Cries of “¡Sí se puede!” and “Yes, we can!” filled the air at Cesar Chavez Avenue and Broadway in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month as a crowd of a couple of dozen activists and workers demanded minimum wage increases and the passage of immigration reform.
“We’re uniting the issues of workers and their right to living wages and the right of immigrants to be in this country in a way that they are treated with respect,” said Maria Elena Durazo from the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
She also announced the new route for the annual Workers’ Day march on May 1. It will begin at Cesar Chavez and Broadway, concluding at the Metropolitan Detention Center about one half-mile away.
Update: Listen to an audio story from Annenberg Radio News to hear the sounds of protest on the street on May 1.
Across the globe, worker and immigrant rights groups push for social and political change every year on International Workers Day. In L.A., activists, workers and immigrants – in numbers ranging from hundreds to thousands — march through the city with signs, banners, noisemakers and music, demanding to be heard.
This year’s opening location is fitting, said Durazo.
“On the street of Cesar Chavez, it’s a symbol of how far we have come – immigrants and all workers,” she said. “On the other hand, WalMart and Burger King are just down the street. They remind us that millions of people are working hard for poverty wages.”
California’s minimum wage is $8 an hour; it is set to increase to $9 this July.
Angelica Salas, president of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that level of income isn’t sufficient for families to lead “decent lives” and be able to pay for “the basics,” like food, shelter and education for children. Too often, she said, families are living paycheck to paycheck, in some cases even working more than one full-time job.
“It’s time to create prosperity for all,” she said. “The way it starts is to invest in the workers.”
Intersections spoke with activists and workers ahead of the May 1st march about their hopes for improving worker conditions in Los Angeles:
One of those workers is Richard Reynosa, an employee at a WalMart in Duarte. Several days a week he comes to work before midnight, restocking the shelves until sunrise for $10 an hour.
He’s only 20 and has no children. But he has witnessed older employees working long hours to save money for their children’s futures. Their efforts inspired him to speak up at protests and rallies, pushing for “survivable benefits” and workplace respect. He does it not only for himself, but also for his colleagues whose wages were so low that they can’t “afford to sacrifice a day of work,” he said.
Other workers, like housekeeper Isabel Medina, are also pressing for immigration reform.
Medina said she crossed the border illegally 17 years ago, began working and has paid taxes all the while. Immigrants deserve a path to citizenship, she said, because they already contribute to the economy.
“We are only asking for the opportunity to contribute even more,” said Medina, who volunteers at CHIRLA. Her son works legally thanks to a program that helps immigrants who entered the U.S. without proper documentation as children.
Three city councilmembers have recently proposed raising wages for workers in large hotels to $15.37 an hour, explaining that the move could help bring employees out of poverty while boosting L.A.’s economy.
Several years ago, the city voted to raise the minimum wage of Los Angeles International Airport workers to $15.37 as well.
Activists are pushing City Hall to consider similar wage increases in other fields, and will aim to bring an army of supporters to the streets on May 1.
“Looking down on us today, Cesar Chavez would be telling us to put on our walking shoes, put on our organizing shoes,” Durazo called out from a stage to a cheering crowd pumping colorful posters into the air. “This May we’re going to march to … demand immigration reform with a path to citizenship. And all workers deserve a living wage.”