Virus worries haunt workers demanding rights on May Day

Photo: AP Protesters from the communist party-affiliated PAME union wearing masks, march during a May Day rally outside the Greek Parliament, in Athens, on Friday, 1 May 2020.

No job at all, or a job without enough protections - millions of workers worldwide marked international labor day trapped between hunger and fear Friday, as more countries and states reopen for business even though the coronavirus is far from vanquished.

A government-ordered lockdown couldn’t extinguish the May Day protest spirit in Greece, where demonstrators lined up 2 meters apart in careful rows in Athens’ Syntagma Square. Organizers in masks and gloves used tape measures and large colored squares to set out exact positions for the protesters. Greeks who work by making deliveries staged a motorized protest, driving through Athens on their motorbikes, and police were out in force to ensure residents didn’t head from cities to the countryside, another May Day tradition.

In Spain, a huge field hospital that symbolized the country’s desperate battle against the virus held a ceremonial closing. Dozens of health workers shouted “Public Health!” and “We Want Tests!”

Nearly 40,000 Spanish health workers have contracted the virus, in part because of a scarcity of tests and protective clothing that forced many doctors and nurses to make suits out of garbage bags and other everyday products.

In the Czech Republic, people honked horns, played drums or shouted at midday in a special “noisy protest” over the government’s handling of the crisis.

“We are praying for all workers, so that no one will lack work and all will be fairly paid and can enjoy the dignity of work and the beauty of rest,” Pope Francis said at a private morning Mass.

California activists planned strikes, and Parisians sang from balconies to plead their causes: workplace masks, health insurance or more government aid for the jobless.

Some Paris residents defied home confinement rules to hold unauthorized protests. Others staged a midday musical protest against French President Emmanuel Macron’s handling of the pandemic, singing from balconies and windows.

Unions organised online activities for labour day, asked people to bang pans and put out banners on their balconies to mark the day. Police disbanded a small protest in central Paris. It was in stark contrast to this time last year when tens of thousands of labour union and “yellow vest” protesters were on the streets across France demonstrating against Macron’s policies.

Macron, in a message on his Twitter account, lauded the traditional parades and French workers, urging unity and solidarity during these tough times. 

“Even if today we are confined, our demands are not,” Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvriere union, told France Inter radio.

Instead of holding the usual May Day concert in Italy, musical artists planned to take turns performing solo in empty venues.

With traditional May Day labor marches curtailed by strict limits on public gatherings, Turkish protesters attempted to stage a wildcat demonstration. In Turkey, police and protesters wearing masks faced off in Istanbul, and 15 people were detained for defying confinement rules.

May Day is a state holiday in many countries, but lockdowns mean this is the first time that Russia - whose prime minister has the virus - will not hold mass demonstrations on Red Square.

It was a melancholy International Workers’ Day for garment workers across Southeast Asia such as Wiryono, a father of two in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, who was laid off last month as retailers slashed orders. His side gig delivering coffee dried up, too, amid a virus lockdown. So he set up a clothing repair business to make ends meet.

“I don’t earn as much as I got from the clothing factory. But I have to feed my wife and kids every day,” said Wiryono, who goes by only one name.

In Bangladesh, production is starting back up despite a rising number of new cases of the virus that has killed at least 230,000 people worldwide.

May Day labor 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 of the 1930s.

Essential workers were expected to strike around the US on Friday to demand safer conditions, while other groups organized rallies to protest stay-at-home orders they say are crippling the economy. The nation’s death toll was put at more than 60,000.

Essential workers will strike nationwide on May Day to demand safer conditions during the coronavirus outbreak, while other groups plan rallies against tight stay-at-home orders they say are crippling the U.S. economy.

Organizers say employees of Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, Fedex and other companies have become the unexpected frontline workers of the pandemic. Employees will walk off the job or call out sick Friday on International Workers’ Day in cities across the U.S. to demand unpaid time off work, hazard pay, sick leave, protective gear and cleaning supplies.

They say flawed policies by employers caused some of their co-workers to contract COVID-19.

“For these reasons, we are engaging in a mass sickout and exercising our right to refuse unsafe work conditions,” according to a statement by Whole Foods workers.

Demonstrations are planned in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and other cities. Protesters are asking consumers not to cross picket lines or use those companies’ services for the day in solidarity.

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