In the streets for May Day

May 3, 2012

Gary Lapon and Alan Maass round up May Day reports from around the country.

MAY DAY--the international workers' holiday with its origins in the struggles of the U.S. labor movement more than a century ago--was marked by demonstrations and events in cities around the country this year.

The biggest single demonstration was in New York City, where as many as 30,000 people came out to a rally and march to Wall Street. But there were other actions in New York--and in cities around the country, people came together in their hundreds and thousands, surpassing the expectations of organizers in a number of cases.

This year was the largest mobilization for May Day since the hey day of the immigrant rights mega-marches starting in 2006. Immigrant rights and labor groups were in the thick of the organizing, but so were activists from the Occupy movement of last fall, who looked to May 1 as an opportunity to reassert the message of the 99 percent against the greed, power and corruption of the 1 percent.

That the Occupy movement, like many other struggles before it, looked to May Day as a celebration of solidarity is a signal of the depths of the radicalization. Whatever the size of the demonstrations, they represented an attempt to connect the organizing of today to the rich history of working-class struggle in the U.S.

Labor, Occupy and immigrant rights activists join in a mass march in New York City on May Day
Labor, Occupy and immigrant rights activists join in a mass march in New York City on May Day

Of course, May Day was preceded by calls for a general strike of the U.S. working class and mass, nationwide consumer boycotts, but few people expected anything like that to happen. Almost everywhere, activists were happy to report stronger-than-expected turnouts for marches and rallies.

Predictably, the corporate media focused on confrontations between police and demonstrators in a handful of cities. Unfortunately, as has become increasingly clear over this year, a section of the Occupy movement has drifted toward a strategy that seeks a face-off with police and the threat of mass arrest, even when there is no potential of mobilizing the much wider layers of support that the Occupy struggle enjoyed last fall at its height.

The May Day demonstrations this year show the potential for taking new steps forward--crucially, with the renewed connections between unions, immigrant rights organizations and Occupy. The question for activists now has to be how we can deepen these ties and take new steps to broaden participation in the effort to build a left alternative to the world of the 1 percent.

In New York City, as many as 30,000 people gathered in Union Square on May 1 for the May Day 2012 Solidarity Rally and March to Wall Street. The event was the high point of a day of struggle to mark International Workers' Day and a test for Occupy Wall Street after a relative lull over the winter months.

The day began in the early morning rain in Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, a staging area of sorts for protesters to meet before heading off to other events.

There were "99 Pickets" actions, including pickets at the Bank of America Tower, Chase bank headquarters and others. In addition to the banks, picket lines were organized to support of different groups of workers, including those demanding a decent contract at the Strand bookstore, protesting the mistreatment of workers at Hot & Crusty restaurants, and standing against the closure of post offices.

Some of the larger events during the day included the Immigrant Worker Justice Tour, a march of over 500 that made several stops, including at Wells Fargo to protest the bank's investment in Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group, which profit off the detention of immigrants.

The march also stopped by the Chipotle restaurant near Bryant Park in solidarity with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is trying to pressure the chain to require higher pay and better conditions for Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes.

Outside the Federal Building in Lower Manhattan, which houses the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, some 250 people gathered to protest the criminalization of immigrant workers. The picket, organized by Break the Chains, demanded an end to attacks on all workers organizing for their rights, the freedom to file complaint with government agencies without fear of retribution, and abolition of sanctions against employers for employing undocumented workers.

"We felt on this May Day we want to call out to workers--both immigrant and native born--to unite and come together, not just in word, but with a common demand," organizer Sarah Ahn said in an interview. "All workers, regardless of immigration status, have the right to file complaints with the government and organize."

Another highlight was guitarist Tom Morello, the "Nightwatchman," formerly of Rage Against the Machine, who led a "Guitarmy" march of hundreds of musicians from Bryant Park to Union Square. At Madison Square Park, at least 200 participated in a "Free University," with classes from colleges and universities from throughout the city taught in the park.

A few people were arrested throughout the day, including arrests at the "wildcat march" of over 200 people clad in black masks and hoodies, who took to the streets in lower Manhattan, throwing trash cans and traffic cones.

In New York, as in other cities, the media focused on these confrontations with police. But for activists, the May Day events demonstrated that Occupy Wall Street still has the potential to mobilize significant numbers.

That potential, even broader than Occupy, was clear at the afternoon solidarity march and rally. The 30,000 union members, unorganized workers, immigrants, Occupy activists, socialists, anarchists, radicals, students and youth who gathered in Union Square to listen to speeches and march on Wall Street showed the potential to build a real movement of, for and by the 99 percent.

The march was organized by the Alliance for Labor Rights, Immigrant Rights, Jobs for All; the May 1st Coalition for Immigrant and Worker Rights, immigrant and community groups, and Occupy Wall Street. With endorsements from dozens of union locals, among other groups, the march most of all succeeded in bringing together immigrants--whose mega-marches in 2006 reintroduced May Day as a day of mass action in the U.S.--and organized labor.

In recent years, immigrant rights groups and labor in New York City have held separate rallies, so it was a step forward that they marched together this year.

Some of the largest union turnouts came from the Laborers union and Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents workers in New York's mass transit system and was the first union to publicly support Occupy Wall Street.

Sandra, an immigrant from Grenada, was there with Families for Freedom. She said the group is "an organization that supports families who are facing deportation. A couple years ago, my son was picked up by Homeland Security and was facing deportation...It's because of Families for Freedom that my son was released." Sandra continued, "It's important for us to be out here to support each other, and for us to get freedom."

Constancia Romilly, a retired nurse from Bellevue Hospital with the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), attended the rally with members of her union. She said, "The rich people are destroying our health care...we all have to be out here if you're part of the working class, if you're a teacher, a nurse, a construction worker. Today is May Day, we're all supposed to be out here."

Roberto Rodriguez, a retired postal worker, said that "the attack on the postal services is an example of the attack on so many public services. It's public schools versus charters, and now it's the public postal service versus the privatization of its activities."

Janice Walcott of Communications Workers of America Local 1180 attended the protest to stand up against the attack on women. "We're here to protest what's going on with women's rights, as far as birth control and what have you," she said, "and to let the mayor know we're against a lot of the things he's doing."

Ahmad Jarara, Joseph Baez and Gabriel Silver of Brooklyn Tech High School, attended the rally in Union Square. Their school, along with Paul Robeson High School in Brooklyn, held walkouts for May Day, and in support of Tamon Robinson, a 27-year-old Black man who was a barista at a Connecticut Muffin store next to Brooklyn Tech in Fort Greene. Robinson was run over by an NYPD cruiser last month and died from his injuries. Police allegedly handcuffed a comatose Robinson to a hospital bed and denied his family access. Minor charges against him, which involved claims that Robinson stole paving stones, were dropped before he passed away April 18.

When the tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets, the march at one point stretched all the way from Union Square to Canal Street, a distance of nearly 1.5 miles. The march passed Zucotti Park, the original site of Occupy Wall Street, which was cordoned off by barricades and dozens of police officers.

Hip-hop artist and Brooklyn native Yasiin Bey, also known as Mos Def, was on the march. "There are a lot of artists here in support, cause we're human beings," he said. "We thrive off one another's happiness and success, and prosperity and peace and not each other's misery, and a system that proposes that the only way to get ahead is to crush other people, or to make other people small so you can feel big, is anti-human."

He also spoke about recent police murders of Black men, including Ramarley Graham, the unarmed 18-year-old shot and killed by police in the Bronx just a two months ago: "There are so many, so many, Ramarley Graham, Trayvon Martin...let alone the hundreds and hundreds of youth unfairly imprisoned, tried as adults across the country."

Asked about the May Day protest, he said, "It's timely. It's not an isolated thing, it's happening all over the world...the world is smaller than it's ever been these days."

In Seattle, thousands of people took to the streets on May Day for a full day of actions and events.

The biggest demonstration was during the evening rush hour commute, when more than 5,000 people marched and rallied for immigrant and worker rights, despite rain showers. The diverse, multiracial and multi-generational crowd chanted against ICE raids and the federal E-verify system while demanding educational opportunities and better working conditions. Occupy chants against inequality and the greed and corruption of banks and the 1 percent were also popular.

Throughout the day, Occupy Seattle held a hip-hop showcase and rallies at Westlake Park downtown as part of the May Day "general strike." About 500 mostly young protesters took part, with student walkouts from Seattle Central Community College and a few local high schools swelling the numbers. From Westlake, several marches left at different points during the day.

Unfortunately, the broad mass immigration and labor march was overshadowed in the media and public awareness by clashes between protesters and the police during demonstrations earlier in the day.

A lunchtime anti-capitalist march of a few hundred wound through downtown, chanting "Hella hella Occupy, the system has got to die." Several dozen Black Bloc anarchists painted graffiti, slashed car tires and smashed windows at numerous stores, banks and a federal courthouse. Police responded with tear gas, pepper spray and batons as demonstrators ran back to Westlake, and the anarchists stripped off their black clothing and masks.

Following the noon march, Mayor Mike McGinn ordered police to use "swift and aggressive" force in response to "unruly" protesters, and banned any protest signs, sticks, and flags that could be used as "weapons." Many stores and businesses downtown closed early and boarded up their windows. In all, fewer than a dozen demonstrators were arrested, some charged with felony assault of police.

During a subsequent march against police brutality and racism, protesters clashed with police near Pike Place Market and Westlake as they tried to block intersections.

In Oakland, Calif., there were numerous demonstrations and events to mark International Workers Day.

The mainstream media's coverage of May Day focused on the battles between police and demonstrators who seemed ready to provoke a confrontation. There was much less coverage for what was by far the largest demonstration in the city and the Bay Area as a whole--a march starting in the afternoon in the immigrant neighborhood of Fruitvale and ending downtown for an evening rally. The speakers' list for the rally ranged from immigrant rights activists to hip-hop artist Boots Riley of The Coup to Oakland homeowners fighting against foreclosures on their homes.

The march was organized by a coalition of immigrant rights groups and Occupy and other activists, and was led by a banner declaring "Dignity and Resistance." The crowd grew to around 4,000.

The march was led by workers from the Pacific Steel Company in Berkeley and other immigrant workers. Union members at Pacific Steel have been fired due to the company's voluntary implementation of e-Verify, and have been fighting to regain their jobs. They have been in the forefront of the planning of this march and other struggles since the beginning of the year. Many other unions took part in this year's annual march.

Organizers attempted to reach out to undocumented workers and Latino families. The big turnout showed that the immigrant rights movement, though reeling from the heightened attacks in Arizona and elsewhere, is still alive. Muteado, a Latino activist, stated: "I'm here to protest and demand...that there needs to be change in immigration reform. My ancestors, my people, have been migrating through the Americas for centuries. These borders were created to criminalize our people."

Marchers know only too well that the economic recession has hit immigrant communities and communities of color the hardest. "I've been unemployed for a year," said Ricardo of the Street Level Health Project, an organization which provides health care for impoverished people in Latino communities. "There are few jobs available, and wages have gone down a lot. You need $15 an hour to survive in the Bay Area--we're getting $8.50 and doing outreach in those communities and to migrant workers and day laborers."

Also joining the march was the Million Hoodie and Hijab contingent, in solidarity with victims of racist murders, particularly Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi. Participants wore notes pinned to their sleeves asking, "Does this hijab make me look suspicious?"

Earlier in the day, activists gathered downtown for actions that quickly devolved into running confrontations with police. The Oakland cops were again quick to lash out, having mobilized other law enforcement around the area to be part of the May Day operation. Several personnel from he Alameda County Sheriff's Department spent the day driving a tank, provided by the Department of Homeland Security, around the streets of Oakland. Yes, you read that right: a tank.

The battles with police escalated in the evening after the main rallies and marches of the day were over. As many as 1,000 demonstrators remained in the downtown area around the former encampment site of Occupy Oakland. When police issued a dispersal order, according to reports, a group of several hundred demonstrators, equipped with homemade shields, faced off with police, who fired tear gas and other weapons. At least 25 people were arrested over the course of the day.

In the Bay Area, hundreds of nurses participated in pickets on May Day during a one-day strike against Sutter Health hospitals. The nurses, represented by the California Nurses Association and National Nurses United, have been fighting for a fair contract with Sutter Health for over a year.

Since June 2011, Sutter Health has been unwavering in its drive to cut benefits and standards. Management has demanded over 100 concessions from the union, including eliminating paid sick leave for nurses, thousands of dollars a year in additional out-of-pocket costs for health care, reduced maternity leave, and elimination of health coverage for nurses who work less than 30 hours a week.

"This is the third time we've had a one day strike," said nurse Grace McGuiness. "We're fighting, and every time we do a strike, the company locks us out for a few days." This time, Sutter announced it would not allow the nurses to return to work until Sunday, May 6.

"It shows that they don't care," said Lisa, also a Sutter nurse. "Last time, they locked us out, a patient died because they would not allow us to return to work to take care of our patients."

Many on the picket line talked about the significance of striking on International Workers Day, pointing out a rich history of labor struggles and the need to continue the fight around the issues driving the health care crisis today. Millicent Borland, a nurse on the bargaining team, commented, "I'm here today because in nonunion hospitals, many nurses have [as many as 10 patients they must take care of]. Here at Sutter, we have [a ratio of one nurse to four or five patients] because of the union. I don't want the young nurses that come behind me to be worse off than I had it. We must fight."

In San Francisco, International Workers Day began bright and early with Golden Gate ferry workers picketing at the Larkspur and San Francisco ferry terminal, starting from 5:30 a.m.

The May Day strike was called earlier in the week by the Inlandboatmen's Union and was supported by the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition, comprised of various unions that represent 380 bridge, bus and ferry workers. Members of this coalition have been without a contract for over a year and are demanding a fair contract, including decent health care coverage.

Ferry workers are also fighting for their jobs as management tries to replace ferry worker assistants. Rene Alvarado, a terminal assistant at the Larkspur Ferry Terminal and member of the Inlandboatmen's Union, said in a press release, "Since they laid off the ticket agents, our work has quadrupled. We don't want management to lay us off, too. Everyone knows it's better to have a human being helping passengers than a machine.

Ferry service was essentially shut down until 2 p.m. To further escalate the fight for a fair contract, bus workers from Teamsters Local 665 said they would be going on strike in early May.

Labor protested the day before May Day as well. Inspired by the Capitol occupation in Madison, Wis., last year, more than 300 members of SEIU Local 1021 occupied City Hall to demand a fair contract and no increases on health care costs. The rotunda was decorated with beautiful handmade signs, each one sending a message to Mayor Ed Lee, "Downtown greed or the city we need."

Though the City Hall occupation did not turn into an overnight occupation, SEIU 1021 members were confident they delivered their message loud and clear.

On May Day itself, the action continued with a 10 a.m. march in the Mission, a well-known area in San Francisco with a large Latino and immigrant community. More than 200 people marched from 24th and Mission to 16th and Mission, where they took over the intersection and held a street theater, with different skits around issues the community faces on a daily basis.

After the march in the Mission, May Day participants made their way to Westfield Mall at around 11 a.m. to support the janitors of SEIU Local 87, who held a rally and a banner drop to highlight their ongoing dispute with building management. SEIU Local 87 and supporters picketed outside of Westfield Mall until around noon, when May Day demonstrators moved ahead to the financial district.

The noon protest was the biggest convergence of the day--hundreds of people took over the Montgomery and Market intersection and held a People's Street Festival to celebrate International Workers Day. People listened to music and speeches, and painted a mural on the street.

After the People's Street Festival, many people headed across the bay to a regional march in Oakland. Several hundred activists occupied a vacant building owned by the archdiocese of the Catholic Church. The building was previously taken over by Occupy activists. According to police accounts, two people on adjoining rooftops threw rocks and pipes onto police and other people gathered outside the occupied building. Police moved in before dawn to clear the building, arresting 26 people.

In Portland, Ore., activists were up early to celebrate International Workers' Day. Hours before the main march and rally for immigrant and workers rights had set up, hundreds of students assembled at the Portland Public School District Office to protest planned cuts to education. They took over streets, bridges and finally the rotunda in front of City Hall. Mayor Sam Adams made an appearance to address the students, thanking them for their protest and opening City Hall for small groups to use the facilities.

On the other side of town, hundreds more marched through the streets of North and Northeast Portland, a historically African American part of town which has been hit hard by the banksters' financial crisis.

Around 450 people participated in an action organized by the Occupy N/NE "Black Working Group," We Are Oregon and the Portland Liberation Organizing Council with the aim of defending Alicia Jackson as she moved back into her foreclosed home. After 45 minutes of rallying at Woodlawn Park, we marched in the streets for several blocks to Alicia's house.

The property had previously been illegally claimed by Wells Fargo, but after a year of vacancy, demonstrators cut a ribbon was cut, and the front door was opened to move the rightful residents back inside. A large group sang and danced around a May Pole made with red and black ribbons tied to the top of the sign advertising the property for rent. Volunteers moved Alicia's stuff out of vans, while others worked on cleaning up the inside of the house, and even more volunteers tore out the overgrowth in her back yard in order to build a garden.

The whole event resembled a neighborhood block party as folks stood in the street, laughing, eating donated food, talking politics, throwing foam balls to each other and generally celebrating the process of building community support networks for those facing eviction from foreclosure. The protest was the result of several weeks of activism leading up to May Day, with We Are Oregon going door to door on the blocks surrounding Alicia's home to build support.

Meanwhile, the main May Day demonstration, an annual event in this city, a crowd estimated at 2,000 people by the media marched through the streets in a demonstration for immigrant rights and jobs.

In Chicago, more than 3,000 people turned out for Chicago's May Day demonstration. The day's main march began with a rally at Union Park west of downtown, paused for a moment of silence in the middle of an intersection near what was once Haymarket Square, and concluded with a rally at Federal Plaza.

The march brought together immigrant rights groups, unions and Occupy Chicago in an inspiring display of solidarity in defense of workers' rights. Popular chants included, "Money for jobs and education, not for racist deportation," "How do we fix the deficit? End the wars, tax the rich!" and "Hey Rahm Emanuel, take your cuts, and go to hell!"

The march was generationally and racially diverse, with veteran activists marching alongside young people who've become active through Occupy Chicago. As the march approached the former site of Haymarket Square--the best-known symbol today of the eight-hour day struggle in 1886 that gave rise to Intenrational Workers Day--the entire crowd took a knee to pay their respects to everyone who paid with their lives in the struggle.

Along with immigrant rights and Occupy activists, the rally had the backing of several key unions, including UNITE HERE, Workers United, Teamsters Local 705 and the Chicago Teachers Union. Several unions sent small but visible contingents, including United Auto Workers Local 551, which represents workers at the Ford assembly plant on Chicago's South Side.

During the march, some 80 black-clad protesters made an attempt to take control at the front of the protest, chanting, "From Chicago to Greece, fuck the police!" and setting off firecrackers. But despite some tense moments, the march marshals gained control and maintained the ranks of the protest, heading off a confrontation with police that could have endangered undocumented workers on the march.

In Boston, despite pouring rain, over 1,000 people marched for immigrant rights in a demonstration that began in East Boston and marched through Chelsea to Everett--all parts of the city with the highest concentration of immigrants from Latin America.

Across the harbor, a smaller number of Occupy Boston protesters marched through the financial district and rallied at City Hall. "Today, I'm hoping just to get people aware of what May Day is, get people aware that there is an issue in this country and that they can do something about it," said Emerson College student Suzi Pietroluongo.

In Montpelier, Vt., more than 1,000 Vermonters came out to the annual Vermont Workers' Center May Day March and Rally. This year's actions drew together participants from dozens of groups--local unions and anti-sexist groups, climate justice organizations and immigrant rights organizers, leftists, anti-student debt campaigners and occupiers.

The most inspiring chants came from the Justica Migrante contingent, which filled the streets of Vermont's tiny capital city with the call "El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido!" This coalition of immigrant workers, the marginalized backbone of the profitable Vermont dairy industry, has been struggling for the right of immigrants to obtain drivers licenses in this rural state. It was an important reminder that the struggle for immigrant rights extends to every corner of the U.S.

Also present were members of local postal workers unions. One worker, John, expressed cautious optimism that recent developments in Congress could stave off draconian cuts. But more inspiring to him were postal workers themselves, who, supported by their communities, organized and demonstrated against plans to dismantle the post office.

In Rochester, N.Y., members of Occupy Rochester, the Rochester Labor Council (AFL-CIO), local unions and many local activists came out for a daylong celebration of International Workers Day. More than 100 people participated throughout the day in two separate rallies, a three-hour block of workshops and an evening picnic.

A noon rally outside Rochester City Hall demanded a living wage for all workers, a rise in the national minimum wage and a defense of public sector workers. Midday workshops, 10 in all, highlighted the history of May Day, immigrant rights, the history of the sit-down strike, and housing rights, among others. The 5 p.m. rally at the Liberty Pole in the middle of downtown featured the president of the Rochester Labor Council Jim Bertolone. The evening picnic had food provided by Occupy Rochester, labor songs and several performances of spoken word.

In Pittsburgh, around 200 people rallied in the Hill District and then followed up with a spirited march through downtown to decry high health care costs, cuts to mass transit, police brutality, economic disparities and other issues.

The march stopped at the Consol Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Speakers revealed how the hockey team got sweetheart deals by schmoozing politicians at the expense of the people. The next stop was the headquarters of health care giant UPMC, where speakers described the crisis of the health care system and the need to organize for universal coverage. Then it was off to PNC Plaza, near the office of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett--better known to protesters as "Tom Corporate."

Along the way, police attempted to keep the crowd on the sidewalk, but gave up as marchers repeatedly took to the streets. The police finally obliged and blocked traffic for the protesters at key intersections.

A coalition of groups helped to organize the march, including Occupy Pittsburgh, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, the Thomas Merton Center, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, the Workers International League, and the ISO.

In Austin, Texas, nearly two hundred people gathered in front of the Capitol building to celebrate May Day. Speakers from the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, Workers' Defense Project, International Socialist Organization, Students for Justice for Palestine, Occupy Austin, Activate Austin and UT Sweat Shop Free Coalition all spoke.

Speakers addressed issues ranging from anti-immigrant racism to the Lockheed Martin strike in Fort Worth. A lively march through downtown Austin followed as chants, like "What's disgusting? Union busting! What's outrageous? Sweat shop wages!" echoed off the buildings.

Adam Balogh, Sam Bernstein, Tahir Butt, Tim Gaughan, Thomas Grace, Charles Grand, Brian Lenzo, Danny Lucia, Diana Macasa, Amy Muldoon, Khury Petersen-Smith, Meredith Reese, Eric Ruder, Peter Rugh, Alessandro Tinonga and Camille White-Avian contributed to this article.

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