The previous two centuries were characterized by the arrival of immigrants to our shores. These immigrants, while despised and castigated, provided the muscle and the strong backs that were necessary to build the U.S. economy. While fully integrated in American society today, some 150 years after they first arrived, the Irish immigrants that began coming to America, elicited similar reactions and calls for action that today’s Hispanic and other immigrants of color are experiencing. Similarly, these immigrants were often forced to live in substandard conditions (cellars and shanties), partly because of poverty but also because they were considered bad for the neighborhood. Articles from the day mentioned that these immigrants “were unfamiliar with plumbing and running water.” Often, the poor living conditions bred sickness and early death. It was estimated that 80 percent of all infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City died. Their brogue and dress provoked ridicule; their poverty and illiteracy provoked scorn.
The Chicago Post wrote, "The Irish fill our prisons, our poor houses...Scratch a convict or a pauper, and the chances are that you tickle the skin of an Irish Catholic. Putting them on a boat and sending them home would end crime in this country."
Despite being despised, the arrival of Irish immigrants came at a time when manual labor was needed to fuel the American economy. As the country grew, men with strong backs were needed to do the heavy work of building bridges, canals, and railroads. It was hard, dangerous work, but these new immigrant laborers were willing to accept the brutal work and miniscule wages offered. A common expression heard among railroad workers of the time was "an Irishman was buried under every tie." Desperation drove them to these jobs, like many Mexican immigrants of today, who accept agricultural jobs, meat packing occupations, domestic work and many other occupations that whites consider below their dignity. Today, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated by non-Irish and Irish alike.
Just like the Irish, the Mexican immigrants and others that gathered Monday, to rally, parade and enact economic boycotts in Los Angeles, New York, Denver and even Ashville, N.C. were utilizing the same tools of solidarity that allowed the Irish and other immigrant workers before them, to acquire dignity and forge a place of belonging as Americans.
Despite the xenophobic rhetoric that has accompanied immigrants before them, economic conditions and lack of opportunity in their homelands drive immigrants to our communities in the U.S. The desire for better lives and living conditions for their families cause them to persist and persevere, despite calls to the contrary from the Sensenbrennars, Tancredos, Lou Dobbs and others.
The immigration debate has energized elements of the progressive community from their slumber and has provided a context for groups to come together around a common cause and realize once again the power that resides in grassroots movements and in people.
The call for boycotts from many of the immigrant organizers sent shockwaves of fear running through the corporate suites from New York, to Washington, to Los Angeles. The president himself said that “boycotts weren’t the answer,” as he prefers his subjects to be meek and docile and accept the scraps the fall from the masters' tables. Basically, we all should just shut up and be happy with our lot in life. If that lot doesn’t include a golden parachute, or a trust fund, life has become more and more difficult, however.
While the media has done its best to ignore the crowds that gathered and the unleashing of economic clout held in check for too long, Monday’s May Day celebration was a sign that real change comes from the rediscovery of the tactics that our forgotten labor history teaches.
When working conditions were deplorable across our country, in the early years of the 20th century, workers gathered together with fellow workers and organized around common demands—demands for a shorter work day, better pay, access to health care and better housing—similar demands that go wanting in our own day and are denied by the very same bosses that have always sought to exploit workers and keep them divided and in check.
For the past 35 to 40 years, we’ve allowed power to take from us the rights that others fought for and many died for. We’ve allowed the lifestyle of consumerism to lull us to sleep and forget that our corporate overseers never have our best in mind, only how to further exploit our daily labor for their own benefit.
Monday’s marches might be the first stirrings of a movement that could become hard to put down. It’s certainly worth watching to see if some of the alliances forged around immigration will continue to strengthen and could lead to a resurgence of grassroots, people-powered democracy.
Juan Gonzalez had a great column in Tuesday's New York Daily News on the subject of immigration and solidarity.