On May Day, a Precarious Union of Interests

One of many posters for May Day 2012. This poster, created by artist Rich Black, calls on people to take to the streets on May 1, either in permitted marches or general strike actions. Image courtesy of Occuprint.

On May Day, the traditional workers holiday that falls on May 1, the Occupy movement will join hundreds of unions, immigrants rights and grassroots organizations and untold number of participants in New York City’s streets under the banner, “legalize, unionize and organize.” As the momentous date approaches, there is still some confusion and friction both inside and outside the May Day 2012 movement.

The main source of friction comes from the general strike that many Occupy activists will participate in on May Day. The general strike (“No work, no school, no shopping, no banking”) was first called for by Occupy Los Angeles last December. It has dominated the media conversation surrounding this year’s May Day celebration, yet labor unions cannot legally endorse a general strike, and most undocumented immigrant workers are situated too precariously to give up a day of work or participate in an unlawful assembly.

Over the course of May 1, Occupy activists are also expected to join over dozens of union picket lines throughout the city, and then activists and union groups will join immigrant workers in a permitted march down Broadway from Union Square to Wall Street, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Their combined goal is to do what the Occupy movement has not truly been able to do: unite the whole 99 percent. But bringing together the interests of young radicals, organized labor and immigrant workers has required months of difficult planning, and still has many organizers nervous as they ponder a range of possible bad — very bad for the undocumented — scenarios involving the NYPD.

“The hope is that this is a historic coming together of different groups with different motivations,” said Jackie Vimo, director of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, a 25-year-old organization that advocates for government policies that support undocumented immigrants, and has helped organize this year’s permitted May Day march.

A very short history lesson

While May Day began with organized labor, the immigrant rights movement reinvigorated its observation in the United States, beginning in 2006 with the sweeping “Day Without an Immigrant” protests. But May Day has a great deal of historical significance for all groups taking part in this year’s events.

May Day was declared a national workers holiday in 1886, a year of mass strikes nationwide, many of which were devoted to the creation of an eight-hour day. Although May Day is widely celebrated around the world, the celebration became less significant for American labor after a series of legislative blows in 1946. The most prominent of these 1946 laws was the the Taft-Hartley Act, which criminalized general strikes, the last of which happened earlier that year in Oakland, California. But just last year, the labor movement officially got back in on the action, when many unions joined the immigrant activists and endorsed “A Day Without Workers.”

“The labor council, which has always been a very conservative body, but has new leadership, they’re publicizing [May Day] and that’s a total transformation,” said Jackie DiSalvo, a member of CUNY’s faculty union, and who organized Occupy Wall Street’s Labor Outreach Committee.

Liao Revilla, of Mexico, participates in a rally for immigration rights in Union Square for the nationwide 'Day Without Immigrants' protest, Monday, May 1, 2006. Small businesses were closed in some parts of the city, and suburban worksites normally crowded with day laborers remained empty, as New Yorkers took part in a day of economic protest by illegal immigrants and their allies. AP Photo/Shiho Fukada

A coalition of old and new forces

For the past few months, Vimo and DiSalvo have been involved in organizing “4×4” meetings, where representatives from labor unions, Occupy Wall Street, immigrant rights organizations and the May 1 Coalition — the group planning the permitted rallies and march from Union Square to Wall Street — have been figuring out how to make a big noise while minimizing the risk of arrest for those in the permitted marches.

The day will begin early in Bryant Park, where people will gather — without a permit — from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.. The midtown park will serve as a staging ground for a wide variety of teach-ins, music performances, workshops and public art.

Meanwhile, Occupy University will be hold six classes in Madison Square Park from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., including “Occupy Algebra” and “Poetry and Political Feeling.” On the arts side, art is given broad interpretation.

“Mutual aid is the goal, so you’re going to see a lot of creative disruption, bands of elves, acrobats descending from buildings,” said Aaron Bornstein, a participant in the May 1 Arts Cluster. “Join us, this is going to be beautiful. We’ll start in Bryant Park, then moving through the park and funneling out into the 99 Pickets.”

The 99 Pickets Campaign, organized by labor unions, will picket various corporate headquarters in the city between the hours of  8 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Other demonstrations will take place all over the city. For instance, the students of Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn plan to stage a walkout strike against school closures and budget cuts.

At 2 p.m., those in Bryant Park will follow a permitted march to Union Square, where more demonstrations and workshops will occur. The union square gathering is permitted by the city. Tom Morello from the band Rage Against the Machine will lead many — the goal is 1,000 — guitarists in song, and musical performances by Das Racist, Dan Deacon, Immortal Technique, Bobby Sanabria and other artists  are scheduled. At 5:30 p.m., Occupy, labor and immigrant and community organizations will march together from Union Square, down Broadway and finally to Wall Street, where organizers have been allotted 15 minutes for speeches.


On April 17, students at Paul Robeson High School announced their plan to answer Occupy’s call for a general strike, and walkout of school on May 1. Youtube/OccupyWallStreetNYC

The 15th-17th street blocks west of Union Square are also permitted for public gathering on May 1. “4×4’s” logistics working group decided that if Union Square reaches capacity before the march begins, the May 1 Coalition will gather at 15th Street, Occupy at 16th Street and organized labor at 17th Street — a metaphorical expression of the sort of hesitant solidarity that pervades May Day in 2012.

General strikers and precarious workers

Throughout the day, general strikers will be involved in other, activities, both legal and illegal. The just-announced “Wildcat Strike” march scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. at Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on the Lower East Side is unpermitted. Even Occupy’s press office clarified that those organizing the Wildcat march are an independent group. That’s where many of veteran organizers’ concerns come into play.

At the last “4×4” meeting on April 23 at the headquarters of SEIU 1199, Chris Silvera, secretary treasurer of the Teamsters Local 808, made it clear: “I’ll be honest. A lot of unions are scared of this,” referring to the collaboration with the Occupy movement.

There’s been a call from within the general strike movement to blockade New York City bridges, tunnels and ferries, too. A spokesperson for the MTA told MetroFocus, “Right now, the only thing we know is what we’re reading on the Internet. We’re consulting with NYPD.”

The NYPD did not return a requested comment to MetroFocus.

Most organizers are convinced that they’ve carefully planned things in such a way that their members will not be threatened with arrest, while still benefiting from the energy of the Occupiers — many of whom will almost certainly be arrested during unpermitted marches. Occupy has been holding weekly “spring training” sessions in Union Square, with an eye honed on May Day, since  March 23.

In 1946, the largest general strike in U.S. history took place in Oakland. The strike effectively shut the city down for nearly three days, but passage of the Taft-Hartley Act later that year prevented labor unions from participating in general strikes. Photo courtesy of Spectre Group.

“It’s always hard to say how things will play out,” said Daniel Gross, executive director of the Brandworkers International, a nonprofit — not a labor union — that was formed in 2007 to help traditionally unorganized workers organize themselves in the fight for better wages and conditions. It is an innovative model that has lead a number of successful campaigns.

“I suspect most immigrant workers, especially those with status questions, will participate in the permitted events,” Gross added.

Brandworkers has been working for months with Occupy’s Immigrant Justice Working Group to figure out how to include undocumented immigrants, like many of the Brandworkers’ members, without endangering them. To clarify the difference between the permitted and non-permitted May Day activities, the May 1 Coalition will hold a press conference this Thursday at 4 p.m. in Union Square.

Over the winter, many groups within the Occupy movement actually did dedicate themselves to organizing what are often referred to as precarious workers — traditionally unorganized sectors that include everyone from college grads working retail jobs to immigrant service workers. One of the largest examples of these efforts is the campaign being lead by Strand Bookstore workers, in collaboration with the Occupy Your Workplace working group.

But DiSalvo, who has worked unions since the 1960s, questions some of Occupy’s precarious worker groups, like the website Strike Everywhere, which has advertised two assemblies for precarious workers, the general strike and a blockade of New York City bridges, bridges and ferries on May Day.

“In the Strike Everywhere website there’s a connection to the sessions that have been going on. But I don’t think they have a lot of experience and they haven’t studied the history,” said DiSalvo, who added, “Those of us who had any connection to unions knew that workers were not going to strike. But a lot of people like myself said, ‘Well, let them try, more power to them.’ So we came to a compromise that some people can strike if they want and others won’t.”

You need to look at a broad working class movement that can take on the most powerful forces in history.

Almost nobody is expecting the kind of historical general strike where workers across the city take to the streets or take over their workplaces. But in essence, many people who will not be participating in the general strike actions admire the most radical activists, even see them as necessary to build momentum. But there’s a back-of-the-mind fear that something could happen like in Oakland on November 3, 2011. Following  Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike, protesters temporarily shut down the Port of Oakland. Afterward, a small group of protesters destroyed property, eliciting a crushing response from the police.

Bringing out the invisible worker

Those who won’t strike, like Wilfredo Laurencant, manager of the Unite Here! Laundry, Dry Cleaning and Allied Workers joint board, plan to march in hopes that the least visible workers adopt a leading role in the movement for the 99 percent.

“New York has multiple layers, socially and in our economy. And what we’re seeing here is immigrant workers coming to the forefront of this “4×4″ organizing. New York has an underground economy which is incredibly big and strong,” said Laurencant.

But for those like Daniel Gross, who understand the need for the long-term strategizing of the labor movement, but are excited by the renewed wave of radicalism in New York and cities around the world, the partnership between old and new models of activism presents a new horizon of opportunity.

“The level of collaboration and intensity in the immigrant worker movement is the highest I’ve ever seen it,” said Gross. “You need to look at a broad working class movement that can take on the most powerful forces in history. But you can’t forget that to have the durability to fight and win we’re going to need organized solidarity across all sectors of work.”

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