What the Big May Day Strike in a Small Pennsylvania City Teaches Us About Organizing

Shaun Richman May 5, 2017

Our greatest power is still the work we do and our occasional refusal to do it. (Make the Road Pennsylvania/ Facebook)

The first May Day of the Trump era saw scores of major actions in cities across the Unit­ed States, but per­haps the most impres­sive demon­stra­tion of work­er pow­er took place in the small city of Read­ing, Penn­syl­va­nia. There, 127 stores — about three-quar­ters of the busi­ness­es in the city—shut down in protest, and an addi­tion­al 500 most­ly agri­cul­tur­al and con­struc­tion work­ers par­tic­i­pat­ed in the gen­er­al strike, accord­ing to orga­niz­ers. The protest even spread to near­by Allen­town, where two dozen more stores closed for the day.

Spear­head­ed by Make the Road Penn­syl­va­nia, a com­mu­ni­ty group that orga­nizes work­ing-class Lati­nos, the strike was a protest of the coun­ty sheriff’s plan to autho­rize his deputies to act as immi­gra­tion agents, in coop­er­a­tion with the Trump administration’s assault on immi­grants. While Berks Coun­ty is one of the eco­nom­i­cal­ly depressed areas that car­ried Trump to a win in Penn­syl­va­nia, the peo­ple of Read­ing are as unlike­ly to sup­port his vision for mak­ing Amer­i­ca great again” as they are to agree that Amer­i­ca is already great.”

Although the major­i­ty of Reading’s res­i­dents are Lati­no, and anoth­er sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion is African-Amer­i­can, Reading’s may­or and city coun­cil are almost entire­ly white, thanks to a com­bi­na­tion of ger­ry­man­der­ing and the polit­i­cal donor class. That’s where the idea of hit­ting deci­sion-mak­ers in the wal­let developed.

No sales means no sales tax,” says Make the Road Penn­syl­va­nia direc­tor Adan­je­sus Marin. Most of their rev­enue comes from the com­mu­ni­ties they’re attacking.”

Accord­ing to Marin, orga­niz­ers spent four weeks get­ting work­ers and busi­ness­es to com­mit to the May Day strike. Stores that agreed to par­tic­i­pate had signs in their win­dows and fly­ers near their reg­is­ters to make vis­i­ble the grow­ing move­ment. Many of Make the Road’s activists come from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, he says, and have expe­ri­ence in their home coun­tries’ labor move­ments, so the idea of a May Day action was quick­ly embraced.

Although the inter­na­tion­al day of work­ers’ cel­e­bra­tion and protest on the first of May orig­i­nat­ed in Chica­go in the 19th cen­tu­ry, for gen­er­a­tions since the Cold War, Amer­i­cans were more like­ly to asso­ciate the hol­i­day with Sovi­et mil­i­tary parades than with work­ers’ rights. What May Day events did get orga­nized were often small ral­lies for dozens of faith­ful dissidents.

Then, in 2006, May Day came roar­ing back with the first major Day With­out Immi­grants” strike. More than a mil­lion immi­grant work­ers and allies struck and staged major ral­lies to protest the last Repub­li­can president’s get tough” pos­tur­ing. May Day has been a day of activism and protest — some­times larg­er, some­times small­er — ever since.

As impor­tant as reviv­ing Inter­na­tion­al Work­ers’ Day is in the Unit­ed States, the actions of Reading’s shop­keep­ers con­tribute to some­thing even more essen­tial: reviv­ing the strike. Major work stop­pages, those involv­ing 1,000 or more work­ers, have declined by approx­i­mate­ly 90 per­cent over the past four decades, accord­ing to the fed­er­al Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics.

That peri­od has been marked by a sus­tained anti-union offen­sive by employ­ers. Begin­ning with the Phelps-Dodge strike in 1983, com­pa­nies dust­ed off an obscure Supreme Court prece­dent that gut­ted the legal right to strike by tak­ing away work­ers’ right to return to the job when the strike is over. Com­pa­nies hard-bar­gained over pay freezes and ben­e­fit reduc­tions, dared their unions to go out on strike and hired scabs to take the strik­ers’ jobs and vote the union out.

As a result, strikes today are seen by union lead­ers and mem­bers alike as very risky propo­si­tions, and job actions have declined accord­ing­ly. That is a prob­lem that com­pounds itself. Our great­est pow­er is still the work we do and our occa­sion­al refusal to do it. But if work­ers don’t see exam­ples of oth­er work­ers going on strike, what is going to get them think­ing about their pow­er and how to exer­cise it?

What are par­tic­u­lar­ly need­ed are exam­ples of work stop­pages that don’t look like tra­di­tion­al union strikes. The major­i­ty of Amer­i­can work­ers want to be in a union, but our rigged sys­tem makes win­ning a legal­ly cer­ti­fied bar­gain­ing unit damn near impos­si­ble. If the 90 per­cent or so of work­ers who don’t have a union are to protest to demand a bet­ter life, a strike is not going to look like bar­gain­ing to impasse, print­ing up pick­et signs and march­ing in a long line or a protest pen in front of a fac­to­ry. But it could look like Reading’s May Day gen­er­al strike.

Most of the busi­ness­es that closed — lunch coun­ters, small gro­cery stores, clean­ers — were sin­gle pro­pri­etor­ships or fam­i­ly busi­ness­es employ­ing less than five peo­ple. They don’t do bet­ter than work­ers who sell their labor in a tra­di­tion­al way,” says Make the Road’s Marin. Our nation’s labor laws don’t even treat most of them as employ­ees who have rights; many are treat­ed as employ­ers under the law. But they are work­ers and their strike is an exam­ple of a big­ger, broad­er labor move­ment that fights for more than just wages, hours and work­ing con­di­tions. A labor move­ment that stands up for the whole com­mu­ni­ty, with the whole com­mu­ni­ty, can inspire more work­ers to weigh and wield their pow­er. Let Read­ing be an example.

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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