How nonprofits co-opted International Workers Day 2020
Updated: May 4
Whereas International Workers Day, May 1, is usually occasion for mass strikes and work stoppages, this May Day, as the coronavirus pandemic has driven many workers into mass unemployment unseen since the Great Depression, workers around the world demand an end to unemployment, wage and safety cuts. While industry workers call for an end to unemployment, nonprofit groups call for “general strikes.”
Únete 956 will join the UTRGV Environmental Awareness Club in a discussion about May Day this evening. Join us!
By Jonathan Salinas
This time last week, what May Day 2020 would hold in store was unclear. Skirmishes and fights in the workplace for personal protective equipment (PPE), hazard pay and sick leave have no doubt ensued by health and other workers dubbed by the government as “essential,” as Únete 956 has reported. At the same time, essential workers are not quite in a position to enact a general strike because the consequences would self-evidently be disastrous for working people in need of medical attention and other essential services. While nonprofit organizations aligned with the Democratic Party call for “general strikes,” unemployed industry workers are demanding government-sponsored jobs, making the things we need — like hospitals — at union wages.
So-called organizers are “advocating” to keep the economy closed. Common Dreams, a progressive news outlet affiliated with “Act Blue,” a fundraising arm of the Democratic Party, in describing this year’s strikes wrote, “One organizer explained that the goal is to "push back with large numbers against the right-wing groups that want to risk our lives by reopening the economy." Chris Smalls, a fired Amazon worker who “staged” a walkout March 31, told Vice News, “We formed an alliance between a bunch of different companies because we all have one common goal which is to save the lives of workers and communities. Right now isn’t the time to open up the economy.” Smalls’ phrasing frames the working class as something in need of a ‘savior.’
Smalls is represented by a reformist nonprofit based in New York called, Make the Road New York, which according to its website, ‘integrates,’ “Legal and Survival Services” to “tackle discrimination, abuse and poverty; Transformative Education to develop community members’ abilities to lead our organization, our movement, and society; Community Organizing to transform the systems and power structures impacting our communities; and Policy Innovation to rewrite unjust rules and make our democracy truly accountable to all of us.” Make the Road New York describes itself as immigrant and worker “led,” which is code for merely placing ‘stakeholders’ in the front of protests, a thought-process that suggests some abstraction apart and separate from the working class and is a typical nonprofit tactic.
The progressive and liberal left is unified in supporting the “general strike,” which includes boycotting businesses like Amazon, Walmart, Whole Foods, Target, and other major retailers where workers have recently demonstrated in different ways for workplace pandemic protections. In the Rio Grande Valley, Sprouts Farmers Market workers in McAllen launched a petition calling for PPE, hazard pay, sick leave and a safety committee among workers. Bernie Sanders retweeted the petition in early April, which helped earn it more than 7,000 signatures. Stalinist groups like the Workers World Party and Party for Socialism and Liberation are also supporting the “general strikes,” which call for worker walk-outs, a consumer boycott and improved workers safety.
Although government officials and business owners (motivated by profit) push for the economy to reopen, unemployed workers who cannot afford the luxury of working from home demand work, which after all is the one thing that makes workers workers. Although conservative groups have protested shelters in place, workers have taken part. Referring to all lockdown protestors as “Covidiots,” as the middle class left has, is analogous to Hillary Clinton referring to working class Trump supporters as “deplorables” in 2016. The Militant — the Socialist Workers Party’s newsweekly — has covered recent protests across the country and the world. Unemployed workers, again, demand an end to unemployment. “From more than a dozen state capitals across the U.S. to the Kurdistan region of Iraq,” the Militant wrote, “there have been protests against governments’ insistence on continuing lockdowns and joblessness.”
Calls for continued “sheltering-in-place” betray a certain kind of “privilege.” Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has recently argued in different online Zoom discussions that in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, “sheltering in place” is a privilege to the extent that not everybody has a home in which to shelter or social-distance. Thus, calls by nonprofits to expand onerous lockdowns demonstrate a kind of privilege that betrays a petty bourgeois indulgence, as in fact these same groups have launched and supported so-called “mutual aid” efforts, which amounts to charity with better “intentions” and does not look to the working class or labor movement for solutions to the social crises created by capitalism, which has repeatedly proven itself incapable of handling this pandemic.
The “Green” Movement — recently polemicized by a new Michael Moore film and by Únete 956 for its ineffectual “wins” and unsustainability — has jumped on the general strike bandwagon. Climate Justice Alliance, composed of environmental, immigration and indigenous groups, are calling for actions like posting signs on one’s front yard. Invariably, closer examination of these and other nonprofits making May Day demands reveals sympathy for the Democratic Party and its reformist platform, such as calling for a “just transition” and a “Green New Deal.” Calls for a “Green” economy hearken to a sanitized version of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, forgetting FDR’s union-busting campaigns in the 1940s.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the Equal Voice Network, which comprises several advocacy groups subservient to the local and national Democratic Party, is joining calls to #FreeThemAll — an incoherent call asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to both protect migrants in their custody and to release them. On May Day 2006 — in protest against ICE workplace raids during the George W. Bush Administration — workers, students and teachers walked out of work and classes en masse, despite threats from bosses and school administrators of legal retaliation, shutting down the U.S. economy that day. Local groups, nonetheless, “push” for reforms rather than join worker demands for “amnesty for all,” which would unite all workers with equal rights.
Also in the Rio Grande Valley, unemployment is an issue. Unemployment claims in mid-March surpassed the entirety of March 2019, according to The Monitor. The unemployment claims exceeded 17,000, a nearly 600 percent increase from the same time period last year, which was at just over 3,000 claims for the entire month. Nearly 8,000 of the 17,000 claims were filed in just one week. Up to 7.5 million small businesses around the country, according to economic reports, are at risk of closing permanently over the next few months if the lockdowns persist. While many RGV workers are unemployed, local small business owners might soon join their former employees in the unemployment line.
Nonprofit groups’ co-opting of May Day comes as social democrats and democratic socialists in the United States experience a demoralizing defeat to the Democratic Party’s establishment in the capitulation of Bernie Sanders — who sought to draw comparisons with FDR — to Joe Biden, apparently without any concessions. Indeed, organizers working with Sprouts Whole Foods workers told InTheseTimes.com that they are former Bernie Sanders volunteers who are applying their “grassroots” organizing skills learned to “organize” the workplace.
Leftist journals claim May Day strikes during the 30s and 40s led to the passage of the “New Deal.” For militant labor leaders, however, accepting “New Deal” terms meant agreeing to silencing protests to support the imperialist war. Today’s radicals are engineering a similar war-time narrative around May Day. Misunderstandings around May Day are long-standing in the United States, as social democratic groups and nonprofits have obscured May Day’s history.
May Day was born exactly 120 years ago in the United States. On May 1, 1886, a nationwide strike wave started for the eight-hour day. “Since then,” The Militant reported after the 2006 general strike, “the international working-class movement has celebrated that date and honored the Haymarket martyrs, the revolutionary workers framed up and hanged by the U.S. capitalists in Chicago for their role in that struggle.” Historically, “May Day rallies drew tens of thousands in New York and other U.S. cities right up to the eve of World War II. During the war, however, the Stalinist and Social Democratic misleaders of the labor movement turned May Day actions into patriotic, pro-imperialist affairs and then canceled them in the name of wartime “national unity” with the American bosses. That class collaboration killed May Day in the United States,” The Militant wrote. Sounds familiar. In 2006, for the first time in nearly seven decades, International Workers Day, said The Militant, “became a mass celebration by working people in the citadel of capitalism. In Chicago, the major unions backed the march and rally. It is testimony to how the entire U.S. labor movement has been strengthened by foreign-born workers who bring their experiences and traditions of struggle.” Revolutionary Cuba — who’s deployed humanitarian missions around the globe to help fight coronavirus despite ongoing, illegal U.S. sanctions — celebrates May Day as a national holiday wherein hundreds of thousands come out to celebrate every year, though the march was canceled this year due to the pandemic.
The majority of calls to “general strike” this May Day come from the same groups demanding the continued closure of the economy. Accompanying calls for a “rent strike” doesn’t consider that an inability for workers to pay rent — by virtue of unemployment — is not a “rent strike.” If this were so, many people have been successfully sustaining ‘rent-strikes’ for months and years now. “Welcome to the ‘rent strike.’” While nonprofits might appear militant, their demands and allegiances give them away. Workers realize capitalists are ready to place us on their chopping-block, to die alone at home. Workers instead demand good-paying jobs making the things society needs. The workplace is the only place where we can exert our social and political power as an international class.
Jonathan Salinas is a labor reporter for Únete 956!