International Workers Day, May 1, honors past and present labor rights struggles around the world. May Day originated in the U.S., commemorating the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, where workers undertook a strike demanding an eight-hour workday. A violent confrontation between police and labor protesters followed on May 4, which became an international symbol of the struggle for workers’ rights.
This May Day, workers faced unprecedented challenges, with tens of millions laid off – while many others were compelled to work in essential industries under health-adverse conditions. Across the U.S., employees working for public transit systems, online retailers, grocery stores and package delivery services undertook creative protests honoring social distancing on May Day to demand adequate personal protective equipment and fair wages for the hazards they face.
Frontline healthcare workers, including hospital nurses and elderly home care staff also took to the streets, some silently confronting heavily armed pro-Trump anti-lockdown demonstrators. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jaisal Noor, host, producer and reporter with The Real News Network. Here, he assesses the success of the May Day strikes, and how workers across the U.S. are mobilizing to challenge America’s broken political and economic systems that have been exposed in the current coronavirus crisis.
JAISAL NOOR: This May Day had the same spirit of recent May Days. But obviously what’s different is that we’re experiencing a pandemic. The United States is one of the hardest hit countries. So you know, it was impossible to do the mass mobilizations and marches that we’ve seen in recent years. But you know, a lot of the actions were done on social media. There were calls to boycott retailers like Walmart, Instacart, Amazon, Whole Foods, Target. Shipt is another one. There were calls to have a rent strike on May Day. We’re two months into this pandemic and in some states the majority of workers have not gotten any relief. So how are they going to pay the rent, right?
There’s millions of people that are excluded from the $1,200 stimulus. If you’re undocumented you can’t get that money. If you haven’t paid unemployment insurance, you’re not eligible for unemployment. So you had worker groups, you had unions mobilizing. You had groups like Make the Road New York, which advocates for immigrants and working class communities doing car caravans, which has been you know, one of the preferred ways to protest around the country. And we saw actions, especially around jails, especially federal detention centers. We know a lot of healthcare workers are taking part in the strikes. For months, nurses have warned of these dire shortages of N95 masks and gloves of basic protections and they still do not have these protections. So that was another reason why you saw, especially healthcare workers, protesting. We saw people protesting in places like New York City. We saw Chris Smalls who was one of the workers fired from Amazon helping lead a socially distant protest at the apartment of Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, his wealth has increased by over $20 billion during this pandemic.
But his workers say Amazon is making it impossible to socially distance within their warehouses, which is ironically the reason Amazon gave for Chris Small’s firing. A number of workers have been fired from Amazon. We talk about these actions, thousands of people taking part. You know, an example of a concrete thing that came out of it is that after May Day, a vice president of Amazon resigned and he was disgusted by the firing of whistleblowers like Chris Smalls who was trying to raise awareness of these unsafe working conditions, of the lack of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) — the fact that it is impossible to socially distance in these warehouses. Something I’ve heard from a lot of people. So it was really a wide range of issues. But ultimately, you know, it’s May Day and it ultimately came down to respecting workers. And a lot of these workers are considered essential workers, but they say they’re treated like they’re disposable.
SCOTT HARRIS: As you see workers organize across the country and participate in actions on May Day before and after May Day. Do you get a sense that we’ve entered some new territory when it comes to workers being united and making a concerted effort to organize in the workplace being active like maybe workers have not been active before in recent decades?
JAISAL NOOR: Yeah, and so I think there’s, there’s two sides of this, right? Because we know that we’re all hurting economically. And I think that is the biggest issue this country is facing obviously, right? We have the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Now this can go one of two ways. If the government continues its inadequate response, you know, medically and financially and if you compare the stimulus given out by the U.S. compared to even European countries – many European countries are giving out $1,000 to $2,000 per month or something like they’ll cover 80 percent of your pay for workers that are unemployed. Obviously, versus the U.S. – where you were promised a $1,200 stimulus check and unemployment if you can get on the website of your state unemployment agency. And it seems like the majority of people have not been able to do that in these desperate times where people are dying en masse, right?
There’s two choices. We can build workers’ rights. We can have a progressive response to this where people actually get the basic things they need. You know, they’re able to access healthcare. They’re able to get money for food and for rent or, you know, the alternative. The other side of this is that there’s these people that are demanding to open up the economy now. They don’t believe in the science behind it. They’re not listening to the experts and they want to open. They want to open up the economy now, which could, you know, as experts say it could make the pandemic response way worse.
You know, I’m hopeful. I’m hoping that these workers are able to organize and are able to help build a mass consciousness, but a lot of us are worried that the alternative could be a lot worse.