A few businesses closed that might otherwise have benefited from the turn-out. Pie by the Pound on 4th Ave was shuttered with a simple note taped up "Out of solidarity with...." Most places were open and light clientele seemed adequately served by light staffing. At 10:30, the crowd and the colorful banners had begun to fill the square. The noise resounded in the brick and glass canyons feeding into the square. A scruffy band of white kids who looked more like NYU students dressed to trick-or-treat as the revolting proletariat strike force, marched north from Washington square to meet up with the rally at Union square. They were chanting "fight for the people, ..." and waving red flags. No one else, passerby, spectator or marcher seemed to share that shrill, overwrought demeanor. It was much more a celebratory pause to come out and reveal [and revel in] their numbers than a protest.
By noon, sporadic drumming punctuated the din By 4:00 the crowd, barely contained by police barricades, chanted and circled the overflowing square. By 5:30 or 6:00, the loud carnival began to stream down Broadway. Still, the only persons I saw upset by this were the people who tried to move about lower Manhattan in their cars...these would be either out-of-towners or persons without other choices. The MTA ground on with its usual gritty reliability. Most lookers on just looked on. It takes a lot to raise an eyebrow in New York, NY. I need to be blunt about this: no one looked threatened. No one looked threatening. The most common sentiment I saw on placards or heard from marchers was that they thought America was a great county. Contrasting their exuberance about being here with the discontents you will read in this blog, you'd think those conservatives who have,for the last six years, been chanting "right or wrong, its my country" would embrace this crowd.
As we made our way down Broadway in search of dinner, we were in the midst of the parading. Like so many others, we snapped a few pictures. Counting cell phone cameras, there must have been a million pictures taken Monday. In the middle of this throng, there was no vibe or hint of a hunting pack. They were not here to take anything. They were here to give themselves the reassurance of their own multitude.
This triggers an ancient memory. I grew up on a farm in California in the '50s. Some days, I'd go to the field with my father and these men who had no English, big grins and the hottest damned pickled peppers you ever got near. We didn't hire migrant workers, we hired guest workers. The history of Mexican guest laborers in the US has little that either country should be proud of. [ the bracero program depressed wages for all crop pickers] We would pick up a crew at a barracks-like camp when the tomatoes were ripe and they would pick and load lug boxes all day long. They laughed easily, shrugged off the wear and tear of their jobs, mostly stayed sober and saved their wages. And come September or October, they were back on a bus to Mexico [or maybe just to the border] with no insurance and no retirement plan beside that roll of bills in their pocket. Running a family farm on razor thin margins doesn't provide insurance either. It took my folks 15 years before conceding that neither luck nor hard work could make a go of farming leased land. After the Labor Department shut down the Bracero program, dad complained none of the people he picked up at the day labor offices near skid row in Sacramento ever worked out. I have since learned dad's nostalgia for that program may have been misplaced. It was a stopgap, the death throes of a 19th century economics of farming when "farm hand" was not seasonal work but might have been a career that included room and board. To set a table with unmechanized food production [grapes, melons] along side fully mechanized production [wheat, corn, beet sugar] required either honest price differences or dishonest pay scales. Going with the latter, our country poked holes in its borders and in our expectations that have never been repaired. Just because you cannot reduce the labor content of a service or product does not establish any logic but greed by which you could lower the wages entailed. The darkest and least civilized harms that lurk in the ironic shadows of a civilization might be dispelled if the "civilized" could just say of some things "we can't honestly afford that". The wage disparities that move people across our borders will have no permanent solution until they have a just solution: prices would go up. Would we accept that? Would we laugh as easily at our hard lot as those braceros did, as easily as the "undocumented" busboys and chamber maids swarming in Union Square do?
Here are some questions for which I no longer feel I have sound answers. They are all about "wedge" issues wrapped up in the illegal immigration debate. These wedges will force employers to take sides and congress to talk out of both sides of its mouth.
- Do the affluent fear the poor who can vote less than they fear the poor who have no vote?
- Do the employers fear the workers who have no legal protection?
- Could the marginally profitable businesses who seem to need the support of exploitable labor get by with the support of an understanding consumer?
- Did NAFTA move enough low-skill, low-wage jobs from US to Mexico to reduce illegal immigration below levels it might otherwise have reached?
- Do jobs that pay poverty level wages and provide no health benefits create more demand for tax-funded services [police, fire, ER, schools] than they fund via income and other taxes? I.e., what is the real cost of an underpaid worker and hasn't the employer shifted some of these costs to other taxpayers while keeping most of the benefits of the labor?
- Does the world owe a living to a businessman who sells an uncompetative service or product?
- Do the poor who worry about losing their job fear the poorer who worry about finding a job?
- How high a wall do you have to build around a country to stop employers from needing low cost labor?
- Has any society lived "well" without the unheralded support of an underclass? If so, what were their labor, tax and immigration policies like?