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May Day in NYC: Youth and Immigrant Rights Activists Demand Reform | The Nation

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Allison Kilkenny

Allison Kilkenny

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

May Day in NYC: Youth and Immigrant Rights Activists Demand Reform

All photos by Allison Kilkenny.

This year’s May Day events featured the familiar tableau of union members marching in matching T-shirts and carrying their banners, while an insane number of police officers crept along the perimeters of Broadway, monitoring the peaceful procession. But this year also included an especially reenergized contingent of youth supporters and immigrant rights activists.

Of course, that’s not to say young people and advocates of immigration reform haven’t turned out in prior May Days. Certainly, Occupy Wall Street injected the worker-led event with a ton of youthful energy, but this year definitely possessed a different, more serious note. For many immigrant rights activists, they feel they’ve reached a critical moment, and if real reform is ever going to come, it will be now or never under President Obama’s leadership.

For youth, they have never lived in a world in which workers have held the upper hand. All they have known is the decline and bottoming out of unions, and the young people I spoke to cited non-unionized workers’ actions as sources of inspiration, particularly the fast food workers’ organizing recently seen in New York City.

Gregory, a student at Rutgers and delegate of the Young Workers Committee, a project of the Transit Workers Union formed to get youth more involved in the union, said he joined the protest because it’s important youth become engaged in workers’ struggles.

“Youth are the future. If they’re not involved now, then they’re not going to be involved later, and then they’ll get steamrolled when it comes time to the companies making decisions. If they haven’t been involved from the beginning, it’s going to be easy for companies to take advantage of them,” he said.

“The entire service industry isn’t unionized—banking isn’t unionized—but in a lot of other countries, they are. Bankers in Korea are unionized,” he added.

Angela Cassie, a member of TWU, said she was attending the event to support young activists.

“Youth do care about workers’ rights,” she said, emphasizing TWU’s commitment to supporting and training youth who may have no prior experience with, or exposure to, organizing the workplace.

“There’s always strength in numbers. We need to build that because people deserve a voice in the work place.”

And if any union knows the struggles of workplace negotiation, it’s TWU.

“Our contracts have hit mediation and we kind of went into a stalemate when it comes to negotiating with the companies,” said Cassie. “Another issue we face is union-busting firms in terms of organizing.”

Which is precisely why the morning event at Bryant Park was, in part, a tour of companies TWU accuses of being union-busters, such as the law firms Ford & Harrison and Jackson Lewis, and the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority. Protesters charged into lobbies, shouting slogans like, “Union busting is disgusting!” before security inevitably asked them to leave. At the MTA protest, a particularly overzealous security guard got in the face of activist Jeff Rae, screaming at him. The protesters left without further incident.


Activists inside the lobby of Ford & Harrison.

The only arrests happened later at the anti-capitalism march departing from Tompkins Square. As is the custom at wildcat marches, youth clad in black led the police on a chase throughout the city, oftentimes, but not always, outrunning officers, and the march culminated in eight reported arrests. While some of the youth were undeniably rowdy and furious with police, I did witness one young man being arrested for the crime of telling a police officer to stop harassing a female photographer.


Officer arresting a protester from the anti-capitalism march.

In the evening, thousands of activists gathered at Union Square for the traditional march down broadway. At the front of the march, immigrant rights groups proudly carried banners that read “People Power” and “Stop Deportations,” while chanting in Spanish, beseeching President Obama to listen to them.

We’re here because we are demanding legalization,” said Gonzalo Venegas, a 28-year-old member of a hip-hop activist group from the Bronx, who performed in front of the crowd during a rally in Union Square. “For us, the idea of immigrant rights and workers’ rights goes hand in hand.”

That “hand in hand” relationship is especially evident in the restaurant industry, where undocumented workers might account for more than 700,000 of the industry’s 12.8 million employees, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.


An aerial view of the protest at Union Square.

Though they account for a huge part of the workforce, and ultimately contribute enormously to the overall productivity of the United States, undocumented immigrants have never been in more jeopardy.

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In four years, Obama’s administration has deported as many undocumented immigrants as the administration of George W. Bush did in his two terms, but many immigrants’ rights activists still believe Obama is their best shot at a path to citizenship.

Will Obama live up to his Guantánamo rhetoric? Read the Editors’ take in this week’s issue of The Nation.

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