May Day Rallies or May Day Follies in San Diego?

by on May 3, 2011 · 13 comments

in Civil Rights, Labor, Organizing, San Diego

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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Emmi Y. May 4, 2011 at 9:26 am

I agree with you on all accounts but one. Sure the Labor Council put it’s name to Sunday’s activities….once other groups had done all their planning they decided to tag along and add on one more, confusing, stop in the day’s agenda. The Council half-heartedly sent out an e-mail to their members – only 3 or 4 days before the event. There was also NO mention of the event on their own website, nor the California AFL-CIOs website list of May Day rallies around the state. I know this because an AFL-CIO organizer contacted ME for details after seeing a blog post I wrote about the event. Turnout by the “big unions” associated with the Labor Council was minimal – but I heartily thank those who did turn out.
Thanks for the “endorsement” Ms. Gonzales, but I for one would have preferred action.


Lorena Gonzalez May 6, 2011 at 1:02 am

I agree we could have done a better job. But we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to bring two very different groups together for one event. Our small staff was also very busy on the number of rallies, events and programs we have been working on. We did submit the event – once finalized to the AFL-CIO.

As far as not being able to make it personally, I deeply regret it. As many know, I am a single mom and my daughter had an event in Fresno that I had on my calendar for months. I do try to make everything I can – and we did have 4 staff members there – who arranged for the set-up at the Civic Center.

I know we will never be able to satisfy everyone’s expectations and hopes, but we do try very hard. And, I am deeply and personally committed to bringing together the labor and immigrant rights groups.

Emmi, I welcome your help in our organizing efforts in the future! Thanks for the input.


RB May 6, 2011 at 8:00 am

There is a fundamental disconnect between labor and immigrant groups. It is not just about coordination, communication and leadership turf wars. Increasing the supply of low skill workers has decreased worker salaries and job availability. Economist understand the law of supply and demand, workers feel the law of supply and demand, its only the politically motivated leadership from both groups that fail to see a this fundamental economic link.


Lorena Gonzalez May 6, 2011 at 9:08 am

We understand that very well. That is why organized labor’s priority is to ensure higher minimum standards for all workers. If you don’t allow any worker (immigrant or not) to be abused, misclassified, paid under the table, etc. it is better for all workers. Likewise, if you organize the service sector you raise the standards and empower all workers within those sectors.


Frank Gormlie May 6, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Lorena, your words are deeply appreciated. You’ve already made great changes in our local Labor Council. This post is meant to get everybody to think a little harder on these issues.


Lorena Gonzalez May 6, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Thanks Frank!


Emmi Y. May 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm

Now that I have your attention…
Ms. Gonzalez – I sincerely appreciate you responding to me personally. Speaking of personally…I did not intend to imply that I was disappointed that you, yourself, did not attend the May Day events. My intention was to simply say I would have appreciated a higher level of support along with your organization’s endorsement. This was the first year you endorsed San Diego’s May Day events – its a crucial first step. How do you propose to take the NEXT step…widely publicizing the event and mobilizing your members to join together with fellow San Diegans who – while they may share a different ideology – share the same fight?


Lorena Gonzalez May 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm

Emmi – I am the first to admit we were late to the game. Although we did endorse the event, sent out e-mails to all of our lists, paid for and secured the sound system, printed flyers for the call to action and had staff handing out water at the event. Right now, we have a number of unions facing contract issues specific to their membership. That, along with the fact that we had 4 major events in the last month made it difficult to do turnout. We welcome the help of any volunteers who would like to help with these efforts next year!


Mar Moreno May 5, 2011 at 4:01 pm

There is a definite split and sectarianism going on, despite serious disparity among the groups, we in the anarchist community in San Diego are vigorously working behind the scenes in order to bring some of these groups together for the first time in many years. According to our sources, the group at Balboa Park wanted nothing to do with the rally at Chicano Park when invited, but we have no way of verifying this until we have talks with some of those organizations. Bottom line we are putting our energy into creating a San Diego Anti-capitalist Summit so that these various groups can begin to support each others actions, hopefully putting aside feelings of entitlement and seniority. I would also like to comment on the attitudes of some of the SDPD officers that behaved in a shamefully unprofessional manner along the entire rally route from Chicano Park: Verbal derogatory slurs, over ambitious crowd control, and a general disdain for your fellow workers create further divides between yourselves and the communities that you are also a part of. At no time did any of us attempt to block traffic, we simply had agreed, as an anarchist group, that if the SDPD were going to attempt to hold us to one lane as they have several other times this year, we were going to take the second lane headed in the same direction, fortunately they did not force the entire march to a single lane, so it wasn’t necessary. There is a lot of work to be done and a lot of positive dialogue needed in order to unify…no pasaran, pasaremos. (A) /// (E)


Patty Jones May 5, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Thanks, Mar, for adding your insight to this discussion.


Frank Gormlie May 6, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Mar, keep us in tune with whatever summit you are organizing. Can you give us an idea of what groups are in the anarchist community? Let us know if anyone with you would like to do some writing for us. Contact at at our email:


editordude May 6, 2011 at 2:10 pm

Report on May Day in Seattle from Peter Bohmer:

On Sunday, May 1st, 2011, 4000 people marched more than two miles from Judkins Park in Seattle through downtown and ended up at Memorial Stadium at the Seattle Center. The march, while about 1/2 the size of last year’s May Day tally and march was very spirited. The main focus was full rights for all immigrants and the end to raids and deportations. There was also a focus on worker rights and many locals had good representation at the march and rally. The final speaker was Dennis Kucinich who in Spanish and English supported the struggle for immigrant rights and
strongly criticized NAFTA, CAFTA and the proposed trade agreements with Panama, South Korea and Colombia as causing people to have to leave their countries. The majority of the marchers were Latino/s and or immigrants of all ages. The main organizing group for the successful action was El Comite pro Reforma Migratoria y Justicia Social.



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