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.
New sorts of mobilizations are a plus, said Michael Kink, one of the organizers of a (much bigger) Labor and Community rally in support of Occupy Wall Street, last October 5. “Many of us could see from day one that big labor could benefit from Occupy’s dynamism and Occupy needed organized labor’s heft,” said Kink. May Day was the same coalition’s second time out, this time with immigrants’ rights groups also in the mix. “I like to think this is more creative, and less rigid [than the old workplace-based organizing model]. With more diversity, more people have a way in,” said Kink.
Over at the Free University, Melissa Trujillo, a student at Marymount Manhattan College, probably never considered herself part of a “new proletariat” but she was attending what she said was her first protest. A sophomore, she’s already carrying $12,000 in debt. “I’ll have to deal with it sooner or later,” she said.
Hunter College political science professor Ros Petchesky compared today’s debt-laden students to nineteenth-century textile workers. “They’re forced to pay for the education that’s needed for production, just as the textile workers were forced to pay for their sewing machines.” said Petchesky. Collectively, student debt last month hit $1 trillion in the United States and talk of a student debt repayment strike has been buzzing about. But a student like Trujillo probably couldn’t default without risking her parents’ assets. Charming as it was to see social movement historian Frances Fox Piven and former political prisoner Laura Whitehorn, lecturing to large, rapt crowds in the sunshine, the free university was a long way from becoming a force that could keep a family safe from debtor’s court.
Maybe that’s what’s next. Asked what he wanted to see come of the May Day rally, Wilfredo Larancuent, a local vice president of Unite/Here, said he was looking for some permanent new labor/community structures. Organized the traditional way (trained on policy goals and electing a Democrat for president), “Labor has not gotten even a portion of what labor has been promised. We can wait to be decimated entirely or we can do something,” said Larancuent.
As they prepared for the day’s culminating march south, immigrants’ rights groups took their places in leadership. At the head of the rally drove the ingenious Taxi Workers Alliance in their taxis, with “Stop Greed” flyers plastered over the roof-top ads. Immigrants’ rights groups were the first to revive the May Day holiday in the United States. Since 2006, they have marched every May 1 to immigration headquarters (Federal Plaza in Manhattan), demanding things like comprehensive immigration reform and the passage of the Dream Act. This year, the destination (for no clear reason), was Bowling Green, at the southern most tip of the island. There were fewer national flags and way—way—fewer Latinos marched. “Undocumented but Unafraid,” the signature banner of the marches of the last few years, was visible—but only a handful of people were walking under it.
Asked if she worried about the relative fuzziness of the message, Karen Del Aguila, founder of a group working for sustainable development in Guatemala, told me that after the failure of Congress to pass the Dream Act, and looking at the Obama administration’s escalation of family separations and deportations, “My faith has gone down in politicians and legislation… We need to look somewhere else. My hope goes now to the masses.”
The diverse May Day organizers had agreed on an “official” platform: “Legalize, Unionize, Organize.” In twelve hours of talking to revelers, I heard not one person refer to it. I did hear, repeated in myriad ways, a clear, but different, message. A banner that caught my eye just before I called it a day summed up that sentiment well: We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.