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In Quest of the May Day Strikes

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In Quest of the May Day Strikes

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Sometimes when frustrated, I recall the famous New Yorker article by an author who thought he had a story about a bird in the woods, said to be extinct. But maybe not! So he found the local who thought they’d heard the bird’s distinctive, booming call, bought some yellow waders, hired guides and a boat, and set out through the swamps and the Spanish moss and the dripping and the stinging insects in search of the bird. Long-form story short, they never found the bird. So what’s the point of a story where you don’t find the bird?

I had intended to do a round-up of the much ballyhooed May Day strikes. (Here is a history of May Day in the Haymarket strikes in Chicago, 1886.) Unfortunately, to do a round-up, there has to be coverage to rounded up. In this case, the coverage of what was going to happen was much greater than the coverage of what did happen. I didn’t find the bird.. So let me at once appeal to readers: If you witnessed a May Day strike — workplace strike or rent strike — please describe in comments. Note that I’m not saying that nothing happened. What I am saying is that what did happen doesn’t seem commensurate with the degree to which the working class is being openly and nakedly abused[1]. There was nothing like the oft-called-for general strike. Maybe later!

Now let me aggregate what I have. First, I tried various left journals. Then I did Google searches on “May Day” + “strike,” and then “May Day” + “Amazon” and/or “Instacart,” since those were the firms most mentioned in the pre-May Day coverage. The results are pretty meagre, but this is what I have. Of course, newsrooms have been gutted (yet again) during the pandemic, there hasn’t been a labor beat for some time, and anyhow, it’s easier and more comfortable to quote politicians praising “essential workers” (and by implication disrespecting all other workers)[2] than to grant workers agency and go ask them what they’re doing. So I’m not saying the bird isn’t out there. Just that I didn’t find it.

A sidebar on the term “essential workers,” which has grown like kudzu all over everything. As is well known, we leave in a capitalist society. The purpose of capitalism is capital accumulation. To that end, all workers are essential. Workers sell their labor power to capital in return for wages (or salaries, commissions, etc.). They do that to purchase the means of subsistence so that so that they and those for whom they are responsible can survive. To those ends, all workers are essential. So, when liberals say “essential workers,” what do they mean? To be fair, they do refer in part to some professionals who really do (unlike, say, macro-economists) perform essential, socially necessary functions. But they also mean workers who are essential to them. Workers who deliver pizza to them. Workers who shelve groceries for them. Workers who deliver Amazon packages to them. Taxi drivers, for example, are not regarded as essential, even though they are essential to taking nurses home from late shifts. Cleaners, for example, are not considered essential, whether in groceries or in the hospital, because they are not visible when groceries are purchased or medical conditions are treated. But they are the ones who disinfect those spaces! And on and on and on. The loony right is correct on this, note well and beware: All workers are essential. End sidebar.

First, I looked at left publications, starting with Payday report, which has a regularly updated “COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map.” There have been 173 strikes since March 1. Here are the strikes with “May 1” in their labels:

1 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

2 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

3 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

4 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

5 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

6 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

7 Amazon Workers May 1st strike

8 Walmart workers May 1st strike

9 Target workers join May 1st general strike

10 Whole Foods workers join May 1st strikes

11 FedEx workers join May 1st strikes

12 Instacart workers join May 1st strike

On the map, you can click each strike listed in the lefthand sidebar to get more information about it. There are in fact more than twelve strikes, because Shipt is known to have struck. Also, some of the strikes are listed at single locations (Amazon) and others are listed by firm (Target). (This is absolutely not a knock on Payday Report’s Mike Elk; I did a similar dynamic map for fracking protests, back in the day, and the work is time-consuming and finicky, the kind of job where you discover you’ve got the wrong data structure halfway through and have to start over.) Nevertheless, slice the numbers how you will, twelve is not large..

So then I went looking for other left publications. Jacobin: “Workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, and Target Are on Strike and Need Your Solidarity.” This not coverage of the May Day strikes, but anticipation of them. Labor Notes: “The Worker Mini-Revolts of the 21st Century,” which is interesting, but not about the May Day strikes per se. The Nation: “Celebrating May Day Starts by Taking Workers Seriously,” another anticipatory piece, and “Demand Protections for People on the Front Lines” (today), a brief summary with no links to actual reporting. WSWS: “The COVID-19 pandemic: A trigger event in world history,” a transcipt of a speech by the chairman of the International Editorial Board of the WSWS. Come on, people. I want to know what the worker are doing!

Having quickly skimmed the left, I started to search. Amusingly, Google’s top hit for May Day was “Animal Crossing May Day maze: how to complete the New Horizons challenge, where to get tickets and how long the island is there.” Good job, Nintendo.

“May Day” + “Amazon” was totally polluted, but I had better luck with “May Day” + “Intstacart.” So here is a more or less random collection of reports from mainstream sources, in no particular order:

Wired, “Essential Workers [ugh] Unite for a May Day Strike. Is It Enough?“, expresses skepticism:

Even several groups of workers banding together may not be able to effectively withhold labor enough to force companies to meet their demands. Organizers say their bases number in the tens of thousands, but that represents a minuscule part of the overall workforce of these companies. And even reaching that level of participation may be difficult. One Instacart worker, who was asked by WIRED about Friday’s strike, said she’d never heard it was happening; another said she had seen shoppers talking about it on Reddit but had no intention of participating, “because Instacart won’t even blink.”

Vice, which seems to have gotten good for reasons I can’t understand, actually interviewed strikers (!) in “Amazon, Instacart, Target, and FedEx Workers Explain Why They’re Striking.” I’m picking out the one that most moved me, but the whole article is worth reading. From an anonymous Shipt shopper, which I have helpfully annotated:

I have been working as a Shipt Shopper since December of last year. When I started this job, I thought it would be perfect for my situation. I’ve had two failed spinal fusions, so being able to work a schedule of my own making and choose what I pick up was ideal. However, this job is creating a major issue in my life because Shipt doesn’t see me as a person. I’m a number on a body bag. They don’t care if I live or die working this job[a]. There are more people who can replace me. I loved this job. Being able to help people, shop at Target, and be paid. Yes, please. Now it’s a constant fight to get orders. They are lying left and right in their PR scheme. It’s hurtful to be treated with such little disrespect. I’m striking for hazard pay and for a more transparent pay scale. I need to know how much I’m going to make so I can continue to see my doctor, get my prescriptions, pay my rent, and all my other bills[b].

[a] This is the capital accumulation part. [b] This is the selling your labor power to buy the means of subsistence part.

Democracy Now has an anticipatory interview with Kali Akuno of Operation Jackson, “May Day People’s Strike! Target, Amazon, Instacart Workers Demand Safe Conditions & Pandemic Relief“:

[AKUNO:] So, we’re going to be out in force today. I think there will be many millions of people consciously and deliberately acting today. And I think it’s the start of a critical movement that we’re going to need in this country for some time to come, because after the crisis ends on the pandemic side, we know the economic dimension of it is still going to keep waging on.

Operation Jackson is neat, but “millions”? Hard to know.

Reuters has a roundup, “Amazon, Target, Instacart workers stage U.S. protests on May Day“:

The protests took place in New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon and other states, organizers said in social media posts and interviews. Labor groups and unions involved include the United Food and Commercial Workers and Workers United. Workers across the United States were invited to join by calling in sick.

The number of workers that took part in the protests was unclear. Organizers said they were collecting signatures through Google Docs for a tally.

“The emphasis now is on putting pressure on our governments to take action against employers who are not doing enough to protect workers,” said Patricia Campos-Medina, co-director at union federation AFL-CIO’s New York arm, who helped coordinate the protests.

Not sure how much coordination AFL-CIO was doing if there’s no participant count.

From the Los Angeles Times, “Coronavirus energizes the labor movement. Can it last?

In Los Angeles, Glendale and Long Beach, thousands of laid-off janitors and hotel workers besieged elected officials with petitions seeking future job guarantees.

Nurses took to the streets in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Irvine and Oceanside to shame hospitals for failing to protect them against the coronavirus.

And from Oakland to Monterey Park, employees at dozens of fast-food outlets, including McDonald’s, Domino’s and Wendy’s, walked off their jobs protesting a lack of social distancing measures.

The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a wave of labor unrest across California and the nation. Unions, harnessing the fear and anger, are organizing many of the protests, rallying media coverage and successfully pressuring public officials, including Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Fascinating, because blows the “essential workers at Amazon, Target, and Instacart” narrative to smithereens.

And lastly, Vox, which in “The May Day strike from Amazon, Instacart, and Target workers didn’t stop business. It was still a success” administers a pat on the head to workers:

But regardless of scale, the protests were historic and, to a degree, effective. For the first time, organizers brought together a coalition of low-paid, non-unionized, often temporary employees from some of the largest companies in the US. They gained the backing of major political leaders like Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who tweeted in support of workers.

Lol. See note [2]. More:

And more importantly, their protests drew significant media coverage and public support at a time when the customers are more grateful and sympathetic than ever to the workers essential in keeping them supplied with food and necessary goods during the pandemic. Publications like the Washington Post, the Los Angles Times, and Vice as well as broadcast networks like CNN covered the event, and social media posts about it were shared widely.

Quite the theory of change, there.

“We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1930s — a crisis like this and workers who are hurting badly,” said Thomas Kochan, a professor at MIT who leads research on work and employment. Kochan explained that, in the past, times of severe crisis have led to workers gaining rights, and he thinks the current conditions will “wake up” the general public to long-standing labor issues.

I wouldln’t worry about waking up “the general public.” I’d worry about the workers waking themselves up.

* * *

Like I said, I didn’t find the bird. The coverage, no matter where I looked, is spotty. There’s little to aggregate, and what there is, is partial and contradictory. I don’t want to theorize in advance of my data. Clearly, however, there’s a lot of activity that we just don’t know about. But I would like to end on a note of hope, from a strike at Dollar General that didn’t show up anywhere else, including Payday Report’s map. Daniel Stone:

Read the whole thread. I found it inspiring.

I would imagine there are a few hundred Daniel (or Daniela) Stones out there. A few thousand, and things should start to bubble. Ten thousand? What would that take? [3]

NOTES

[1] It could be that I’m like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamp post (“this is where the light is”), and that the story is out in the world of podcasting, which is a non-searchable medium with no deep linking ability. I can see advantages there for organizing, but it doesn’t make my aggregation task easier. If readers can suggest podcasts on strikes (and, I suppose, direct action) that would be great. I like Chapo well enough, and love the Trillbillies, but they are not the source for this material.

[2] Here is a random selection of May Day encomiums from Democrats, ordered from most repellent to not repellent at all. Kamala Harris:

Sounds good until you focus on “essential workers.” You’ll have to pry complex eligibility requirements from liberal’s cold, dead hands. Also, they’re not “working tirelessly” (doubtless many are tired) “to get us through.” More than likely, they’re working to feed their families, not for your personal benefit.

Elizabeth Warren:

“Stand in solidarity” with essential workers. Not all workers. And you’re not “leaning on them.” You’re exploiting them.

Bernie Sanders:

At least Sanders mentions the strikes. But note the contradiction: Corporate greed applies to all workers; in that sense, all workers are essential.

Marianne Williams:

Williams mentions strikers too. But she hits home on the reality of wage labor in a way that Sanders does not. Even if corporations were not “greedy,” “having to strike in order to increase the chances of their survival” is the power relation in wage labor.

[3] It does seem to me that any diffusely organized movement will inevitably be decapitated by liberal Democrat NGOs. It’s the one thing they’re good at. One might draw a lesson from Occupy’s fate, there.

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