May Day for workers and the vast army of the unemployed

Pearl River    May Day traditionally has been marked around the world with workers marching under the banners of their unions and labor-friendly political parties. In the USA, Labor Day marks the end of the summer, rather than the advent of spring, which has been celebrated since pagan times and has now been converted into a day for workers. The problem this year is how to celebrate a workers’ day when so many are not working, are unemployed, or furloughed, while others are either working, if fortunate, from home, or classified as essential and under tremendous stress and risk as they serve their communities.

In the USA, if we were marching today, the biggest footfalls would be heard from the vast army of the unemployed. In six weeks more than thirty million workers have filed for unemployment. Scandalously, estimates from economists with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington note that almost 50% more are unemployed and still trying to either access benefits or have given up. The simple math would count forty-five million as unemployed. With 157 million workers in the USA, that would mean that right now the statistical unemployment rate is 28.6%, and likely higher. When you’re talking about almost a third of America’s workers idled, if they were to hit the streets on this, or any, May Day, we would see huge social change overnight.

Sure, that’s not happening, but the impact of Great Depression level unemployment is not going to allow business or government to turn back the clock to January this year when unemployment was less than 4% and from Wall Street to the White House they were patting themselves on their backs, oblivious to those left out and the fragility of their deck of cards. What are workers able to celebrate? A stimulus check that might still be in the pipeline and an unemployment check and a weekly $600 bump that half of them have not been able to access? The fact that for many their rent or mortgage payments might also be coming due on May Day also sucks the air out of any celebration.

None of this is a surprise. The Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond issued a report in March that was clear the virus would hit us hard and it would hit us unequally, particularly for those already “financially distressed” and in public-facing sectors.

Can workers in the US celebrate the strengths of their unions? Yes, if they are lucky enough to have one in this period when the decline of the labor movement continues unabated. The percentage of workers belonging to a union in the United States (or total labor union “density”) was 10.3%, compared to 20.1% in 1983. Union membership in the private sector has fallen to 6.2%, one fifth that of public sector workers, at 33.6%. That’s almost the definition of a one-car funeral.

The good news is that there continues to be strength in numbers. It isn’t true that workers rise up in terrible economic times, but it is true that the pure scale of the pain for labor now does mean that workers, their families, and their communities can no longer continue to be ignored. That’s something to celebrate a little through the tears in our eyes and the rage burning in our hearts.


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