by Betsy Piette, published on Workers World, May 5, 2020
This year’s celebrations of May 1, International Workers’ Day, in the United States reflected the growing coast-to-coast fightback of workers confronting their bosses’ and the capitalist system’s total disregard for worker health and job safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The array of workers’ actions is historic, with essential workers in health care, food, retail and delivery services taking the lead, joined by unionized, undocumented and incarcerated workers.
Car caravans offered creative and safe alternatives to mass gatherings to adhere to social-distancing safety concerns. Actions also included one-day strikes, walkouts and sick-ins. Whatever the tactics, the resilience and determination of an awaking powerful working class were on display.
On May 1, revolutionary and progressive forces organized car caravans throughout New York City, in keeping with COVID-19 social distancing protocols. Caravans crisscrossed Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens under the banner of May Day Workers Solidarity: Caravan for Our Lives. Demands included hazard pay and personal protective equipment for essential workers; cancellation of rent; free health care and COVID testing for all; a relief fund for undocumented workers; an end to U.S. wars and more.
The caravans managed to assemble despite police attempts to disband them, blocking off gathering locations and threatening participants with arrest. The caravans visited hospitals, Whole Foods, Target, Trader Joe’s, jails, public housing and a bus depot, where they were enthusiastically received by Metropolitan Transit Authority workers from Transit Workers Local 100, before converging on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Manhattan office. The response from working and oppressed people on the street was overwhelmingly positive.
The caravans were organized as part of the nationwide People’s Strike called by Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi. Participants involved a broad coalition of migrant rights, workers’ organizations and anti-imperialist forces, including Fight for Im/migrants and Refugees Everywhere (FIRE), the Laundry Workers Center, International League of Peoples Struggle (ILPS), Cosecha NYC, Close the Camps NYC, Take Back the Bronx, Local 100 Fightback, the People’s MTA, People’s Power Assemblies/NYC and Red Bloom.
Other groups involved were BAYAN USA, New York Boricua Resistance, New York Community Action Project, DSA Afrosocialist and Socialist of Color Caucus, Desis Rising up and Moving, the Street Vendors Project, Unity and Struggle, Queens Neighborhood United, Workers World Party and more.
May Day events in New York City included banner drops across the city with the slogan #CancelRent on dozens of buildings announcing rent strikes; a socially distanced action at Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, organized by BAYAN USA in solidarity with health care workers; and a rally at a Staten Island Amazon warehouse organized by Chris Smalls, an Amazon worker fired for organizing for safe working conditions. Despite the unprecedented circumstances brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and the complete failure of the U.S. government to organize an effective response, May Day in this city was full of militant struggle, which was uplifting to working and oppressed people.
‘Cough up that hazard pay!’
Across Northern New Jersey, which has experienced a recent escalation in COVID-19 cases, May Day actions targeted Amazon, Target, Whole Foods and Instacart, where workers struck as part of one of the largest nationwide strikes in response to poor working conditions. In Elizabeth, workers and activists circled in front of Amazon’s Flex warehouse in a 15-car caravan, with horns honking and calls for safe working conditions for all. Signs read: “Cough up that hazard pay!” and “Worker safety for all.”
“We are demanding, as immediate demands, safe working conditions for all workers,”
said Eric Lerner, of Jobs and Equal Rights For All, one group which came out in support of the strike.
“No work without personal protection equipment for all.”
At the Elizabeth Detention Center, protesters demanded freedom for all immigrant detainees. They also called for a “Workers Way Forward” plan to address underlying conditions that led to the pandemic. (NJ Advance Media, May 1)
A caravan of 60 to 70 cars crisscrossed Philadelphia for nearly five hours on May Day, broadcasting demands of the international working class and making stops to show solidarity at various workplaces and neighborhoods in the city. Workers World Party called the action and organized it in close cooperation with Juntos, the New Sanctuary Movement, Philly Workers Solidarity Network, UNITE HERE Local 274 and Philly REAL (Racial, Economic and Legal) Justice.
Other organizations endorsing the action and contributing speakers included Asian Americans United, Black and Brown Workers Cooperative, Occupy PHA, Food Not Bombs Solidarity, the International Action Center, Put People First PA, the Poor People’s Campaign, African Family Health Organization, the Sol Collective and Socialist Alternative.
Starting at noon, the caravan’s first stop was Temple University Hospital where health care workers, organized by the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners, held a rally demanding PPE for frontline workers and universal health care. (PASNAP is an increasingly political labor association of health care workers.) After stops outside a nursing home and in the Richard Allen Homes, a historic public housing site in Philadelphia, the May Day caravan held a mini-rally outside the now-shuttered Hahnemann Hospital to cheers from people in the area.
The hospital was a last resort for low-income workers. It was closed in late 2019 when its owner, hedge-fund vulture Joel Freedman, deemed it was not profitable enough. Despite pleas from city officials, Freedman refused to reopen the hospital when the COVID-19 virus arrived in the city. He demanded a minimum of $1 million a month from taxpayers just to unlock the doors.
The caravan lingered outside the Philadelphia Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters at 8th and Arch Streets, where Erika Guadalupe Núñez of Juntos gave a fiery talk about the cruel abuses facing thousands of migrants in U.S. concentration camps and played two testimonials from residents whose family members were kidnapped by ICE.
Deandra Jefferson of REAL Justice spoke about the white supremacist roots of the United States. Joe Piette from Workers World gave an impassioned demand for the government to increase funding for the U.S. Postal Service and support postal workers.
Targeting the nearby federal prison, Fermin Morales described U.S. imperialism’s assault on Puerto Rico:
“Across the street from the federal prison is the African American History Museum. And if you learn too much inside that museum, they’ll lock you up across the way! That’s how this empire works.”
The final stops of the caravan were at Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos-owned Whole Foods store on South Street where a protester already on the scene held a sign that read: “The workers in here are not protected.” A prerecorded message from a Whole Foods worker was broadcast through loudspeakers. The caravan ended at the Hoa Binh Plaza, a Vietnamese market that was forced to close by gentrifying real estate speculators and developers.
In Fredericksburg, Pa., activists and workers with the Latinx rights organization “Make the Road PA” staged a drive-by demonstration, demanding protection for workers. They protested outside two plants owned by Bells & Evans, which produces organic, antibiotic-free chicken sold at Whole Foods. Pennsylvania has more COVID-19 cases among meat and poultry processing workers than any other state, with over 850 confirmed cases and 22 workers sickened, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The protesters say two workers died and others got sick because Bells & Evans delayed providing PPE and implementing social distancing. Around 30 workers and activists who took part in a 20-car caravan starting in nearby Lebanon, Pa., were stopped from entering the complex, so they blasted their message from loudspeakers. Maegan Llerena, director of Make the Road PA, pointed out that the company, which prides itself on treating chickens humanely, is “abusing the workers while they say they’re protecting the animals. That does not make any sense.” (Inquirer, May 2)
‘Capitalism is killing us and the planet’
Over 100 cars jammed into the Communication Workers (CWA) Local 3204 parking lot, with the overflow lined up on the street, to begin the May Day Solidarity caravan through downtown Atlanta. The vehicles were decorated with signs and painted slogans reflecting a wide variety of issues critical to workers and their families. Groups organizing contingents included the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), whose signs in English and Spanish denounced anti-immigrant policies and called for the release of all prisoners from detention centers. The Housing Justice League brought a number of vehicles covered with painted slogans calling for no rent, no evictions and housing for all.
Painters union members came with signage on their cars demanding PPE for all workers and calling out the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for failure to protect workers from dangerous working conditions. Industrial Workers of the World flags flew from car windows. Signs announced solidarity with specific groups of frontline workers — Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority drivers, postal workers, farmworkers, health care and domestic workers, grocery store workers and Amazon workers, just to name a few. WWP signs called for international solidarity and stressed the fight against racism, bigotry and war. A popular sign was “Capitalism is killing us and the planet.”
Spirits were so high after returning to the CWA lot that a second caravan was organized to go to a nearby Target to express solidarity with workers who had refused to work on May Day. Some 50 cars circled the Edgewood Mall parking lot in front of Target with horns honking.
After meeting up at the union parking lot, another caravan headed to a Whole Foods to bring May Day solidarity to those workers. People in passing cars, pedestrians and workers coming outside to see what was going on raised fists, waved and cheered in approval. Drivers honked their horns. It was a gratifying May Day while protesters practiced social distancing.
In Pensacola, Fla., the May Day demonstration was a collaborative effort among local organizers from WWP, the Party for Socialist Liberation, and Strive (Socialist Trans Initiative), Pensacola’s local transgender advocacy group. Their car caravan traveled through much of western and downtown Pensacola, including Brownsville and Attucks Court, as a show of solidarity with Black and Brown working-class residents of those neighborhoods. Many of them are being forced to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Residents waved and cheered as the caravan went by.
The caravan also drove past Pensacola’s Border Patrol office to protest the imprisonment of migrant people — at high risk for contracting the coronavirus because of the overcrowded conditions in detention camps — and to call for the abolition of ICE. The caravan’s final destination was Baptist Hospital for a crucial show of solidarity with health care workers, who are not receiving hazard pay or PPE. They are on the frontlines of this pandemic, lauded as heroes while suffering the most under capitalism.
‘Workers will not die for capitalist profits!’
Hospitality workers took to the streets of New Orleans the afternoon of May 1, calling for free health care and expanded unemployment benefits, among other demands. Dozens of socially distanced protesters lined up in cars and on bikes in a midcity parking lot. Before rolling into the streets, organizers with the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Alliance outlined their demands. Among them were free health care and testing for hospitality workers, hazard pay and access to protective gear, housing as a human right and unemployment assistance through the end of 2020. “We are saying workers will not die for capitalist profits,” said one organizer through a megaphone from the roof of a parked car. (WWNO, May 2)
In the spirit of May Day, Michigan autoworkers traveled from Detroit and elsewhere to Wyoming, Mich., circled a General Motors plant in solidarity with Travis Watkins, who was fired by subcontractor Caravan Facilities Management after raising safety concerns. Specifically, he posted information on a private United Auto Workers Local 167 member’s Facebook page about General Motors workers who had been walked out of a plant by management because of suspected COVID-19 infection.
Watkins said, “We’re honoring the men and women of labor on May Day, fighting for the equality and dignity of all workers across the globe. This is much bigger than me. This is about the health and safety of all workers.” (Interview with Frank Hammer, May 1)
Activists wove through the streets of San Antonio, Texas, in a May Day car caravan demanding a liveable income, housing and health care for all. Stops included the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office to call for closing the jail; an apartment complex where the landlord posted eviction notices despite a city edict blocking evictions during the pandemic; a federal housing project where administrators have withheld residents’ stimulus checks; and Whole Foods to support May Day strikers. One popular sign read: “Kicking ass for the working class.”
In Austin a traffic stoppage was organized by RentStrikeATX to focus on the need for a total rent freeze in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Organized and unaffiliated activists — people passionate about the need to bring attention to the plight of workers, including those recently murdered by Austin police — gathered for a May Day caravan of about 50 vehicles.
From there cars eventually merged onto North and South Interstate 35. Messages on signs included the need for a rent strike, a call for a general strike and demands for justice for Mike Ramos, recently murdered by the Austin Police Department. The caravan made its way downtown, filling up all lanes from southbound I35 to the exit ramps.
Eventually the caravan made a complete stop, with cars honking horns to bring attention to peoples’ demands. After threatening to pull people from their cars, police rerouted the caravan. Ultimately caravan cars were forced into a parking lot where police vans and tow trucks were waiting. Cops arrested at least 22 people and towed their vehicles. RentStrikeATX’s Facebook page has a fundraising appeal to raise legal fees for those arrested.
In Oakland, Calif., International Workers’ Day began early with a spirited picket line by members of National Nurses United in front of the Kaiser Permanente hospital complex. Over 75 nurses stood 6 feet apart in front of the main building chanting, banging drums and demanding safer working conditions, including PPE, during the pandemic
Next, the International Longshore and Warehouse workers (ILWU) held a press conference and rally in the Port of Oakland. A work stoppage organized by ILWU Locals 10 and 34 highlighted the dangerous working conditions experienced on the docks by workers who are not being protected from COVID-19. Speakers included rent strike activists, striking University of California graduate students and Filipino activists who were supporting endangered cruise ship workers.
A caravan, organized by activists from General Strike 2020, brought out over 200 cars, which snaked from the port to Kaiser Hospital and stopped at the Oakland Police Department to demand “Free them All!” It then traveled to the School District building to highlight issues of inequity in distance-learning education when most families don’t have internet access. Then cars went to other targets.
Oakland Sin Fronteras, the coalition of Oakland-based Latinx organizations, prisoners’ rights, solidarity activist groups and rank-and-file workers, postponed their annual May Day march and instead held a two-part webinar titled “Workers Seize Power.” The first part of the webinar — simultaneously translated into over five languages — brought together legal advocates, housing groups and public health experts who presented valuable information. The second part of the webinar was an international celebration of May 1, in which the many speakers focused on human rights, housing and prisoner struggles erupting in response to the pandemic.
In Portland, Ore., 15 cars participated in a caravan organized by the Portland May Day Coalition. They stopped at locations where essential workers — putting themselves on the frontlines of the pandemic — are continuing to fight for PPE, social distancing measures and hazard pay. Drivers honked and shouted support for grocery store workers at Fred Meyers and Whole Foods, who went on strike at the end of March, and participated in the national one-day strike.
On March 22, workers at Burgerville, the nation’s first fast-food restaurant to unionize, held a one-day strike for increased hazard pay and sick time for victims of COVID-19. Their customers and the workers applauded the caravan. The protesters also demanded PPE for the workers at Kaiser Health Care Facility, Central Bakery and the Senior Haven, an assisted living center, where management had fired worker Candy Sizemore-Harvey for asking for PPE for employees.
In Seattle, a 65-vehicle May Day motorcade gathered to demand justice and compensation for essential and excluded workers, including farmworkers, meat packinghouse workers, im/migrant workers, health care and grocery workers, and others. After leaving Seattle, large contingents of cars joined the motorcade in Tacoma and Washington’s capital Olympia where they ended at the Capitol building to deliver their demands.
The caravan was organized by El Comite and the May 1st Action Coalition, together with many supporters from labor, im/migrant and other solidarity groups. The “caravanistas” paraded up and down Olympia’s Capitol Way when the State Patrol denied them entry to the capitol grounds for their legal demonstration. In the parking lot of a friendly church, a well-spaced rally was held across the street from capitol grounds.
Edgar Franks, political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a union which represents 400 farmworkers, said, “We are being denied any kind of justice while being deemed essential.” He said rules need to be put in place for farmworkers’ health, housing, sanitation and overall safety — rules that reflect their status as essential workers.
Contributing to the article: Nate Chase, Julianna Cordray, Shelley Ettinger, Eno Flurry, Judy Greenspan, Martha Grevatt, Ted Kelley, Dianne Mathiowetz, Jim McMahan and Lyn Neeley.