Banish from your head those sepia newspaper photos of massed men in matching hats. Forget, for a moment, the bellow of the grand oratorical leader. May Day in New York City was not like 1912. Instead, picture if you can a swarm of flying pickets darting from the New York Times building to Disney to Wells Fargo Bank. Imagine the benches of Madison Square Park spilling over with teachers and students human-microphoning free college classes in the open air. At Union Square, people from the South Bronx–based Green Worker Cooperatives played a group board game, “Co-opoly,” on a blanket. Cheerful hoodie-wearers whizzed past on bikes.
“I’ve no idea what’s going on,” said Carmen, a unionized postal worker on her afternoon delivery rounds, “I’m working.” Detective Schultz of the Bronx Warrant Squad was working too: “My assignment was to follow that brass band…but I’m part of the 99 percent.”
Welcome to May Day in New York 2012. Chaotic, creative, inchoate, diffuse. Was it a glimpse of what post-industrial solidarity just might look like in the century ahead? Or another display of what remains, when organized worker power has been wiped out?
What’s next, or what’s left? It was both.
New York certainly wasn’t Madrid or Athens or Jakarta. In those and other cities, union leaders and their allies turned out hundreds of thousands of people on Tuesday to oppose austerity, demand decent wages and send a message to their politicians. In those cities, and in eighty other countries, May 1 is officially marked as International Workers Day. Not here. So it’s no small thing that this May 1 in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Chicago, New York and scores of other places, tens of thousands of Americans picketed businesses, blocked intersections, held teach-ins, sang and took to the streets.
Still, the crowd was pretty sparse soon after noon in Union Square. Cathy Lebowitz joined two women who—together—were holding up a tabletop display about solidarity economics. Lebowitz, a writer and an editor for an influential arts magazine, could do with some help. She hasn’t seen a pay raise in four years, yet her workload has quadrupled since 2008. The same was true for her entire office, she said. “Everyone feels at the limits of what they can do. We’re too tired to start a union. But here at least we can connect,” she said.
A new proletariat demands new organizing tactics, said Professor David Harvey. Harvey’s been teaching Karl Marx’s Capital for over forty years at the City University of New York. “Lenin talked about revolutions as festivals of the people,” he gestured at the crowd—behold a festival!
It was certainly closer to a festival than what some had called for, namely a general strike. With no base in a physical workplace, no organizing history or even many relationships with workers of the traditional sort, Occupy’s a long way from shutting down or seizing a plant. On the other hand, the labor movement’s not equipped to do that, either. After half a century of capital backlash, union membership stands at roughly 8 percent of the private workforce and collective bargaining in the public sector is under attack. “The labor movement doesn’t have the power it had in the 1930s, so we need another kind of power, not instead of it, but alongside of it,” said Harvey. Put another way, inventive, creative community coalitions are what remains in the wreckage of globalization, mechanization and the assault on labor rights.