Confusing Array of Events Shows More Unity Is Needed In Order to Unify
May First, May Day – International Workers’ Day – was again celebrated in downtown San Diego this year. Hundreds of San Diegans did converge on a sleepy downtown on a warm Sunday afternoon a couple of days ago, and chant, bang drums and make speeches in favor of labor and workers’ rights. And this continues the great tradition of rallies on this date in what is usually regarded as a conservative, even anti-labor city.
A high point in San Diego’s celebration of a labor ritual that began in America over one hundred years ago, is that the San Diego County Labor Council endorsed it this year. This is indeed historic – and we believe it to be a first (is it?). Our local Labor Council coming out and linking hands in solidarity with those immigrant rights’ advocates and progressive union locals – all in efforts to unite the working class – is exemplary. This has to be due to the outstanding leadership being played by the first Latino and the first woman to run the organization, Lorena Gonzalez, the CEO of the Labor Council that represents unions in both San Diego and Imperial Counties.
The San Diego U-T, in a not unkind article, reported that 600 people rallied at the Civic Center on May Day. This is very close to our estimate of those who braved the strong sun on Sunday at the Plaza.
The crowd at the Plaza was a result of three convergences of people. About 120 had marched down from Balboa Park and held an initial “leftist” rally in front of the Federal Building. They then marched to the Civic Center. Another larger group had rallied at Chicano Park where the mainly Mexican-American assemblage listened to mariachi music and fiery speeches in Spanish. Many of them then took the long march to the downtown rally point – but not all. Many of the estimated four hundred at Chicano Park did not walk all the way, but ought to be included in any count of who did what and where on May Day in San Diego.
Those two separate marches then met up with those labor activists and progressives who just attended the 3pm Plaza event itself, the event sponsored by the Labor Council. Several AFT locals were highly represented.
Many who reached the Plaza, immediately sought shade from the unrelenting sun and heat, glaringly magnified by the architectural structures of the Plaza itself. Competing with a martial arts conference – which had a number of food concession stands outside, and with opera goers outfitted in their casual best, the rally enlivened and energized the normally staid Civic Center Concourse – originally named for an old, disgraced Mayor, Mayor Dail.
One couldn’t help but notice the tremendous linkage of labor issues – immigrant rights advocates sharing the stage with labor activists upset with efforts by the City Council to privatize city services. And the preponderance of Mexican-Americans and Chicanos in the crowd also stood out. Many of the Anglo and Chicano young people of college age who attended had wrapped bright handkerchiefs around their faces, covering their identities, but exposing their politics. Young bandannaied anarchists had attempted to block traffic during the march from Chicano Park.
And these factors are all on the plus side of San Diego’s May Day celebrations. The fact that there was a celebration of labor in anti-labor San Diego. The fact that our Labor Council endorsed it. The fact that hundreds of San Diegans came out on a hot weekend for the event. The fact that there was a convergence of labor and immigrant issues.
Undercurrent of Folly
Yet the different rallies and different marches do underscore an undercurrent of negative dynamics amid San Diego’s organizations who wish to unify everyone on May Day. This is folly. To the casual observer, the schedule of events was a dizzying mass of confusion. 11 am rally here, a noon rally there, a march to the Federal Building by 2pm, and a rally at the Civic Center at 3. As a friend who had observed this confusion remarked to me, “this meant that if you were going to attend them all, it would have been for at least four hours.” That was indeed asking a lot from your average labor activist.
So what gives? What is going on here? Why the folly?
Not one to keep the left’s dirty laundry under wraps, me thinks we need to unwrap the different layers of the San Diego onion – not the newspaper but the metaphor.
When I first had heard that there were going to be different marches going downtown, one from Balboa Park and a second from Chicano Park, I thought that was cool. Some of the greatest anti-Iraq War demonstrations in San Diego a few years ago were created when different marches converged at the same rally point. But when I later found out why they were planned this way this year, I was somewhat disheartened.
The groups that ended up coming down from Balboa Park, from in front of the Centro Cultural de la Raza, included the May First Coalition, Activist San Diego, and the ISO (International Socialist Organization), among others. To hear them tell it, that constellation of groups was refused space on the podium at Chicano Park. So, they held their own march and then rally at the Fed Building. As a group, they had marched over to the Civic Center Plaza, and then when the protesters from Chicano Park marched to the site, they greeted them enthusiastically.
Barrio de Union, a strong, neighborhood-based group in Barrio Logan – where Chicano Park is located, was the main organizer of the rally at Chicano Park. They and a number of other Mexican-American immigrant rights groups had assembled Aztec dancers, booths, and music in an effort to keep the tradition of border issues alive.
There is a certain fatigue among Latino neighborhood activists to efforts by outside groups – even leftist ones – that come into their communities in attempts to do organizing – without paying their dues, so to speak. This could be a source of the friction between organizers of the different rallies and marches. (And I hope it’s not due to ancient splits over which Russian leader was the greatest.)
There is a certain sectarianism going on, then apparently.
Not only that, but within the historic endorsement of the May Day events by the Labor Council, there was a certain lack of follow-through by them. None of their Labor Council leaders were there – all had been apparently sent up to Sacramento, to attend the California Democratic Party convention. Nor had the Council really mobilized their activists or members. Only several unions were readily apparent, SEIU, the AFT locals. But the numbers from the rank and file did not make it. This is compared to two recent Labor Council rallies earlier this year. Labor Council staff was there but the presence that is usually felt by the strength of the full council was absent.
Plus, overall, this year’s events were only a slight shadow of last year’s when an estimated 3,000 protesters had marched and danced into San Diego from Chicano Park. So, even though May Day celebrations had been pulled off this year, the numbers were only about one-fifth of last years. Immigration had been much more of an issue then, and the Mexican-American community had responded, and had been way more visible.
Contributing to the lack of numbers, was the absence of members of progressive organizations and groups. There were a couple score of well-known anti-war activists and academic radicals, but the anti-war movement was not there. Nor were the half-dozen mainly Anglo groups that organize on the fringes of the Democratic Party, nor the Green Party. They were all present at earlier labor protests held recently.
Perhaps, as an observer shared with me, there was also a certain fatigue among protest groups and their bases. There have been numerous rallies and events already this year and Spring, the traditional season of protest. Maybe people were simply burnt out.
Yet the evidence is there. The confusing array of competing events, the undercurrent of sectarianism, the lack of follow-through, the lack of organizational mobilizations – all point to this.
There needs to be more unity among San Diego’s progressive and labor organizations and movements. Celebrations like May Day are meant to unify the working masses, the laborers, the unemployed, the immigrant communities, the middle class under assault. But when the very people who organize such folks will not work with each other or support each other, we have a problem, Huston.
San Diego definitely needs a strong labor – community coalition. We do need to develop one – we’re not there yet. But the good things that happened the other day on May Day are part of the beginnings. Let’s keep it up.
Let’s unify for the sake of our peoples. More unity in order to unify.