New Orleans May Day may have begun as a celebration of the coming of spring many years ago, but since the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in 1888 around workers rights, fair wages, and the 8-hour day and the commemoration of May 1st adopted by many in 1890, unions and progressive movements have made the day an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and keep hot the fires of struggle. In the United States and Canada the day is more confusing to some, because we won legislation making Labor Day the first Monday in September, more a celebration of the coming of fall than the beginning of spring, but I won’t linger on that irony.
In 80 countries around the world, including most of Europe, May Day is our labor day and time to shine. Working with ACORN International you could tell the difference when greetings ran out between our offices and organizers in solidarity and commemoration, first from Rome and then picked up by Mumbai, echoed in Buenos Aires and around our world. The notion of solidarity and support for workers is harder won here, which prompted the monthly Fair Grinds Dialogue and invitation to local labor leader, Helene O’Brien of SEIU 21LA to speak on the subject.
Though O’Brien’s local largely represents public employees in the City of New Orleans and East Baton Rouge Parish, she wisely focused on the plight of some of her lowest paid members, school cafeteria and janitorial workers that had been contracted out to huge multi-national companies and were being exploited viciously despite the efforts of the union. The workers were largely privatized after the storm and organized by a controversial multi-union program when Sodexho took over. Now the contract has flipped to Aramark, which though party to the original deal, has proven a rougher customer for the workers, firing 13 this week solely because they were at the end of their probation and the company could do so with no questions asked and no answers offered. Interestingly, Helene revealed Aramark was now owned by the giant squid, Goldman-Sachs, where they hardly make calculators that could figure the distance between a lunch lady’s paycheck and the CEO of Goldman! Helene also told a story of workers with Janicare in Baton Rouge that were being imported from Bolivia, housed 8 and 10 to a trailer, told to claim they were from Puerto Rico, and working as a subcontractor of another subcontractor to clean some schools in EBR.
Where solidarity became the theme is that O’Brien indicated that they were taking the initiative to organize a campaign in New Orleans called Justice for Support Workers and trying to enlist others to support them. She told of the difficulties in trying to create community-labor alliances in the past, which she attributed to “lack of capacity,” but obviously felt a more specific focus on workers in need and requests to support a specific campaign being undertaken by her union might be more successful.
Let’s hope so! The questions at Fair Grinds returned again and again to the fact that the public had no clue what was happening to workers. These were obviously folks inclined towards solidarity and listening for a way to help. On May Day anything seemed possible.