A Look Back at Milwaukee May Day Marches

Milwaukee, WI – Milwaukee has a deep history of working class immigrants etched into the cement of the walls and streets of our neighborhoods. The story of America is written with the voices and words of people that traversed dangerous paths to give their children and themselves something that was shuttered or off limits for them because of where they were from, and this small city in the midwest is brimming with that influence. Nobody knows this better than the labor unions that have represented these workers, as well as Voces de la Frontera, a group that took root in 1998, has always amplified the voices of the immigrant and undocumented community. Historically, the first May Day was established in 1889, and was meant to commemorate the historic struggles made by the labor movement, such as the battles fought to end 12 hour workdays and implement weekends, as well as fair wages that would have yearly increases to reflect the cost of living. 

The famous Haymarket affair, which took place in Chicago on May 4th 1886, started as a peaceful protest against the 12 hour workday, but erupted into violence when a dynamite bomb was thrown at police who were “attempting to disperse” the crowd, resulting in 11 deaths. This resulted in a movement that American workers rallied around for the following years known as “The great upheaval”, where labor unions were viewed favorably as something that would pull workers out of the misery endured, inflicted upon them by employers around the world. Strikes became commonplace and by May 1st, 1889, The American Federation of Labor designated the day “International worker’s day”, named by the Marxist international Socialist Congress.Over time, the holiday became known as May Day, for no other reason that it landed on the first of May. 

Additionally, the Monarch butterfly became an associated image for the holiday, already being the symbol for immigration, due to the storied trajectory of how far they travel. It was a perfect marriage, bringing together two worlds that coexisted for years, but were never publicly celebrated or talked about, explaining their specific harmony. “Everyone should view the immigrant community as the backbone, the driving force of labor in the United states,” Voces de la Frontera deputy director Primitivo Torres said. “We are the machine that upholds the economy and keeps everything moving.” 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, foreign-born workers made up over 17 percent of the workforce in 2019, yet there is little evidence of representation in a union. What makes the undocumented and immigrant community so reticent to join unions is usually fear of deportation or termination. 

“We can overcome this fear by constantly communicating with and educating our community. We have to let them know that we are here for them and they have millions behind them in their same situation and express how real change comes from strength in numbers,” Torres said. 

Torres helped to organize every May Day march since 2006, Milwaukee’s first – where 30,000 people were in attendance. 

The May Day march of 2022 was the first time the general strike continued for 2 days, with people from all over the state gathering for a march in Milwaukee. 

Though all May Day marches have been powerful expressions of unity and courage, some key May Day marches known as a “Day Without Latinxs and Immigrants” include:

2006 – The first Milwaukee May Day march and general strike known as “Day Without Latinos” was organized to demand passage of immigration reform with a path to citizenship for 11 million.  It followed the first “Day Without Latinos” mass strike and march on March 23, 2006 in Milwaukee that was part of a national wave of strikes and mass marches that year that succeeded in defeating the anti-immigrant HR 4437 bill introduced by then-Representative Jim Sensenbrenner. The Wisconsin Republican congressman sponsored the bill that sought to implement anti-immigrant reforms– most importantly – criminalizing undocumented people and anyone who did not turn them into Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.  

The real threat of this bill becoming law sparked national outrage by Latinxs and immigrants, and did not pass in the Senate. Voces was involved in a fledgling national network that decided to initiate the bold call of action to defeat this imminent threat, and later made the decision to make May 1 a tradition in Wisconsin, as a marker in the immigrant rights struggle.  

Voces de la Frontera founder Christine Neumann-Ortiz credited community members for the inaugural May Day march’s success. 

“In the beginning we did not have support from radio stations and depended completely on people to people organizing.  Like a beehive, people came to our office to pick up flyers and  distribute them in the community at businesses, churches, schools, workpaces, and other cultural and sports events, to spread the word,” Neumann-Ortiz said. 

Voces de la Frontera originally started as a newspaper that highlighted issues in the workplace, such as low wages, wage theft, sexual harrassment, and unsafe conditions. Neumann-Ortiz identifies as Chicana, the daughter of immigrant parents who always urged pride in her ethnic heritage and a sense of community in her upbringing. She was inspired to start a worker’s center when she moved back to Milwaukee in 1998, after studying Chicano history at the University of Texas in Austin and starting Voces there as a bilingual newspaper. 

“My father is German and my mother is Mexican. I have always appreciated that Milwaukee has a progressive and socialist legacy, founded by German refugees, that was recognized nationally for advancing the public good in institutions like our parks, our labor laws, and our educational system. The large Latinx community in contemporary Milwaukee was what attracted my family to Milwaukee.  My mother was a bilingual teacher and had strong community ties. Milwaukee inspired because it is a blue collar, unpretentious community that is diverse and has progressive roots. It has been fertile ground to organize for hope and unity and spark a conversation about immigrant rights,” she shared.

2011 –  The marches soldiered on throughout the years, and many developments came about in the immigration reform movement. “2011 was the year that Act 10, that stripped public employees of their union rights, was introduced by Scott Walker and when the labor union rank and file uprising against Act 10 became a national focus of attention,” Neumann-Ortiz said.  Voces organized buses of people to march in solidarity with public employees, such as teachers and counselors, and was provided an opportunity to speak about the immigrant rights struggle to defend in-state tuition rights for immigrants in Wisconsin, which was also repealed by Walker that year.  This struggle strengthened the ties between unions and the immigrant rights movement. This was also the year that Voces organized striking workers at Palermo’s Pizza, a frozen pizza manufacturer in the Menomonee Valley.  Despite the existing labor laws failing to protect the right of immigrant workers to unionize, the struggle resulted in improved wages, a safer workplace, and the strengthening of labor union solidarity with immigrant workers during the two-year long strike. 

2016 – The focus of the May Day 2016 was a celebration of the use of the general strike or “Day Without Latinxs & Immigrants” that involved tens of thousands workers and their families going to the state capitol from farms, suburbs, and cities to defeat a state anti-immigrant bill that was about to be signed into law by Walker and a gerrymandered Republican majority state legislature. The year that Donald Trump was sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States, he created a sense of fear about the immigrant community, famously calling them “rapists and criminals”, and vowed to swiftly act against them, imbuing racists with a sense of newfound boldness. 

2017- The focus of the mass strike and march on May Day 2017 was to demand the resignation of Sheriff David Clarke, who had a record of human rights abuses and wanted to bring the 287G agreement to Milwaukee, which would allow local law enforcement to cooperate and work with ICE to detain immigrants. The 2017 march and the campaign ultimately succeeded in blocking 287G and the resignation of former Sheriff Clarke.  The Coalition for a People’s Sheriff helped build ties between the Latinx and African American community.

 “As a DACA recipient, it was important that I got everyone involved to understand what a path to citizenship meant,” Fernanda Jimenez, a member of Youth Empowered in the Struggle, said.  “I organized kids in my high school and we brought 200 people up from Racine. We reached out to businesses and made announcements at churches and stood outside of grocery stores to stress the importance of the march during the Trump administration.” Fernanda marched in her first May Day in 2015, when she was just 15 years old. She plans to keep marching every year.

2020 –  The immigrant community breathed a collective sigh of relief when Trump was voted out of office in 2020, but knew there was still much work to be done. While the 2020 march was canceled due to the pandemic, the focus shifted once again to worker’s rights, where the theme of the march became “Essential not deportable”. The march came back in full swing in May of 2021 and another general strike of a Day Without Latinxs on October 11, 2021. This was the fight for immigration reform in Congress through the pandemic relief bill Build Back Better. Communities of color were affected deeply by the Covid-19 pandemic, not because they are people of color, but because they had to keep working while the virus spread. These communities kept going, wages remained stagnant and time off became something that was not granted with the same lenience as other professions. This was all too apparent when workers at the Strauss meat packing plant in Franklin demanded proper PPE, time off, and safety restrictions to help curb their vulnerability to the virus. 

Their demands were met with immediate firings, where employers cited an “SSA no-match” for the employees, some who had been there as long as 12 yers. This was used by Voces as the example of how the immigrant community was treated during the pandemic, and became a vehicle for expressing what “essential” really meant in the eyes of corporate America. It was a new word in the vernacular of workplace issues and, to date, is still foggy on who is considered to be categorized as such.  

Voces canvasser Karina Hinojosa Zavala took part in this action because her family was involved. “My father and cousin were both amongst the workers that were fired, and I felt a particular calling to be part of this struggle,” Zavala said. Her experience as a manager at a retail store coupled with her passion for immigrants’ rights led her to work at Voces. Her roots in organizing date back to her childhood. “My first May Day march was 2006, when I was 6 years old,” she laughs.

“I have been present at almost all of them and will continue to do so. I see my parent’s spirit in the face of all the immigrants that march. Even though I am frustrated by what is happening every year in the community, I am always overwhelmed by the collective positivity we hold. It’s emotional, it makes me tear up,” Zavala added.

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