Trapped between fear of an invisible enemy and looming economic ruin and hunger, millions of workers worldwide marked international labour day Friday with vastly muted celebrations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
With lockdown restrictions still in place across the globe, May Day celebrations were decidedly different this year. Few countries saw demonstrations on the streets, and those who did saw vastly different scenes than in years prior.
Workers rally from a (social) distance
Organisers of a Greek Communist Party-affiliated union were out with tape measures and coloured stickers to mark the exact places the masked and gloved demonstrators could stand for their rally — two meters apart, to maintain social distancing. They waved banners and flags calling for more workers’ rights, but didn’t march through the streets as they normally would have.
In Buenos Aires, workers and members of Polo Obrero decried the current state of the economy in a unique social-distancing adapted protest. Signs with messages such as “stop the lay-offs” and “amid hunger there is no quarantine” were displayed in the street. Unlike recent protests in the US, protesters in Argentina did not demand the reopening of the economy but the allocation of resources to vulnerable communities.
In France, unions called for people to sing on their balconies or out of their windows at midday in a collective shout of protest for more worker protections. Some protesters who took to the streets despite the lockdown were arrested.
Turkey saw police detaining several demonstrators in face masks too, bundling them into police vans in Istanbul during an attempted march toward the city’s main Taksim Square in defiance of the government-imposed lockdown.
In Italy, where deaths are approaching 30,000 and businesses have been shuttered for weeks, some entrepreneurs resorted to a dramatically visual though silent gesture to mark May Day and draw attention to their employees’ plight. Some cafes used dressed mannequins in place of customers in their empty businesses, as if they were buying products or sipping coffee. In towns from north to south, many small business owners stood on sidewalks or in town squares.
Tempers frayed in Hong Kong, where police used pepper spray to disperse more than 100 protesters singing and chanting pro-democracy slogans in a shopping mall. The protest was one of several that went ahead on May Day despite rules forbidding public gatherings of more than four people.
May Day labour protests started in the 19th century in the United States, where this week the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surpassed a staggering 30 million, and joblessness in April could hit numbers not seen since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
In the US, May Day was expressed through a nation-wide strike of essential workers. Employees of large corporations like Whole Foods and Amazon organised strikes to demand safer working conditions, benefits, and better pay given that the pandemic has driven up revenues. Other groups organized rallies to protest the stay-at-home orders that they claim are crippling the economy. The nation’s death toll was put at more than 60,000.
The lockdown restrictions imposed by governments frantically trying to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus have sent economies reeling across the world.
Alberto Fernández greets essential workers
In Argentina, International Workers’ Day was celebrated by the president. Alberto Fernández toured Barack Mercosul, a company in San Martin that usually operates as a factory for automotive parts, but amidst the pandemic has switched its focus to face masks.
This undertaking “speaks very well of the entrepreneurs who realised that there was a demand that Argentina could not even satisfy by importing products, so they converted themselves, made masks, in an absolutely hygienic condition,” stressed the President.
He continued: “Caring for our industry is central, because it gives us power as a society, it gives many Argentines a job,” he emphasised.
The president closed his statements by acknowledging the day of the worker, and the importance of essential workers in this current moment.
“I wanted to be here today, on May 1st, the day of the worker. I take this opportunity to greet all the workers in Argentina. To give them my love, my affection, and ask that we not give up. Full speed ahead.” Fernández said.