May Day: The Pandemic Is Kind Of Like A General Strike
Today is May Day, or International Worker's Day — a day in which the rights and contributions of workers across the world are honored. A day when a general strike is often called for. The dream has always been for literally everyone in the whole world to refuse to work on May Day as a show of power, although it has never really worked that way.
May Day, like so many other things, was largely started by an American woman of color — the anarchist Lucy Parsons, pictured above.
On May 1, 1886, in Chicago, workers began a general strike for the eight-hour workday. On May 4, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, over 1500 workers gathered to protest the police shooting of a striking worker the day before. Someone in the crowd — to this day no one really knows who — threw a bomb, which led to police firing on the crowd of workers. Eight anarchists, including two who did not even attend the rally, were charged with conspiring to throw the bomb on very, very little evidence, and found guilty in a real sham of a trial. Four of those convicted, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, August Spies and Albert Parsons, were hanged, one committed suicide, and three got life in prison. Because the trial was such an embarrassment for the city, the three who were sentenced to prison were pardoned by the new governor six years later.
Before, during, and after the trial, labor activist Lucy Parsons, Albert's wife, went traveling around the country organizing support for her husband and the others and inspired hundreds of protests across America and in other countries. The next year, inspired by Parsons and other activists, people began commemorating these events on May Day.
Across the world, people still celebrate International Worker's Day on May Day. In America, of course, we have Labor Day, which was basically created so that we'd still have a day to honor workers but without all of that messy radical history. If taking a radical holiday associated with police brutality, a corrupt justice system, and worker's rights, started by a woman of color, and turning it into a day to hold barbecues and stop wearing white shoes isn't the most American thing that has ever happened, I don't know what is.
May Day, in many ways, started with a general strike and every year since then, commies like me act like this is gonna be the year a worldwide general strike actually happens. It never really does.
The purpose of a general strike is not to bargain for any specific working conditions, usually, but rather as a show of power for the working class, after which some kind of revolution is supposed to take place, ideally leading to the workers owning the means of production or some such. But let's be real — it's probably not ever really going to happen.
What has happened, however, is a pandemic that in some ways has accomplished the same thing.
Look at who our essential workers are. Sure, some of them are doctors, nurses, people with advanced degrees who make good money. The rest of them, for the most part, are low-wage workers. The minimum wage workers. The people many have long claimed do not do enough to deserve a wage they can actually live on.
But as it turns out, they are the people we can't get by without. They are the people whose jobs are most necessary to our survival. We need people to work at grocery stores and big box stores and fast food restaurants, to work in the farms and factories that produce and prepare our food, to deliver our food to us via Grubhub and Postmates, to deliver necessities to us from Amazon.
These essential workers are also the workers most likely to make the minimum wage and least likely to have health care. At the end of the day, they are our most valuable workers, and if they told us to fuck off, we, as a people, would not be able to survive. Few jobs are as necessary to our day-to-day survival as these jobs are.
So why the hell shouldn't they get paid a decent, living wage? Why shouldn't they have health care — especially considering they're the ones risking their heath every day so that we can eat and wipe our asses?
This pandemic should radicalize people in the same way a general strike has always been meant to. It should make them understand that these workers have the power to fuck our lives up, and to respond to that by making sure they are taken care of fairly.
One of the things people have been talking about a lot is the fact that some employers are worried because the workers they laid off or furloughed during this pandemic are making more on unemployment than they were at their jobs. An article in the Wall Street Journal laid out this "dilemma" this week by noting that the average unemployment payout plus coronavirus stimulus is $978 a week, while 50 percent of all full-time workers take home $957 or less while working. Employers, it seems, fear that some workers might not want to put their lives and health at risk for less money than they are making not doing that.
But enhanced benefits also create disincentives that might hamper efforts by employers to recall workers when some states are trying to reopen their economies. It is possible that Workers could ask their bosses to leave them on furlough so they can collect the larger payments while avoiding health risks. Employers, meanwhile, are in the position of asking workers to get back on the payroll, either so companies can reopen or the business can qualify for forgiveness of government loans.
Tom Hoffman Jr. found out last week that his Hoffman Car Wash locations in Albany, N.Y., qualified for a government small business loan. To get that loan forgiven, he is recalling the more than 500 employees—many who work part-time—he furloughed when state officials ordered car washes to close and sales fell sharply at his nine oil change shops.
While he is happy to have the loan, Mr. Hoffman knows some of his workers will be worse off financially.
"Our interior-cleaning staff are going to have to come back on the payroll rather than making the equivalent of $23 an hour to stay home," Mr. Hoffman said. Those workers earn about $13 an hour, which is above the state's minimum wage. He will use the loan to pay them their regular wages, but will still ask them to not report to work.
That sure is something to think about.
This pandemic is teaching us a lot of lessons. It is teaching us that low-wage workers are a lot more necessary to our survival than some had previously thought, and that, if we really want to, we, as a country, can make it so everyone has enough to live on and everyone has health care. We have the ability to do that if we really, really want to.
And if we do not do it voluntarily, this pandemic just may push these workers to realize that, collectively, they have the power to demand it.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse