WCP: May Day 2020: Workers in the Pandemic Time

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In most years, workers around the world celebrate May Day with marches, usually led by labor unions and the political parties and allies that support them.  But as Wade Rathke writes in this week’s Working-Class Perspectives, May Day 2020 probably won’t be remembered for marches but for the struggle and sacrifice of workers, many newly understood to be essential, others newly unemployed. The fragility of work in an unequal global economy has been laid bare in this season of the pandemic, but workers are also organizing and winning both greater respect and, in some cases, better treatment.

Around the world, the first of May, is generally celebrated as a public holiday.  May Day’s origins go back to 1886, when 300,000 U.S. workers in 13,000 businesses laid down their tools in a general strike, joining 40,000 in Chicago to demand the eight-hour workday.  The Haymarket Square riot, days later, marked these events indelibly.  In subsequent years, labor movements acting in solidarity proposed the date to commemorate these events as the International Workers Day.

Globally, May Day is usually celebrated with marches led by labor unions and the political parties and allies that support them.  May Day 2020 probably won’t be remembered for the marches, if there are any, but for the struggle and sacrifice of workers, many of them newly understood to be essential, others newly unemployed. The fragility of work in an unequal economy has been laid bare in this season of the pandemic.

ACORN’s union of 45,000 hawkers and street vendors in Bengaluru, India, are mostly daily wage laborers.  To eat that day, they must work that day.  With the country shut down with only four hours’ notice, many were pushed to starvation.  In Delhi, where we run more than a dozen night shelters for migrant workers, overnight we had to organize kitchens to serve more than 7000 meals per day.  In Honduras, our members protested promised food rations were not delivered to our neighborhoods by the government in San Pedro Sula, even as the maquilas in that city’s suburbs suddenly closed, laying off tens of thousands.

It’s unclear if or when those plants will reopen. In Lyon, France, our union of security workers went on strike to demand – and win — personal protection equipment to do their jobs. In England, Canada, France, and Ireland, we called for the end to evictions for tenants and a moratorium on rents.

Similar stories can be found everywhere around the world.  The plague joins precarity in oppressing workers globally who are now drowning in the pandemic depression. Is there any good news for workers in this terrible time?  Perhaps.

With workers receiving 85% of their pay in France if still employed, 80% in the United Kingdom, and 90% in Denmark, some countries understand that it pays to support workers before they are unemployed.  Some of that recognition is embedded — too little, too late — in the US Paycheck Protection Program.  A door is opening that we should never allow to be closed.

We have reasons to hope.  A divided Congress provided unemployed workers – more than 22 million of them in recent weeks – an additional $600 per week through the end of July on top of often meager state-determined benefits.  This is a form of temporary national basic income maintenance, potentially changing welfare as we have known it.  For many, the supplement means that unemployment pays more than the normally low wages common in many sectors, forcing companies, supported by the stimulus money, to give bonuses and daily hazard pay to keep essential workers on the job.  At Local 100 United Labor Unions, we are fielding calls from employers asking us to agree to higher wages.  Only months before such requests were triggered by labor shortages. Now it’s because these workers are essential, and they cannot be replaced.  How will this not become the new reality for such work in the future? This is ground that will not be surrendered once the pandemic passes.

Has the pandemic killed gig work or just changed it?  App-based work at Uber and Lyft are in freefall, and Airbnb is burning up its remaining cash.  With the stimulus bill bailing out gig exploiters who have built their businesses on the backs of workers by not paying social security or unemployment, isn’t the argument over now about whether they are employees or independent contractors?  They are inarguably workers today.

Local 100 has a contract for 300 workers with ResCare, the giant service company specializing in government subsidized work, in this case for community homes providing supported independent living for the developmentally disabled.  After ResCare refused to provide PPE or to isolate and pay workers exposed to cases of coronavirus in one of its New Orleans area homes, we filed an OSHA complaint.  The law holds that employers must provide a “safe and healthy” workplace, but health and safety standards generally have become as frayed for workers as the rest of the safety net.  OSHA has been forced to step up in healthcare facilities and commit to investigate the facility with our constant prodding. Whether in healthcare, Smithfield meatpacking in Sioux Falls, GM workers in Detroit, grocery store workers everywhere, will employers be able to avoid real health and safety standards in the future past this moment?  We suspect not.

My niece wrote a recent Facebook post saying that it was the time of year when normally she would find out who her children’s teachers would be in the next school year.  She wrote that she “hoped it isn’t me!”  Daily, applause and pot-banging rings out in New York and other cities around the world for teachers, nurses, and other essential workers, two-thirds of whom across this country are women.  Is there any way we can go back to taking all of this work for granted in the way we did before?  Let’s hope not.

The pandemic has brought a terrible time to the working class of the world, but it has also brought a recognition that workers, not business and the rich, are the essential fabric holding our world and our lives together. It is also the opportunity to make these temporary measures permanent and build the organizations and unions that can make these changes stick. This is the lesson we have to make sure that everyone remembers about May Day 2020.

Wade Rathke, ACORN International

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The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-20 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 94,000 times by readers in 176 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.