By MICHAEL SCHREIBER and ERNIE GOTTA
The May 1 international day of working-class protest is rooted in U.S. workers’ actions in the 1880s to demand better working conditions, including the eight-hour day. In recent years, the date was reclaimed in the United States especially by organizations standing up for the rights of immigrants and low-wage workers—who brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets. Marchers with demands on issues such as affordable health care, racist police violence, the rights of women and LGBTQ people, and environmental justice also swelled the protests.
This year, May Day was certainly timely as a day of workers’ protest: Unemployment has risen to a level not seen since the Great Depression. Some 30 million U.S. workers have filed for unemployment benefits, and the official rate of joblessness has risen to at least 18 percent. And those figures are mirrored, or surpassed, in many other countries.
This year, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries that used to see tens or hundreds of thousands of workers marching in the streets had far smaller events than previously. But a great variety of methods were used to carry out the protests. Many workers commemorated the day with online events. In cities where outside events took place, activists generally wore masks and observed social distancing, or participated in car caravans, horn honking, and banner drops. Rhythmic banging on pots (called a “cacerolazo” in Latin America, where the type of protest originated) took place in cities throughout the world, including the United States.
Several thousand masked trade unionists in Athens, Greece, lined up in Syntagma Square in positions that had been marked out with large colored squares to set them six feet apart. In Istanbul, police attacked a march that had formed in violation of government lockdown orders. Hundreds joined a May Day rally in Berlin despite efforts by authorities to ban it; thousands of police were deployed to keep others from joining the protest.
Sickouts, walkouts, and rent strike
In the U.S., a coalition of workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, WalMart, Target, and FedEx called in sick or briefly walked out on May 1 to demand better health and safety conditions, sick leave, and extra hazard pay. Picket lines were set up outside some warehouses, and workers called for a consumer boycott for the day.
Workers at dozens of Amazon warehouses have tested positive for COVID-19; at least one has died. A statement by Whole Foods workers professed that the company’s misguided policies were largely responsible for workers’ contracting the virus, and “for these reasons, we are engaging in a mass sickout and exercising our right to refuse unsafe work conditions.”
These actions were built on the momentum generated by numerous wildcat strikes in March and April. Christian Smalls, who had been fired by Amazon for organizing a walkout at the company’s Staten Island warehouse, helped lead the May 1 protest there. Some nurses attended to offer their support.
Make the Road New York, which helped to organize immigrants and low-wage workers, put together a May Day car caravan and protest in Times Square, where they demonstrated with body bags. Signs demanded the cancellation of rent payments, emptying the prisons, and “#Recovery4All.” The caravan ended at the headquarters of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
Nurses and other health-care workers in at least 13 states joined brief walkouts to demand adequate protective equipment. Some protested the fact that workers who speak out about these problems have been disciplined. Some 60 nurses in the U.S. have died in the epidemic, according to May Day organizers. “Nurses signed up to care for their patients. They did not sign up to sacrifice their lives on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bonnie Castillo of National Nurses United told AP reporters.
The rent strike organized on May 1 gave signs of becoming the largest nationwide coordinated action of that type since the Great Depression, and perhaps in all U.S. history. Plans have been made to wage strikes in coming months as well. Over 200,000 households joined the May 1 strike, according to one estimate, including over 12,000 in New York City and 8000 in Los Angeles. The movement caught fire in several big cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., and in California. Demands included the suspension of rent, mortgage, and utility payments during the present crisis and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures. The National Multifamily Housing Council reported that 31 percent of renters did not pay in April, a figure that is due to swell in May.
Events in Connecticut
Socialist Resurgence members in Connecticut sent the following reports: “May 1 rallies in Hartford and Stamford reflected a growing working-class anger with government and big business during the COVID-19 crisis. Some 200 cars rallied and surrounded the state capitol building in Hartford, while simultaneously an online rally was broadcast live.
The list of speakers for the rally included Carmen Lanche, from Unidad Latin@ en Acción, who demanded that “Governor Ned Lamont create a $150 million fund for disaster relief for undocumented workers in Connecticut.” Another speaker, Keeronie Williams, a member of 32BJ SEIU, said, “We need to support our workers on the frontlines. Not having proper PPE protection and health-care coverage if we get sick; who is going to care for our families?”
Sal Luciano, Connecticut president of the AFL-CIO, highlighted the fight for undocumented immigrant workers by saying, “Excluding immigrant families from COVID relief is dangerous and wrong, and today we say no more! We’re all in this together, and we will not stop fighting until we win justice for all working families, regardless of where we were born.”
Mike Pinho, an IBEW union electrical worker and member of the CT Workers Crisis Response (CWCR), put forward a list of demands from CWCR that he said could be paid for by “taxing corporations and top-income earners to fund emergency measures, reallocating funds from the defense budget, with no to taxes on working people and cuts to service.”
The blaring of horns sounding the growing of a new “COVID” solidarity movement in Connecticut was followed by another rally at the state capitol organized by the group Stop Solitary CT and was directly focused on releasing prisoners during the pandemic. Organizers urged “Governor Lamont to prevent COVID-19 from being a death sentence to people incarcerated by freeing all who can be released safely.”
In Stamford, an evening moving picket line of 25 cars weaved through the city blaring their horns . Demands were raised for workers’ rights, including the rights of undocumented workers. The action was organized by union hotel workers and members of Local 217 Unite Here and included a moving tribute to Hilton rank-and-file leader and shop steward Robert Tweedie. While taking up a broad list of demands aimed at the governor of CT included in the earlier Hartford rallies, workers also targeted hotel owners who have shown no little to no support during the pandemic.
Thousands of workers have still not received unemployment benefits in Connecticut. Edgar Jean, a Hilton worker with seven children, asked, “What are you going to do when they throw you out of the hotel and you have to eat?” Workers pointed to the Sheraton Hotel, which cut off health insurance for laid-off workers on March 31 and has refused to give hazard pay for those that remain on the job.
The need for “independent fighting organizations”
Socialist Resurgence member Mischa C., in Minnesota, sent in the following thoughts about May Day, from an essay he wrote in 2016: “Just a few short years before, millions of people were visibly protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but by this time, the numbers were in the hundreds. So when organizers called for a ‘day without an immigrant’ [on May Day 2016], many were skeptical that anything interesting would happen. Then suddenly, almost out of thin air, a million people hit the streets in Chicago, and hundreds of thousands more protested around the country. While that particular protest was huge, the movement itself was never able to sustain those numbers.
“This is a symptom of a larger problem that activists face all over the globe, the problem of organization. Without a mass independent party of working people that learns the lessons of past struggles, activists are stuck reinventing the wheel every time a new movement arrives. I don’t blame any of us for this shortcoming; we have been on the defensive for decades. Our movements are small and fractured because the ruling class has been pushing back against the gains made from protests in the 1960s and ’70s, and dismantling the groups that won them.
“It’s a myth that working people are too apathetic or ‘bought off’ to fight back; we just need to remember how to do it. Millions of Latinx people helped to get Barack Obama elected, and he deported more people than any other president before him. When we say that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements, this is what we mean. We need to rebuild our own independent fighting organizations, or we will be stuck spinning our wheels.”