How did New York City, global center of capitalism, celebrate May Day?
The high holiday for workers has its origin in the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, when workers there and around the country — many of them immigrants — went on strike to advocate for an eight-hour workday. The protests culminated days later in Chicago with violence between strikers and police and a bombing, which set the tone for American labor relations.
Where some other countries honor the worker with national holidays on May 1, America created Labor Day, a lukewarm moment at the end of summer intended to divert solidarity with the yearly international event on May 1.
That didn’t stop some New Yorkers who started protesting early at 7:30 a.m.: immigration advocacy group Make the Road New York led marches to the NYC offices of J.P. Morgan and Wells Fargo. It was part of the group’s attempt to shame corporations out of supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda.
And after the work day there was a Foley Square demonstration that eventually drew larger crowds and politicians from Mayor Bill de Blasio on down. Both events were accessible to those who still had to or wanted to punch the clock.
But the middle of the day might be considered the holiday’s prime time: regular work hours during which workers can show their power by absence on the job. That threat of an actual strike is the promise of May Day, which has often proved difficult to achieve though some unions and activists tried to honor it on Monday.
Workers of the world, unite!
Most of the 9-5 action took place between Washington Square Park and Union Square, where there was a pervasive distrust of the polished, establishment-endorsed events of the rest of May Day.
Oscar Diaz, organizer for the Laundry Workers Center in Manhattan, decried the “public relations folks and politicians” who would be speaking at Foley Square later in the day.
There were a number of workers either striking or gathering in pursuit of various goals. Often, they were unauthorized immigrants duly affected by business pressures in addition to the new president’s policies. A group of Spanish-speaking warehouse workers walked off the job at the electronics store B&H Photo Video to protest working conditions such as long hours without breaks and the company’s plan to move jobs to New Jersey.
Former workers at Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City marched after getting fired from their jobs last month. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had given the company a deadline to get rid of workers who could not show they could legally work in the country.
“I’m looking for another bakery, or anything I could get,” said Hector Solis, 46, adding that he and other workers had been pressuring the company to offer a better severance package for longtime employees.
Elsewhere in Manhattan, fast food workers rallied for better pay outside a midtown McDonald’s.
Big dreams, loosely organized
Here and there in Washington Square a lone worker or two was skipping work or had been allowed to do so.
But many others were the kind of individuals often associated with May Day’s carnival vibe: people with big — if outlandish — dreams who weren’t necessarily on a coordinated strike.
There was Marni Halasa, 51, the figure skating teacher and founder of revolutionissexy.com who was wearing tights decorated with dollars, and a tutu made of bills, posing for pictures in Union Square. She started enacting theatrical protests during the Occupy Wall Street era and her current outfit drew attention at last month’s Tax Day March. She supports a universal basic income to overcome some of the inequities of capitalism.
Or there was Eric Harris, 69, dressed in casual wear and standing alone in the middle of Union Square clutching a copy of the Daily News and “Shattered,” the new hardcover about Hillary Clinton’s campaign collapse.
He is retired but after returning from the gym to his home in Queens, he said he parked his car and hopped the train to Union Square, unaware that the protest was for May Day but correctly ascertaining that the mood was decidedly anti-Trump. That was his purpose: to see Trump impeached.
“I want to be part of this,” he said. “Do you think it’ll make a difference?” he asked.
He was one of the crowd in NYC on Monday. Like many others, his midday presence in the streets might have sent some sort of message though the lack of true mass participation meant limited disruption for the larger economy’s business as usual. The city’s skyscrapers and places of businesses remained mostly full despite the date and its dedicated activities on the street below.