Get Ready for Mass Strikes Across the U.S. This May Day

Christopher D. Cook April 30, 2020

Militant labor actions are set to engulf the country this May Day. (Photo by ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Toil­ing amid a pan­dem­ic and a cal­lous response from cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that is expos­ing mil­lions to dead­ly haz­ards and deep­en­ing pover­ty, work­ers across the coun­try are ris­ing up, plan­ning hun­dreds of strikes and sick­outs for Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers’ Day on May 1.

At a time when work­er orga­niz­ing could be sti­fled by phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing rules and the Trump administration’s dis­abling of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board, work­ers are walk­ing off the job in mas­sive coor­di­nat­ed walk-outs and sick-outs tar­get­ing major employ­ers such as Ama­zon, Whole Foods, Tar­get, Wal­mart, FedEx, and Instacart, demand­ing haz­ard pay, per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and oth­er basic protections.

May Day actions through­out the Unit­ed States will include work­er strikes, car car­a­van protests, rent strikes, and a host of social media onslaughts urg­ing work stop­pages, and boy­cotts of major cor­po­ra­tions that are fail­ing to fair­ly pay and pro­tect their work­ers amid the pan­dem­ic, activists say. Activists are also pres­sur­ing for rent and debt relief, and a People’s Bailout” demand­ing a more equi­table stim­u­lus and eco­nom­ic recov­ery plan that pri­or­i­tizes workers.

Long over­worked and under­paid, ware­house and food indus­try work­ers (includ­ing gro­cery clerks, meat­pack­ers, and farm­work­ers) are now deemed essen­tial” — respon­si­ble for haz­ardous jobs at the epi­cen­ter of the Covid-19 storm. Yet while some union­ized work­ers have secured haz­ard pay and pro­tec­tive gear, mil­lions of these work­ers on the pandemic’s front lines remain in or near pover­ty and with­out ade­quate health­care or safe­ty pro­tec­tions. Now they’re strik­ing back, shin­ing a spot­light on the strug­gles of low-wage work­ers labor­ing amid viral haz­ards while cor­po­ra­tions like Ama­zon and Instacart report boom­ing busi­ness and profits.

Even as unem­ploy­ment sky­rock­ets above 20% (with an astound­ing 30 mil­lion new claims since the begin­ning of March), Ama­zon alone is rak­ing in $11,000 per sec­ond and its shares are ris­ing, the Guardian reports. The company’s CEO Jeff Bezos, mean­while, has seen his per­son­al for­tune bloat to $138 bil­lion amid the pandemic.

Protest­ing unsafe con­di­tions and lack of haz­ard pay for many employ­ees, Tar­get Work­ers Unite is wag­ing a mass sick­out of the retail chain’s work­ers, stat­ing, We want to shut down indus­try across the board and push­back with large num­bers against the right-wing groups that want to risk our lives by reopen­ing the economy.”

On its web­site, the group describes atro­cious” foot traf­fic in stores, putting us at need­less risk when greater safe­ty mea­sures are required to ensure social dis­tanc­ing. Work­ers nor guests have been required to wear masks…Our max­i­mum capac­i­ty of guests have been set too high.”

Whole Work­er, a move­ment of Whole Foods work­ers push­ing for union­iza­tion, plans a mass sick­out” for what is also being called #Essen­tial­Work­ers­Day. Work­ers at the non-union cor­po­rate chain, which is owned by bil­lion­aire Bezos, are demand­ing guar­an­teed paid leave for employ­ees who self-quar­an­tine, rein­stat­ing health­care cov­er­age for part-time and sea­son­al work­ers, and the imme­di­ate shut­down of any store where a work­er tests pos­i­tive for Covid-19. Accord­ing to orga­niz­ers, 254 Whole Foods work­ers have test­ed pos­i­tive for the virus nation­wide, and two have died.

Gig econ­o­my work­ers for Instacart, the app-pro­pelled tech cor­po­ra­tion that dis­patch­es shop­pers” for cus­tomers, will wage their sec­ond work stop­page in a month, after a March 30 strike demand­ing haz­ard pay, paid sick leave and safe­ty pro­tec­tions. Despite Instacart’s boom­ing busi­ness amid the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, Most work­ers STILL haven’t been able to order, let alone receive, prop­er PPE,” accord­ing to the Gig Work­ers Col­lec­tive.

This week, dozens of work­ers at an Ama­zon ful­fill­ment cen­ter ware­house in Tra­cy, CA walked off the job after learn­ing that a co-work­er who had test­ed pos­i­tive for Covid-19 had died. One employ­ee told a local tele­vi­sion sta­tion, We are short hand­ed now work­ing extra hard, and I’m ques­tion­ing what I’m still doing here honestly…I’m actu­al­ly ner­vous now and won­der­ing if it’s even worth coming.”

Cit­ing a lack of response from this gov­ern­ment in terms of PPE and manda­to­ry [safe­ty] stan­dards,” the AFL-CIO will be sup­port­ing and uplift­ing” strik­ing work­ers at Ama­zon, Tar­get, Instacart and else­where who are risk­ing their lives every day on the job,” said spokesper­son Kali­na New­man. While our affil­i­ates who work with retail work­ers, UFCW and RWD­SU, aren’t help­ing orga­nize the May Day strikes, they may uplift them. At the end of the day, we sup­port work­ers who are stand­ing up for their rights.”

In an email, New­man elab­o­rat­ed that the AFL-CIO is encour­ag­ing union mem­bers to con­tact their con­gressper­son stress­ing that the coro­n­avirus relief pack­ages approved so far leave many work­ing fam­i­lies behind, includ­ing hard­work­ing immi­grants who pro­vide essen­tial services.”

Since the pan­dem­ic began, union work­ers at Safe­way, Stop & Shop and Kroger’s have won haz­ard pay and pro­tec­tive equip­ment guar­an­tees, New­man added, fol­low­ing pres­sure from the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers.

Oth­er promi­nent labor groups are back­ing the May Day strike actions. Jobs With Jus­tice is sup­port­ing work­er walk­outs across the coun­try, from Ama­zon work­ers to Instacart dri­vers,” and will be stand­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with work­ers who are walk­ing off the job and demand­ing safer work­ing con­di­tions,” orga­niz­ing direc­tor Nafisah Ula said in an email.

A range of oth­er groups, includ­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and new grass­roots ini­tia­tives like Coro­nas­trike will also be back­ing up the work­ers on May Day. Launched by Occu­py Wall Street alum­ni, Coro­nas­trike aims to ampli­fy the efforts and voic­es of those strik­ing,” says orga­niz­er Yolian Ogbu, a 20-year-old cli­mate jus­tice activist.

We’re frus­trat­ed by the inac­tion by these cor­po­ra­tions,” Ogbu adds. There is all this pent-up ener­gy, and we’re ask­ing peo­ple to put it some­where. Peo­ple are desperate.”

Accord­ing to Fight for 15, the nation­wide coali­tion for a $15 fed­er­al min­i­mum wage, fast food work­ers have already been strik­ing for fair wages and safe­ty pro­tec­tions as they attempt to sur­vive low-wage work and expo­sure to Covid-19. Since the pan­dem­ic began, fast food work­ers have walked off the job in Los Ange­les, Oak­land, Chica­go, Mem­phis, Mia­mi, St. Louis and oth­er major cities, demand­ing per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment, haz­ard pay and paid sick leave.

In ear­ly April, hun­dreds of work­ers from more than 50 fast-food restau­rants across Cal­i­for­nia — includ­ing McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burg­er King and Domino’s — walked out of work to demand bet­ter pay and safe­ty pro­tec­tions, Vice report­ed. This week, Arby’s work­ers in Mor­ris, Illi­nois, walked out in the mid­dle of their shift to protest con­di­tions and climbed into their with win­dows fes­tooned with big posters stat­ing, We don’t want to die for fries,” and Haz­ard pay and PPE now!” They are demand­ing $3 per hour in added haz­ard pay and say the cor­po­ra­tion has not pro­vid­ed masks or any oth­er pro­tec­tive gear.

Since March, there have already report­ed­ly been at least 140 doc­u­ment­ed wild­cat strikes across the country.

As the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic inten­si­fies and expos­es America’s inequal­i­ties, work­ers, so long sti­fled and embat­tled, are show­ing renewed force.

Christo­pher D. Cook is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and author of Diet for a Dead Plan­et: Big Busi­ness and the Com­ing Food Cri­sis. His writ­ing has appeared in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The Nation, the Los Ange­les Times and else­where. You can reach him at http://​www​.christo​pherd​cook​.com/.
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