As organizers prepare for this year’s May Day march, the symbolism and timing of the event are not lost on me, because 2019 marks the march’s 20th anniversary. It’s also the 20-year anniversary of the WTO demonstration, which will be commemorated later this fall. Added to these benchmarks, we also recognized the 100-year anniversary of the Seattle General Strike in February.
I note this in order to offer some historical perspective for May Day and what it symbolizes.
Twenty years ago, the motivation for addressing workers’ rights domestically and globally was a critical factor in reanimating a holiday that was suppressed by anti-radical and anti-worker fervor. Seattle was among the towns to keep the memory alive long enough to allow a generation to reclaim May 1 as a day of conscience.
It is through this lens that immigration is also examined. Discourse around migration has long been contentious, and increasingly so throughout the 20th century. Throughout the process, immigration was increasingly racialized, to the point where it’s viewed not as a mundane action (people relocating for better opportunity) but as an organized, invading “Brown horde” attacking the essence of collective “American” identity.
The subtext of our presidential administration’s argument, of course, is that immigration is inherently bad as it works to shift the demographic makeup of the United States. Besides being an ahistorical and crudely racist assumption, this argument ignores the factors that push people out of their places of origin.
Present conditions in countries of the global south are the historical legacy of systematic economic exploitation, “gun boat diplomacy,” colonialism, environmental degradation for profit, military intervention and, in the present day, neoliberal economics. These social and economic conditions make everyday subsistence difficult for farmers, families and workers, to the point where they must make the difficult decision to leave behind everything they know to better their material conditions and feed their families.
Many people are in fact displaced workers who migrate to earn a living.
The same social and economic processes that push migrants out of their homelands are also the same processes that keep wages low and the cost of living high and render social mobility an abstract concept for domestic workers.
This is further illustrated in the wake of Tax Day as the working poor and lower middle class must shoulder the economic burden that corporations, such as Amazon and Boeing, simply brush off. The redistribution of cost-burden is imparted on working people regardless of location or place of origin.
May 1 is an opportunity to join with workers from across the world and celebrate collective resistance to economic exploitation.
Oscar Rosales grew up in the Yakima Valley and works and resides in Seattle. He has previously contributed to HistoryLink.org and the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.
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