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Apr 29 / Elizabeth DiNovella

Wisconsin Gears Up for May Day

In 1886, workers in Chicago engaged in a general strike as they fought for an eight-hour workday. Immigrants were at the forefront of that movement.

In 2011, immigrants are again at the forefront of labor’s biggest battle. Here in Wisconsin, immigrant rights groups are calling for mass rallies in Milwaukee and Madison on May Day.

“This year is a historic year in the alliance between organized labor and the immigrants rights movement,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera, told me in an interview. The group has organized huge demonstrations on May Day over the last decade, culminating in 80,000 people in the streets in 2007, and 65,000 in 2010.

“The national AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka is coming to march in Milwaukee,” she said. “He recognizes the long tradition Milwaukee has in turning out a sustained mass presence, in tens of thousands a people a year.”

May Day falls in the midst of the Wisconsin uprising. For the past three months, people have been protesting Governor Scott Walker’s rightwing agenda.

Before being elected governor, Walker served as Milwaukee County executive. I asked Neumann-Ortiz if she saw this coming. “We did,” she said, adding that Walker went after immigrants and is trying to institutionalize new forms of discrimination against them.

While campaigning, “He promised to sign Arizona-type legislation, to repeal in-state tuition for Wisconsin’s undocumented youth, and to eliminate the only form of medical care available to undocumented workers: prenatal care for women.”

In 2009, immigrant rights activists scored a major victory with a state law that allows undocumented youth to pay in-state tuition. Walker’s budget seeks to undo that, something Neumann-Ortiz finds galling.

“The Legislative Reference Bureau says it will not save any money for the state,” says Neumann-Ortiz. “He’s taking away the dreams of youth.”

Worse, Walker is seeking to eliminate the FoodShare program, which benefits legal immigrants who do not meet federal residency requirements. And changes to Senior Care and Badger Care will adversely affect legal residents.

An end to cuts in education and health care are central demands of the May Day march, along with support for unions and collective bargaining rights. Activists are also demanding that Walker reject any Arizona-type bill. Earlier this year, Wisconsin State Representative Don Pridemore released a draft of a bill inspired by the racist Arizona SB 1070.

In addition to the big demo in Milwaukee, people will be celebrating International Workers Day at the state capitol.

“I think this will be one of the biggest May Days in Madison,” says Alex Gillis of the Immigrant Workers Union. “Most local unions are calling their membership, communities are ready, and the timing seems right with a terrible budget on its way and more anti-immigrant laws in the making. Only in the street we will be able to stop this constant attack on the poor.”

The May Day rallies will cap off another week of protests in the Dairy State. On Tuesday, housing rights activists protested a home foreclosure by M&I Bank at the Dane County Courthouse. UW-Madison students held a sit-in at Bascom Hall to demand UW Chancellor Biddy Martin withdraw her proposal to separate the school from the rest of the UW system. UW-Milwaukee students continued their occupation at their school’s theater department, which faces virtual elimination under Walker’s 2011–13 budget proposal.

And on Saturday, motorcyclists will be parading the capitol in support of Wisconsin’s workers in the “Thunda in the Rotunda.”

Neumann-Ortiz recognizes the threat from Walker and the Republicans. “This is an aggressive attack on the basic democratic process and a consolidation of corporate power. They are attacking everybody all at once,” she says. “But there’s a silver lining to all of that. It’s uniting people.”

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