May Day in times of pandemic, automation


A May 1, 2020 car caravan in Albany, NY called on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to #CancelRent. Photo: Rebeca Garrard.

by Tim W. Shenk, CUSLAR Coordinator

What does it mean to honor the legacy of organized workers around the world in a time of pandemic and automation?

When I lived in the Dominican Republic, May 1st was a big day. First of all, it was a national holiday. There was always a significant march led by organized workers and working-class parties. It was one consistent day each year when cane cutters and peasant farmers came together with domestic workers and construction workers to demonstrate class unity, demand decent wages and labor protections, as well as a host of other things necessary for working people to live. In almost every other country, it’s a similar landscape of flags, banners, chants and camaraderie.


May 1st, 2010 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Photo by the author.

Today in the U.S. as well, many are reclaiming International Workers’ Day as an unsanctioned day to raise our collective voice. Essential workers have coordinated massive sick-outs. Rent strikes are gaining momentum as millions simply can’t pay May. Car caravans have taken place all over the country, calling for government to use our public money to meet people’s needs.

We may not have a way to measure the full impact of today’s actions, but we can be fairly certain that big capital can win any particular battle it wants at this moment. Capital doesn’t have to give in to protest under the circumstances. This has been shown again with the recent COVID-19 legislation: the Federal Reserve loans and CARES Act gave trillions to big business but no permanent concessions or protections to workers.

Capital and its representatives in government have shown that they are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands before this is over, of American lives while shoring up the biggest corporations. That’s power: being able to carry out your agenda no matter how correct or convincing the arguments of your opposition. “There’s class warfare, all right,” billionaire Warren Buffett said a few years ago. “But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

We can probably agree that the rich class is winning nearly every battle these days. But are they winning the war? With every battle they win — with every tax break to the rich that steals money from social programs, with every labor law they eviscerate, with every massive medical bill they put in the mail — they hurl more people from the middle strata of society into the ranks of the poor.

Big capital may be swimming in money today, but the inhumane policies enacted today create the conditions for material unity of the growing mass of the poor and dispossessed tomorrow. More and more people will find that they have “little or nothing to lose,” as Rev. Dr. King said, by abandoning business as usual and fighting for fundamental shifts in how wealth is distributed.


#CancelRent car caravan protest in Albany, NY on May 1, 2020. Photo: Rebecca Garrard.

Before the current crisis began, there were 140 million people who were poor or low-income in the United States. Today, it is likely closer to 200 million poor in the U.S. This is the number of people who in 2019 reported that they couldn’t afford a $1,000 emergency without borrowing.

Worldwide, the situation looks dire as well. The International Labour Organisation estimated this week that nearly half of the global workforce stands “in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed.” The World Bank reports that we’re likely to see the sharpest decline in global remittances in recent history, slamming the Global South.
The 2008 bank bailout set us up to be woefully underprepared for the 2020 crisis, and the 2020 corporate blank check will set the stage for an even more catastrophic crisis after this one. There is no final collapse for capitalism, just a system that serves fewer and fewer people.

The pandemic will end, but the world will not go back to pre-COVID employment. Automation will continue to accelerate as businesses are required to keep making profit even as their human workforce is laid off or sick. Many jobs, as many as 20 million according to Oxford Economics, simply won’t exist to come back to after social distancing ends. As many as 40 percent of U.S. jobs will be severely impacted, paying less or coming with fewer benefits.


#CancelRent car caravan protest in Albany, NY on May 1, 2020. Photo: Rebecca Garrard.

Workers can’t control the macro developments of capital, because we’re not in charge of the economy or the government. What we can control is how we organize, educate and take care of each other. Our biggest victories will be standing up for each other through thick and thin and becoming impervious to the manipulations and confusions that have historically divided our class.

In an election year, it’s a common encouragement for everyone to vote because people before us fought and died for that right. Similarly, on International Workers’ Day, may we also remember those who fought and died for the right to organize our class to end the wage labor system. And even when it’s unsanctioned by the courts, may we continue to adhere to the higher law of human dignity, consecrated by our holy texts.

We are all precious in the eyes of the Divine and in each other’s eyes, and we all have the right to live and thrive.


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