2012-05-01 17:55:12

Taking Back May Day

The stickers, posters and graffiti have been popping up for months on subway walls, street signs, pay phones, and abandoned buildings, all with the same message: "May 1: Strike!"

Some are gorgeously designed or illustrated works of art. Some list the activities in which one shouldn't participate: no housework, banking or work. Others rattle off the types of workers who should strike—freelance and union workers, students and teachers. But they all have the same date: May 1st. Long celebrated as International Workers' Day, long forgotten in the United States and replaced with the defanged Labor Day, May Day is once again shaping up to be a national day of action for the “99 percent,” thanks to the Occupy movement.

The last time May 1 brought coordinated action across the country was in 2006, when immigrant workers took to the streets to remind the country what it would be like without them in the famous “Day Without an Immigrant.” May 1, 2012 has been called a general strike, but also, in direct reference to and solidarity with the immigrant rights actions of 2006, “A Day Without the 99%.” Organizers and activists, aware that actually pulling off a nationwide general strike will take years, not months, of work, have planned direct actions and mass rallies, marches and blockades, as well as mutual aid, concerts, and other events to include as wide a swath of the population as possible, providing workers who can't strike with other ways to take part.

“I hope this brings in a new history to May Day; instead of being one struggle or another struggle each year, to really just be a movement struggle,” Nelini Stamp, an organizer with the Working Families Party and Occupy Wall Street, told AlterNet. “May Day has grit to it that I think is really beautiful and really inspiring and has that direct action piece ingrained with it.”

Educate and celebrate

Internationally, May 1 is a day for celebration, a holiday in many countries, and many of the actions this year focus on bringing that spirit of celebration back and into the streets. “I've actually spent two May Days not in the States and it was just amazing, the workers are out in the streets and it's their holiday,” Stamp said.

“My favorite art for May Day depicts the shedding of chains,” George Machado, an Occupy Wall Street organizer who helped put together a concert in New York's Union Square, told AlterNet. “We have our grievances and yeah we're angry, but we want to celebrate with one another.”

Unlike last fall's rumor that Radiohead was playing the Liberty Plaza occupation, this concert is really happening: Tom Morello, Das Racist, Immortal Technique and others are playing in the public square from 4 to 5:30pm. But like that rumored show, Machado and other organizers hope that the big-name artists will help draw in people who've never been involved with Occupy, labor, or immigrant rights organizing.

“It's been so difficult for the media to categorize this movement because there's this large social aspect to it,” Machado noted. The concert aims to bring people together around music, but in a politicized context, adding weight to the already political work of the musicians involved, but also reminding everyone that there is a joyful dimension to collective action.

One of the integral components of the original occupation of Zuccotti Park was public education; lectures from world-renowned thinkers and professors like Judith Butler and Slavoj Zizek were common occurrences, as were teach-ins on a variety of subjects. May 1 will take that to another level with the Free University, held in Madison Square Park from 10am to 3pm. There will be over 124 classes, lectures or discussions happening in the park, where educators have been invited to bring their classes if they cannot skip a day, and create a space for free public education. “It's a rethinking of higher education, as we fight tuition increases, debt increases—it's about what we fundamentally believe, which is that we all deserve access to education,” said Manissa McCleave Maharawal, one of the organizers of Free University. “It's the Occupy idea, that what we're actually going to do is create what we want. We don't want debt, we don't want tuition increases, we don't want precarious adjunct labor, but what we do want is a free university that is organized in a horizontal way, that lets everyone be valued.”

In that spirit, leftist luminaries like Frances Fox Piven and David Harvey are speaking alongside educators from around the city, on subjects from “Horizontal Pedagogy” to computer science, immigration relief to yes, radical recess. They'll be teaching anyone who stops by, bringing their own classes, taking education out of expensive institutions and bringing it back to the streets.

“It's the same May Day strike idea, where we're striking against but we're also striking for. Withdraw your labor where you can, but let's also together create something new. Let's take our labor back and make it what we want,” Maharawal said.


The question many are asking is: Will there be a strike? Will labor—both union members and other workers—take part?

In many cities, organized labor and immigrant groups have planned official, permitted marches and rallies that will last all day—Union Square in New York will see a rally from noon onward. Many unions and workers' organizations in New York are taking part in what's being called the “99 Pickets” (Twitter hashtag #99pkts), in which shops that are sites of labor disputes will see picket lines rolling—some are already in motion, others will begin on May 1 itself. Some familiar targets to followers of Occupy and laborsolidarity actions include Sotheby's, and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka will be in New York to join two of the pickets in support of the Taxi Workers Alliance and the Writers' Guild of America East. “I'm really excited to see if we can get a bunch of pickets all over midtown especially because that's where the 1 percent operates,” Stamp said.

But what of the strike? Back in February 2011, Matthew Stoller, a Roosevelt Institute fellow, argued that striking not only serves as a way for workers to win battles in the workplace; it also raises the public's awareness of and opinion of unions. “People might only like unions when they see strikes, otherwise all they hear about is backroom negotiations,” he wrote. “Perhaps effectively striking is actually the way to force people to ask questions about what kind of country they want to live in.”

And some unions will indeed strike on May Day. In California, 4,500 nurses with California Nurses Association/National Nurses United, at eight Sutter Health-affiliated hospitals will go out on their third one-day strike as the hospital chain tries to force concessions from them. Choosing a strike date of May 1, when workers across the country will be taking action, brings new attention to their ongoing struggle.

“Workers across the board are under attack. I've been a nurse for 31 years, I've worked all of those years at the hospital I work at now. I have lived what happens when people who are interested in making money take over hospitals. The corporate model is really not suited to taking care of people,” said Ann Gabler, a nurse at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center. She noted that the hospital where she works was named for the nurse who founded it (whose portrait has mysteriously disappeared from the hospital lobby).

“The proposals basically eradicate about 50 years of collective bargaining, reduce our sick time, wages, family time, our ability to speak up for our patients--everything about being able to care for ourselves and our patients is what they want to take away,” added Gabler, who plans on spending a 12-hour day on the picket line May 1.

Stamp noted that as union membership in the U.S. fell, the culture of awareness around strikes has faded as well. “You used to know, when you were growing up in the '50s and '60s, what a union was, what your contract rights were. Your parents were probably in unions, or somebody in your family told you how to unionize, because that's what people did. That's what protected their jobs. Because people don't know that, I think that the words 'general strike' really scare people in a nonunionized workplace these days.”

“Hopefully,” she continued, “what we can do is get the word strike to be a more positive thing in people's minds, so that when the push comes to shove, we could possibly have general strikes across the country in years to come. The workforce right now needs to realize what the term strike is.”

Join the fun

How can you join in? A new site, HowIStrike.tumblr.com, offers some provocative ideas of what could constitute striking in this new economy. The proposals range from “I strike by breaking our cultural taboo and asking my friends and family 'what do you really think about capitalism?'” to hunger strikes to the more traditional “call in sick,” but all offer ideas for how everyone can act in solidarity on May Day.

And maybe that's the first step—thinking about nationwide collective action. But for people in many cities, there's opportunity not just to take symbolic action, but to get out in the streets and march, meet new friends, join a picket line, create some art, hear some music, and share something.

In New York, the day begins at Bryant Park, where “mutual aid” will be set up all day, including free food, art and the “really really free market”; direct actions will launch from the park, as will the 99 pickets. Stamp said of the food, services and more on offer in Bryant Park, “To just have an exchange program, to have the people's trading floor really brings it back to what we did in the first place, which was occupy Wall Street to show the differences and show the mistakes, and now we can have a people's trading floor instead of the stock exchange.”

Union Square will be the site not only of a concert, but of permitted gathering under the banner of “Legalize, Organize, Unionize,” celebrating immigrant workers' contributions as well as holding labor and immigrants' rights workshops throughout the day. The legal permits mean the likelihood of arrest is very low at these events, making them family-friendly and also safe for those who might be at risk of deportation. A march to Wall Street will be led by taxicabs and is also fully permitted. After that, the plan is more open. “With a lot of what Occupy does, I can't really predict what will happen, I've been surprised so many times,” Machado said.

Elsewhere, Occupy Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is unveiling the start of its "Overpass Light Brigade" by standing on an overpass near one of the state's 6,000 structural deficient bridges; Occupy LaGrange, Georgia is taking over LaFayette Square from 11am to 7pm. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a solidarity rally over the weekend called for an end to deportations, as well as an end to cuts to BadgerCare, the state's healthcare service threatened by Governor Scott Walker.

In Chicago, the birthplace of May Day, a march, endorsed by various unions and immigrant groups starts at Union Park at noon; in Seattle, multiple events include an Anti-Capitalist march and an Honor the Dead, Fight for the Living march, honoring Trayvon Martin as well as the Haymarket Martyrs.

And in one of the day's most controversial actions, activists in the San Francisco Bay area have backed away from a prior plan to occupy the Golden Gate bridge in the morning. There will still be hard pickets to shut down ferries, however, and plenty of action around San Francisco and Oakland. 

If you can't join an action in your neighborhood (a fairly comprehensive list is available at OccupyWallSt.org), AlterNet reporters will be on the ground in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City; we'll have coverage throughout the day. If you have a local story you think we should know about email us at [email protected]

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.

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