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How the Biggest General Strike in American History Revived the US Working Class on May Day

By Paul Ortiz

A Day without Immigrants, Los Angeles, CA, May 1, 2006
A Day without Immigrants, Los Angeles, CA, May 1, 2006. Photo credit: Chris Lewis

International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, celebrates laborers and the working class around the globe. It’s the same day that migrant workers—Chicanos/as, Afro-Cubanos, and immigrants from nearly every continent on earth—united in the first “Day Without Immigrants,” in 2006, to prove the value of their labor. In the following excerpt from An African American and Latinx History of the United States, historian Paul Ortiz shows us a glimpse of that day. In the US, these workers would endorse and vote for Barack Obama a year later, as he embodied what their movement was fighting for.


When migrant laborers, Nuyoricans, Chicana/os, Afro-Cubanos, Guatemaltecos, and immigrants from every part of earth united on May Day in 2006, they protested immigration restriction measures that threatened their families, their livelihoods, and their dignity. The testimonials featured on picket signs, in interviews, and on the Internet and other venues opened a window into the resurgence of working-class political culture. The demonstrators vigorously expressed their opposition to US House Resolution 4437.52. Latinx workers restored the age-old faith that racial capitalism had tried to drown out, that labor was the true source of the nation’s wealth. Yolanda Lopez, a custodian and union organizer in California, stated, “We consider that as workers without faces, we are the ghosts who clean but never have any type of recognition. So I think that this is a very good fight we have now, which is to try to gain equality and respect.” Lopez and her compañeras were fighting for better wages and working conditions, but they were also looking for recognition of their humanity as women and as immigrant workers: “With equality we will get a more just salary. And with respect we feel more honored as a human being. We are here. I have a face, I have a name, and I am here.”

Millions marched down main streets across the country shouting “¡Sí, se puede!”—Yes, we can!—and carried signs proclaiming, “You Might Hate Us/But You Need Us,” “Primo de Mayo, a Day Without a Mexican,” and “This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is Our Land.” In New York City, Latinx workers were joined by thousands of African Americans as well as Jamaican, Irish, and Chinese immigrants who added their voices to the protests. Reflecting on her experience marching in Los Angeles, Sonja Marie Diaz reflected, “To me, May Day is an extension of transnational social movements; something that transcends borders and embodies the experience of people of color everywhere.” Diaz, the daughter of United Farm Worker parents who had been activists in the 1960s, stressed the continuity of struggle that May Day represented for her: “Growing up in Los Angeles as a third-generation Chicana, protesting was part of my history. From the displacement of my grandparents due to unfair land laws and zoning, to discrimination in schools, and illegal labor treatment in the fields, my family was on the front lines advocating for their survival and justice for all.” Maria Padilla, a university dining hall employee and union organizer at the University of California, Santa Cruz, talked about the importance of students and workers coming together in an internationalist endeavor:

I think the most positive thing today, for me, was to see the unity between workers and students. To see that united we have the strength and will be heard. . . . And I am not only here fighting for the workers who are here in this country. I think of those who are [in Mexico] who are in the maquiladoras, in the fields, and in the factories. Where they are mistreated and only get paid twenty-five cents an hour, and they are forced to work for long hours. I am also fighting for them here.

The Great American Strike shut down meat packing, garment manufacturing, port transportation, trucking, and food service in many parts of the country. Several days in advance of the gigantic protest, dubbed by some organizers as “A Day Without Immigrants,” the companies Cargill, Tyson Foods, and the Seaboard Corporation announced that they would be closing their operations due to a lack of personnel. Customers of fast-food franchises in California were turned away by apologetic managers who explained that “Mexican truckers” had refused to deliver bread. The May Day protests followed an earlier wave of walkouts that occurred in March and April. These incipient strikes were led in many cases by agricultural and construction workers seeking to boost their wages and to escape poverty conditions. “In South Florida and Immokalee, [harvesting] pretty much ground to a halt,” said G. Ellis Hunt Jr., president of Hunt Bros., a Florida grower and packinghouse owner with more than five thousand grove acres split equally between Polk and Immokalee counties.

In the weeks leading up to International Workers’ Day, the union organizer Jorge Rodriguez vowed, “There will be 2 to 3 million people hitting the streets in Los Angeles [on May 1] alone. We’re going to close down Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Tucson, Phoenix, Fresno. . . . We want full amnesty, full legalization for anybody who is here. That is the message that is going to be played out across the country on May 1.” Latinx workers organized the demonstrations through the social institutions that had helped sustain their communities, including comités cívicos from their home countries, workers’ centers, labor unions, Catholic Church social justice committees, sports clubs, and civil rights organizations. Many of the regions that witnessed high turnouts of Latinx workers in the May Day protests had long histories of Latinx economic and social justice organizing.

One of the most popular picket signs on May Day vowed “Hoy Marchamos, Mañana Votamos”—“Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote.” The historian Ruth Milkman notes, “Soon after the marches, the We Are America Alliance and many other organizations launched naturalization and voter registration drives. These efforts had already begun to yield fruit by the November 2006 [midterm] elections.” As Milkman observed, the general strike prepared the way for new kinds of political movements rooted in the everyday concerns of the working classes. María Elena Durazo used the momentum generated by the Great American Strike to call for a new living-wage movement. Durazo was the daughter of migrant farmworkers, and she herself picked fruits and vegetables as a young girl in the 1960s. Like so many young Latinas of her generation she was inspired by the United Farm Workers to become a labor activist; she eventually rose to become the executive secretary–treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Magnifying the lessons of May Day, 2006, Durazo said, “We must build a movement with thousands of leaders and millions of supporters that can pressure elected officials and corporations to do the right thing. When we build a movement of the working poor, we will have the power to end poverty.” Subsequently Durazo was one of the first major Latina leaders in the United States to endorse Barack Obama during the Democratic primaries in 2008. Explaining her endorsement, Durazo said, “On a personal level [Obama] embodies the slogan we use a lot, Cesar Chavez’s ‘Sí, se puede.’ He has proved it by the way he inspires voters.” The Illinois senator had actually learned his signature slogan from the farmworker movement, which the UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta pointedly reminded him of in 2008.

A Day without Immigrants, Modesto, CA, 2006
A Day without Immigrants, Modesto, CA, 2006. Photo credit: Open Sky Media

International Workers’ Day organizers began weaving together new alliances for social justice. “The diversity of organizations proved that May Day and fighting for immigrant rights was bigger than a ‘Latino’ fight,” Danae Tapia, one of the student organizers of the strike movement in Central California, wrote. “We all tied the injustices that we faced with immigration, borders, war and an unfair education system. For example, Palestine and Mexico; undocumented students and undocumented workers; unequal access to education & unfair wages; war in the Middle East & wars around the world that force people to migrate, etc.” Tapia’s coalition that prepared for May Day mobilizations included white unionists, longtime Chicano movimiento people, undocumented college students, socialists, and many more. This was an alliance that was sustained in subsequent union and immigration rights drives due to its breadth and depth. “Because of the diversity of organizations,” Tapia observed, “our action was so much stronger and that’s how we continued our marches and actions the years that followed because the injustices that we all faced were intertwined with each other. Our local fight is a global fight.” The Latinx-led labor insurrections of 2006 provided the first hints of the beginning of a sea change in American politics.

In the wake of the Great American Strike, the percentage of workers joining unions increased for the first time in a generation. The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement reported, “Close to 30 percent of the growth is attributed to Latinos who added 120,000 members to the labor movement.” At the gigantic Smithfield Foods plant in Tarheel, North Carolina, Latinx workers walked off of the job with their African American and white counterparts on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2007. The union organizer Eduardo Peña told the media, “We’ve got Latino workers here ready to walk out for the holiday. I hear them saying things like, ‘People assume that we don’t know who King was—his struggle was the same struggle we’re going through now.’” Subsequently, the United Food and Commercial Workers won a union representation election at the four-thousand-worker plant after sixteen years of trying. These gains built on the increase in Latinx workers who had organized and joined unions in the preceding decade.

Insurgency and organization were the new watchwords of the working class. Less than a month after Obama’s election, workers at the Bank of America–controlled Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago seized control of their factory after managers announced that they were unilaterally closing the plant. Even though Bank of America had recently received a $25 billion taxpayer bailout from the public, Republic employees were informed that they would receive no severance pay. What the bank did not count on, however, was the resolve of its 240 employees: “A mostly African-American and immigrant Latino workforce,” Jerry Mead-Lucero noted, “they organized into [United Electrical Workers] Local 1110 four years ago after dumping a company union that had agreed to a wage freeze and had allowed dozens of workers to be fired with no protest.” After shutting out the bosses, Republic Windows employees called on the community for support, and soon the plant was surrounded by hundreds of supporters for nearly a week. Faith-based organizations provided strike assistance. Jerry Mead-Lucero described how “supporters appeared at the factory’s entrance bearing gifts of food, coffee, blankets, and sleeping bags. They signed posters that workers taped to the factory walls, with messages like ‘Thanks for showing us all how to fight back’ and ‘You are an inspiration to us all.’” The first sit-down strike waged by American workers in years earned the work force a severance package and public support from Barack Obama and served as an inspiration to others that organizing is worth it.


About the Author 

Paul Ortiz is an associate professor of history and the director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. He is the author of An African American and Latinx History of the United StatesEmancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920, and coeditor of the oral history Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.