May Day: The Great Boycott Debate

Usually, May Day -- celebrated world-wide as International Workers Day -- is ignored by most Americans. But this year promises to be different, thanks entirely to the growing movement for immigrant rights.

Building off the momentum of the massive protests of the past two months, today Latino leaders have called for a National Boycott of work, shopping, and school to show the broader public what it's like to have a "nation without immigrants." And despite spirited debate about the wisdom of a risky boycott, plans are moving forward for big events today:

Pro-immigrant backers of a nationwide boycott set for Monday predict millions of immigrants will stay away from work, school and stores and rally in support of an overhaul of America's immigration laws.

The walkout has caused a dispute over strategy within the ranks of immigrant-rights advocates, with some fearing that the action will trigger a backlash and questioning how many people will actually participate in the boycott.

Yet proponents say the move is needed to prod President Bush and a divided Congress to end an election-year squabble and enact legislation to help the estimated 12 million people living illegally in the United States.

"We are all losers if we continue to play this sinister game of condemning a segment of the population to live and work in the conditions of modern-day slaves," said Juan Jose Gutierrez, director of the Latino Movement USA.

As I wrote last Friday, the progressive blogosphere has been strangely silent about today's actions -- especially bizarre given that political leaders, corporate CEOs and the conservative blogosphere all have taken note. Bloggers Lindsay Beyerstein, Kevin Drum, Pam Spaulding, and Matthew Yglesias all chimed in with thoughtful responses to my post (generating great debates in their comment threads).

All of my comrades agree that May 1 and immigrant activism deserve more blogger attention; the explanations for why it hasn't seem to come down to two things:

1) That today's boycott is not good strategy-wise for the immigrant rights movement, and
2) That immigration is just a tough issue, and one progressives are having trouble getting their heads around.

Was the call for a May 1 boycott a good idea? First, whether it is or not it was doesn't seem like a good excuse for largely ignoring the events altogether, as the progressive blogosphere has done. But as for the question itself, Kevin Drum cites long-time California lefty Marc Cooper reasons for saying "no":

There is a definite time and place for this sort of tactic, and it isn't here or now. Boycotts are powerful and volatile weapons used as a last resort to bust open dams of dogged resistance. You don't use them when the political tide is even vaguely flowing in your direction.

....That's why the larger institutional players in the pro-immigrant movement prefer an after-school (and after-work) rally over an intentionally punitive boycott and walkout. They argue that such an escalation could alienate lawmakers and the public just when political sentiment is shifting more toward immigrants. The positive message of demanding inclusion in the United States would be replaced by a more negative and divisive signal.

To be honest, what I think what we're seeing is a growing generational and ideological divide -- something that happens in any successful social movement.

It's true that some (but not all) "institutional players" of the older, settled Latino advocacy establishment are wary; but they're matched by a fast-growing movement that is more radical and willing to take greater risks.

I'm not just talking about wide-eyed lefty students -- there's a whole current of aggressive immigrant organizing growing in the country. In the South, you see it in groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida -- which, after bringing Taco Bell to its knees, is now targeting McDonald's -- the Farm Labor Organizing Committee in North Carolina, and the amazing Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which has won extraordinary gains for immigrants in a very conservative state.

The risk of reprisals and backlash against immigrants for boycotting is very real, and the stakes are higher -- deportation, racist attacks -- than I think most bloggers have to deal with.

But there's also a touch of paternalism in these warnings from the "institutional players." Maybe it's fair to worry about, say, middle school students getting expelled for skipping to attend a demonstration (wouldn't you have done it if you had the chance?). But I think most people -- workers, college students, etc. -- can make their own decisions about whether the benefits of speaking out for dignity justify the risks. That's what social movement have always been about.

And Matt raises a good question: how severe will the backlash really be? What's striking is how, in city after city, the political and corporate leaders are caving in:

Teachers' unions in major cities have said children should not be punished for walking out of class.

In New York, leaders of the May 1 Coalition organizing the boycott said a growing number of businesses had pledged to close and allow their workers to attend a rally in Manhattan's Union Square.

Large U.S. meat processors, including Cargill Inc., Tyson Foods Inc. and Seaboard Corp. said they will close plants.

The new immigrant movement is maybe stronger than it -- and the blogosphere -- knows.

To find out what's happening in your area, visit here. And if a boycott still doesn't sound like a good idea to you but you sympathize with the cause, this seems like some good advice:

In Washington, the Rev. Graylan Scott Hagler of Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice backs the boycott, but said, "If you can't take time off from work, if you can't leave school, at least stand up for immigrants."

"Wear an armband," Hagler suggested. "Do what you can."