Tag Archives: Coronavirus

Thinking of Workers in the Time of Pandemic on the Eve of May Day 2020

New Orleans     Today, I’m sharing a guest piece that I contributed to the Working-Class Perspectives series on the even of May Day and during a difficult time for workers around the world.

May Day 2020: Workers in the Pandemic Time

Posted on April 27, 2020 by Working-Class Perspectives

Around the world, the first of May, is generally celebrated as a public holiday.  May Day’s origins go back to 1886, when 300,000 U.S. workers in 13,000 businesses laid down their tools in a general strike, joining 40,000 in Chicago to demand the eight-hour workday.  The Haymarket Square riot, days later, marked these events indelibly.  In subsequent years, labor movements acting in solidarity proposed the date to commemorate these events as the International Workers Day.

Globally, May Day is usually celebrated with marches led by labor unions and the political parties and allies that support them.  May Day 2020 probably won’t be remembered for the marches, if there are any, but for the struggle and sacrifice of workers, many of them newly understood to be essential, others newly unemployed. The fragility of work in an unequal economy has been laid bare in this season of the pandemic.

ACORN’s union of 45,000 hawkers and street vendors in Bengaluru, India, are mostly daily wage laborers.  To eat that day, they must work that day.  With the country shut down with only four hours’ notice, many were pushed to starvation.  In Delhi, where we run more than a dozen night shelters for migrant workers, overnight we had to organize kitchens to serve more than 7000 meals per day.  In Honduras, our members protested promised food rations were not delivered to our neighborhoods by the government in San Pedro Sula, even as the maquilas in that city’s suburbs suddenly closed, laying off tens of thousands. It’s unclear if or when those plants will reopen. In Lyon, France, our union of security workers went on strike to demand – and win — personal protection equipment to do their jobs. In England, Canada, France, and Ireland, we called for the end to evictions for tenants and a moratorium on rents.

Similar stories can be found everywhere around the world.  The plague joins precarity in oppressing workers globally who are now drowning in the pandemic depression. Is there any good news for workers in this terrible time?  Perhaps.

With workers receiving 85% of their pay in France if still employed, 80% in the United Kingdom, and 90% in Denmark, some countries understand that it pays to support workers before they are unemployed.  Some of that recognition is embedded — too little, too late — in the US Paycheck Protection Program.  A door is opening that we should never allow to be closed.

We have reasons to hope.  A divided Congress provided unemployed workers – more than 22 million of them in recent weeks – an additional $600 per week through the end of July on top of often meager state-determined benefits.  This is a form of temporary national basic income maintenance, potentially changing welfare as we have known it.  For many, the supplement means that unemployment pays more than the normally low wages common in many sectors, forcing companies, supported by the stimulus money, to give bonuses and daily hazard pay to keep essential workers on the job.  At Local 100 United Labor Unions, we are fielding calls from employers asking us to agree to higher wages.  Only months before such requests were triggered by labor shortages. Now it’s because these workers are essential, and they cannot be replaced.  How will this not become the new reality for such work in the future? This is ground that will not be surrendered once the pandemic passes.

Has the pandemic killed gig work or just changed it?  App-based work at Uber and Lyft are in freefall, and Airbnb is burning up its remaining cash.  With the stimulus bill bailing out gig exploiters who have built their businesses on the backs of workers by not paying social security or unemployment, isn’t the argument over now about whether they are employees or independent contractors?  They are inarguably workers today.

Local 100 has a contract for 300 workers with ResCare, the giant service company specializing in government subsidized work, in this case for community homes providing supported independent living for the developmentally disabled.  After ResCare refused to provide PPE or to isolate and pay workers exposed to cases of coronavirus in one of its New Orleans area homes, we filed an OSHA complaint.  The law holds that employers must provide a “safe and healthy” workplace, but health and safety standards generally have become as frayed for workers as the rest of the safety net.  OSHA has been forced to step up in healthcare facilities and commit to investigate the facility with our constant prodding. Whether in healthcare, Smithfield meatpacking in Sioux Falls, GM workers in Detroit, grocery store workers everywhere, will employers be able to avoid real health and safety standards in the future past this moment?  We suspect not.

My niece wrote a recent Facebook post saying that it was the time of year when normally she would find out who her children’s teachers would be in the next school year.  She wrote that she “hoped it isn’t me!”  Daily, applause and pot-banging rings out in New York and other cities around the world for teachers, nurses, and other essential workers, two-thirds of whom across this country are women.  Is there any way we can go back to taking all of this work for granted in the way we did before?  Let’s hope not.

The pandemic has brought a terrible time to the working class of the world, but it has also brought a recognition that workers, not business and the rich, are the essential fabric holding our world and our lives together. It is also the opportunity to make these temporary measures permanent and build the organizations and unions that can make these changes stick. This is the lesson we have to make sure that everyone remembers about May Day 2020.


Maintaining in the Pandemic

New Orleans       I’ve got no complaints.  Regular calls around the world tell me every day how lucky we are.  We have a roof over our heads, so we in fact can shelter-in-place, and that’s not true for hundreds of millions.  We have food to eat and children who scold us for not being more careful, stand in line at Costco, pickup at Walmart, and did I mention, scold us for not being more careful.  Yes, right I did say that already.  So, take none of what I might say is now different as a whine or a grievance.  It’s just a statement of fact.  A notation of the changes now and perhaps those that are to come.

Since 1975, I’ve traveled almost 50% of my working career.  It’s been a different experience canceling trips and airline reservations, rather than making them and running to the airport.  Not having been in New Orleans for an entire spring since I was in high school, I had forgotten how truly amazing the weather can be this time of year in this part of the country.  The mornings are cool and the days are warm making jeans, flipflops, and long sleeve t-shirts my permanent uniform this season.

As mi companera and I have worked across the kitchen table form each other, computers blazing, we’ve occasionally walked over to the window to see the blooming pink oleander and yellow cassis.  Stay-at-home now means she has put bird seed and feeders for hummingbirds and whoever flies by, and, indeed, build it and they do come.  We have not only had the usual cardinals and bluejays, but in fact hummingbirds, black capped chickadees, catbirds, and more.  Azaleas have bloomed weeks ago and now the firecracker plant is attracting butterflies and, my favorite, the red powder puff is bursting out.  The bougainvillea will be blooming soon.  Spring roses are out on the fence.

No longer leaving the office to roll to the gym at the end of my work day has meant getting the bikes out of the shed and fixing them for the first time in a decade. In the early evening when we can, my son and I ride along the Mississippi River on the Crescent City Park.  We marvel at the size of cruise ships, and sometimes stop and stare at the freighters and barges making the turn at the crescent in this time of high water with the spillways wide open above the city.

Over the last month, I’ve paddled canoes more than I have cumulatively in the last twenty years on one bayou or another.  I’ve followed alligators at a distance.  Lowered my head as a pair of Canadian geese honked at me as they flew over, and then let me paddle farther down the bayou within feet of them before they rose and showed me their tail feathers.  I’ve seen the bass jump two feet out of the water and flushed mallards out of the byways.  I’ve brought home to my love water lilies, iris, and a purple thing, I still can’t name.

Not having to go to the office, I walk Lucha at 5am, start working before 6 am and am out and about before the sun sets to do something or other, but I’m not going to lie, I’ve come to enjoy a brief siesta in the early afternoon after I take my lunch break.

For now, I’m maintaining, not complaining.  But, I think a lot about the coming weeks as things return to a new normal and what will stay with me and others from what we have learned during this terrible time when we have been lucky enough to be sheltered, fed and employed, and stop smelling the roses, listening to the birds, and watching the fish jump, and join hands again with all of our people in the long process of rebuilding something new and better.  It will be hot and humid then, and we’ll feel it.