All Workers are Essential: Celebrating May Day in the Midst of a Pandemic

Date: May 7, 2020

For many around the globe, May 1st, or May Day, is known as International Workers' Day or Labor Day. Historically, May Day was central to the movement that ultimately won the eight-hour work day. This year, perhaps more now than in recent decades, there is greater awareness across the U.S. of the glaring disparities among American workers.

While May Day celebrations often take to the streets to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions, this year, Partnership for the Public Good and Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab hosted a Buffalo Commons Virtual May Day Event. Together we celebrated frontline workers, shared the impacts of COVID-19 on labor policy and workers’ rights, and learned strategies to support workers in the new economy. Over 70 participants and more than 300 viewers on Facebook Live engaged in this lively discussion on the labor policies and workers' rights that are needed now, more than ever, to build workers' collective power and voice.

Sharon Ivey, CSEA Labor Relations Specialist, Treasurer for the Buffalo chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), and Commissioner on the City of Buffalo’s Living Wage Commission opened with a reflection on the definition of an essential worker. “These are workers we’ve known all along are vital and have always been essential for all of us as businesses and as community members.” Better understanding of frontline workers has come at great cost—they are more needed than ever before and they are more vulnerable than ever before. Sharon spoke of a post-COVID future where the value of these workers is recognized with higher wages, greater health and safety protections, and broader public appreciation of the interconnectedness of workers in all occupations, at all levels.

Kevin Connor, Director and Co-Founder of Public Accountability Initiative—a nonprofit, nonpartisan watchdog research group focused on corporate and government accountability—joined the discussion to reimagine a new, different economy. Kevin emphasized that “another path is possible in driving bold demands.” As the pandemic crisis lifts, we do not have to return to a status quo economy, rife with issues and inequities. Kevin shared about his work with Bargaining for the Common Good, a model for organized labor, community organizations, and a broad group of stakeholders to come together to negotiate a set of demands that benefit not just the bargaining unit, but also the wider community as a whole.

“This moment has shown us that there are better ways for us to move forward. What if we think about building an economy around solidarity and unity—like the mutual aid networks that nonprofits and community members rose to the occasion to fill the needs of people in the area?” posed Andrew Delmonte, Director of Cooperative Development for Cooperation Buffalo. Andrew spoke of the movement to generate wealth and power in marginalized communities through employee ownership of capital and labor in Buffalo. Cooperatives offer alternatives to hierarchical business structures by operating through joint ownership, running democratically, and typically using a one member-one vote structure to make decisions. This democratic decision-making and inclusion of many voices can make cooperatives more adaptable and resilient during times of crisis. 

In agreement, Erin Hatton, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University at Buffalo, stressed that “the power for workers to make claims can outlast this current moment.” Erin shared compelling takeaways from her newly released book, Coerced: Work Under Threat of Punishment, drawing on interviews with more than 100 people across three very different types of coerced workers: incarcerated, workfare and student-athletes.

As a 2019 Buffalo Commons Public Research Fellow, Erin collaborated with Stacey Robinson, Artist and Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois, to translate some of the stories and interviews from the book into captivating and compelling visual graphics that integrate direct quotes from each of the worker populations. He, like Spiderman, believes that “with great power comes great responsibility,” a lesson he hopes that his art captures for both his past-self and for those who wield power over groups of workers. Participants enjoyed a slide show of twenty works of art Stacey created based on Erin’s book, several of which are featured in the gallery below.

Jerome Wright, organizer for the Upstate Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement and an advocate for the #HALTsolitary confinement campaign, shared deep reflections on lifting up the voices and narratives of individuals in prison settings. Jerome said, “The current system that marginalizes and subjugated people is not broken—it is operating exactly the way it is supposed to. The May Day movement stands for an alternative system. We can no longer use band aid approaches—piecemeal solutions do not address the significance of the problems.”

Kristin Ksiazek, Research and Collaboration Specialist for the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab and Partnership for the Public Good, opened the celebration with a showcase of Some Good News, from stories of parades honoring frontline workers and nurses overcoming the odds for love of their patients to school food service workers providing staples for families across the region and teachers finding creative ways to engage kids and communities.

Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Executive Director of Partnership for the Public Good, closed the May Day celebration with a reflection from poet Pádraig Ó Tuama on gratitude for health care workers, for the trust we place in them and the care they provide in return. Andrea spoke to “the importance of seeing the faces and knowing the names of all the workers who support us throughout our daily routines and throughout these times and moments of crisis in our lives.”

As we move toward “re-opening” in the midst and wake of a global pandemic, and as we aim to reimagine a new economy and a new world of work, the necessity of focusing on the needs and perspectives of working people has never been more apparent.

Enjoy in the video celebration yourself, available here.

About the hosts:

Buffalo Commons is a joint collaboration between community-based think tank Partnership for the Public Good and the Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab.

Cornell ILR is the preeminent institution focused on work, employment and labor, dedicated to generating and disseminating knowledge that improves the lives of workers and transforms the future of work—from employment and legal policy ILR shares data, analysis, research and insight from faculty and experts. Aimed at informing workers, unions, employers and policy leaders across New York State, ILR launched a COVID-19 and Work hub.

Partnership for the Public Good is a community-based think tank with over 300 community partners. PPG has launched a COVID-19 hub documenting policy solutions for short-term emergency response and long-term recovery, links to locally-focused information and resources, an opportunity to submit research requests and to help us document stories of community groups taking the lead in a time of crisis. 

This post was written by Kristen Ksiazek, Research and Collaboration Specialist at Cornell ILR Buffalo Co-Lab and Partnership for the Public Good.