to successful May Day strikes, many activists point out, is connecting local fights to anti-Trump resistance activities.
At the University of Washington, for instance, where one-third of the graduate employees are international students, union members are demanding that university administrators bargain with them over the impact of Trump’s Muslim ban and other executive orders. And they are pressing the university to declare itself a ‘sanctuary campus’ and to waive a discriminatory fee it now imposes on international students.
• About 300 people crowded Chicago’s Federal Plaza for a rally staged by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare, representing Illinois health care workers, on Thursday to celebrate the Affordable Care Act’s (Obamacare) seventh anniversary and protest against Republican-led efforts to repeal and replace it.
Among the demonstrators were people who said former President Barack Obama”s signature legislation saved their lives by granting them access to medical help despite pre-existing conditions such as cancer or traumatic brain injury.
Will Wilson, 63, is living with AIDS and credits the Medicaid expansion under the ACA with giving him coverage when he needed it. He had lost his insurance due to his diagnosis in 2002 and wasn’t able to obtain it again until the ACA passed in 2010.
‘Getting insurance opened up a brand-new door to me,’ Wilson said at a news conference before the rally. ‘I got to experience a freedom I hadn’t been able to experience in quite a number of years.’
The news conference and rally were meant to coincide with a scheduled House vote Thursday for the Republicans’ American Health Care Act, but the vote was postponed as more Republicans withdrew their support. Nevertheless, protesters gathered with signs and balloons for the ACA birthday, along with megaphones to express opposition to the bill.
SEIU Healthcare, which represents home, health care, child care and nursing home workers in Illinois — invited several prominent Illinois Democrats to the rally. State Senator Daniel Biss, Ald. Ameya Pawar and Cook County Commissioner Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia pledged to push back against a policy that would strip Illinois residents of affordable and accessible health care.
Democratic Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said the new legislation would have cost the county a ‘staggering’ $300 million in federal aid each year. What the Republicans have proposed is a disaster for Cook County,’ Preckwinkle said. Under the ACA, 480,000 people — almost half a million people in Cook County — were able to sign up either for a Medicaid expansion programme or a marketplace health plan.’