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Why this immigrant rights march is brought to you by Miller
By Oscar Avila
Tribune staff reporter
September 1, 2006
Marchers had to duck into fast-food restaurants for water when they first took to Chicago's streets in support of illegal immigrants five months ago. At the next two marches, family-owned grocery stores offered free bottled water from trucks emblazoned with their names.
This time, as demonstrators march from Chinatown to House Speaker Dennis Hastert's (R-Ill.) Batavia office this weekend, they will have Miller Brewing Co., as a sponsor. The brewer has paid more than $30,000 for a planning convention, materials and newspaper ads publicizing the event.
The support of a major corporation for a controversial political cause shows how fierce the competition has become to woo the growing market of Latino consumers.
For Miller, the march offered a special chance to catch up. This spring the brewer drew the ire of pro-immigrant forces over contributions to U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who sponsored legislation that would crack down on illegal immigrants. That prompted a short-lived boycott by some Latino groups.
Now, march advertisements feature not just the organizing committee's trademark blue globe but Miller's logo and a Spanish translation of its "Live Responsibly" slogan, a company effort to build goodwill among Latinos.
But this march is no Cinco de Mayo parade. The politically charged event will promote a controversial plan to end deportations and offer legal status for all 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants. That creates potential pitfalls for any businesses lending support, experts say.
At the same time business sponsorships have forced activists to confront whispers that they are commercializing their movement when they accept much-needed donations.
"We would love to have 20 corporate logos. It doesn't mean we are selling the movement out," said Jorge Mujica, a member of the March 10 Committee. "The principles and demands remain the same. They are helping out this movement and we are happy with that."
Labor unions remain the movement's backbone with four major unions bringing at least 600 marchers on buses from throughout Chicago. Religious groups have been key too. Some marchers will bed down in churches and a mosque.
But businesses have become vital to this weekend's Immigrant Workers Justice Walk, which will cover 45 miles to Hastert's district office. Hundreds of marchers plan to cover the entire span from Friday through Monday, and organizers need food and water for them.
Sometimes political and commercial messages are mingled.
At a July march, Chicago-based food producer V&V Supremo printed signs with its logo that urged "Moratorium Now, Legalization Yes."
Jimenez Market, an area chain, had its sign on display as workers passed out more than 5,000 bottles of water and other supplies worth nearly $17,000. Co-owner Jose Perez acknowledged it is good publicity but stressed that "we are supporting our people. Without them, our business would go downhill."
This weekend, the Los Comales restaurant plans to donate 500 tortas, Mexican sandwiches filled with steak, ham and other toppings. The Laredo Bakery is donating bread while other restaurants are donating water, fruit and other supplies, organizers said.
Those businesses are natural allies--"part of the same brotherhood," as one marketer put it.
But the presence of Miller at a welcoming reception the day before the Aug. 12-13 planning convention raised eyebrows.
The convention brought together labor unions, anti-war groups, immigrant service organizations and even socialist political candidates.
Hours before bashing NAFTA and U.S. foreign policy, participants at the Aug. 11 reception mingled with the Miller Girls, the company's public relations ambassadors, amid a display of Miller logos.
That Miller was involved in the first place is one measure of the growing power of immigrants. After the boycott announcement, the company approached march organizers to try to find common ground, and agreed to back the march organizers' efforts.
Miller is also bankrolling informational ads in Voces Migrantes, or Migrant Voices, a community newspaper in Chicago, and has promised scholarships for area Latinos.
Mathew Romero, the company's local market development manager, said Miller felt it was important to speak out against Sensenbrenner's legislation, though his campaign was one of many the company supported.
Romero noted that company founder Frederick Miller was a German immigrant and many current executives are foreign nationals. Miller is now part of London-based SABMiller.
Romero said he wasn't worried that some opponents of illegal immigration would be upset at the company's support of "the free movement of people, labor, goods and services."
"As long as you are stacking facts against facts, they are free to make their own decisions. We will stand by our positions," he said.
George San Jose, president of the San Jose Group, a Chicago-based marketing company specializing in the Hispanic market, said he understands why companies chase Hispanic purchasing power, which tops $700 billion annually in the U.S. Brewers, he said, have been especially aggressive.
But San Jose would advise clients that there are better ways.
"A company sponsoring one of the two sides of the immigration debate is no different than a company sponsoring groups for or against abortion [rights]. It's one of those heated political debates that companies should stay clear of," he said.
At the request of march organizers, media executive Robert Armband sent e-mails to thousands of business contacts, asking if they would consider helping the March 10 Committee.
"It certainly is an opportunity to reach the masses, but it might not be the right vehicle to come out as a sponsor," said Armband, publisher and chief executive of La Raza, a Chicago newspaper.
March organizers say they have not made any full-fledged sales pitches to major corporations and are having internal discussions about whether they should make a real push. That can be a tough decision, according to march organizer Gabe Gonzalez.
Gonzalez said he represents those in the movement--maybe half the total, he thinks -- who don't even consider themselves capitalists. Many have been involved with labor campaigns targeting specific companies.
March organizers shot down a suggestion that they approach Coca-Cola, for example, because of what they perceive as the company's labor abuses in the developing world, a cause celebre among liberal activists.
Although immigrant activists see legalization as an issue of social justice, Gonzalez said corporations might back the idea as a way to protect their bottom line. Whatever the motivations, Gonzalez said he would cooperate with almost any company willing to back the cause.
"That's the nature of politics. You form coalitions based on mutual self-interest," Gonzalez said. "So will we work with corporations? We will work with anyone who will work with us."
Copyright (c) 2006, Chicago Tribune