Last week, ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ — the protest meant to push back against Donald Trump’s overarching tone regarding immigration policy — saw thousands of people leave their jobs to show America that immigrants (both illegal and legal) play an important role in this country. This was not a pro-illegal immigration rally, it was about attitude and methods, particularly in the wake of immigration raids at restaurants. Scores of food service businesses, including McDonald’s locations around the country, shuttered on Thursday the 16th as employees took to the streets and marched for change.
Many of the people who protested were able to do so with the knowledge that their jobs were safe — with report after report surfacing of employers supporting their striking workers and closing restaurants in solidarity. Famed chef Jose Andres, who is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the president after pulling out of Trump Hotel due to the President’s comments about Mexican immigrants, closed several of his restaurants. Tom Colicchio (of Top Chef fame) tweeted his support for striking employees.
On Friday, the protest looked like a smashing success — it had started conversations and drawn the food industry (and, to a lesser degree, the construction industry) into the national spotlight. It had offered a pathway to successful activism: bosses co-signing the rights of their employees! But just a few days later, reports began trickling in of employers quietly firing those who didn’t show up to work.
In Colorado, Jim Serowski of JVS Masonry dismissed his foreman and 30 bricklayers after they failed to show up on the day of the protest, even though they’d informed him of their intentions.
“If you’re going to stand up for what you believe in, you’re going to have to pay the price,” he said.
[Serowki’s] foreman told CNN affiliate KDVR that it was important for him and his workers to join the protest. Some of his masonry workers have relatives who are afraid to leave their homes out of fear they may get arrested or deported, he said.
But Serowski said it was a slap in the face to people like him who have long supported immigrant labor. He’s known many of his employees for nearly two decades, ensuring they were paid when he did not have work for them.
“I’ve gone above and beyond for these people,” he said, seemingly distraught. “No one is going to dictate how my company is run.”
There are two things to consider, here: On one hand, Serowski absolutely has the right to run his business as he sees fit. If he wants to let go of people who’ve worked for him for nearly two decades, he can. It’s his company, and he’s right, no one can tell him how to run it.
On the other hand, Serowski’s actions seem almost antithetical to going “above and beyond.” Inconvenience is embedded in protest, after all. The whole objective is to change the status quo. The protest wasn’t about individual bosses, it was about the xenophobia that Donald Trump’s presidency represents for so many. But to work, these protests required at least some degree of employer support.
The crux of the issue is not that employers are actually disagreeing with their employees protesting, but the fact that these same employers feel that the protests are “inconsiderate.” As one employer told CNN, he would have been happy to close his business if he had been warned. He would have absolutely acted in solidarity. But when his striking employees didn’t give him the courtesy of letting him know, he decided that the best way forward was to fire them. Leaving aside the fact that it takes much more effort to replace employees than it does to retain them, these firings are a reminder that minority groups protest often have to suffer the mental gymnastics of the powerful majority.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen post-protest contradictions by supposed “good guys.” Black Lives Matter protestors were criticized for standing in the roads. Protestors were criticized for blocking public spaces. And then, when Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the national anthem, he was pilloried by those who called his actions treasonous, un-American, and inappropriate because football games aren’t the right place to make a statement.
It’s not shocking that many people were left asking, “Dammit why do I have to protest YOUR way?”
So what is the right way to protest? At Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen in Long Island, employees were fired after the company stated that they agreed with the protest as an idea but disagreed with any industrial action that could cause loss of productivity.
“In anticipation of ‘A Day Without Immigrants,’ Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen Restaurant & Caterers, posted a formal statement to its Greenvale employees on Wednesday, February 15, expressing support for their human rights and requesting that they fill their shift as scheduled on Thursday, February 16.”
The statement continued, “While some employees opted to participate in the walkout, several others chose to work and, as a result, the leaders of the protest put pressure on the others to walk out, even threatening physical harm to colleagues choosing to work their shifts.”
The restaurant then went on to “welcome” anyone who walked out but wasn’t an “instigator” to return to work. How can one express support for human rights while punishing the same people who are actively mobilizing for them? It’s a tricky position for employers to take — legal, certainly, but also a political choice and a drastic one. Employers who are firing workers because of their protests are sacrificing even more productivity for the sake of principles that still remain unclear.
Yes, “A Day Without Immigrants” was disruptive. It was meant to be. And yes, some businesses did suffer. But we must remember that the business owners hold all the power and that the immigrants in question (whether legal or illegal) have been impacted by the general tenor of the discussion. Firings as a response to ‘A Day Without Immigrants’ were political. And each firing sent a clear message: Your life, your fear, your human rights are outweighed by employer inconvenience. All perfectly legal, just not beneficial to progress.
The firings actually reveal why these protests will continue to happen. When you talk about civil rights and respect for all humans out of one side of your mouth and fire dissenters with the other, you’re not showing that protests don’t work, you’re telling the protesters to double down. To fight harder. Because if there’s one thing these firings prove, it’s that the need for calculated activism is greater than ever.