May Day is a reminder that solidarity must defy borders
It feels appropriate to start a commemoration of May Day where it began – in the United States. 136 years after the inaugural May Day processions in 1886, the US is experiencing a new wave of labour militancy. In the space of a few months, workers at Starbucks have successfully unionised 41 stores across 15 states, with dozens more in the process of voting over the coming weeks.
At the same time, Amazon workers at a warehouse in Staten Island, New York, made history by voting in favour of the newly formed Amazon Labor Union. The site became the first (but potentially not the only) union in Amazon’s history. After official results were announced, Chris Smalls, ALU’s temporary president thanked Jeff Bezos “for going to space because while he was up there we were organising a union.”
Smalls’ comment really speaks to the wider political and economic moment. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has inevitably exacerbated pre-existing inequalities. Recent Oxfam research notes that the world’s ten richest men doubled their wealth throughout the pandemic. The numbers are barely comprehensible, increasing their wealth at a rate of $15,000 per second, and pouring the proceeds into various obscenities: phallic space races, mega-polluting yachts and in Bezos’ case, rampant union busting.
Meanwhile the pandemic put a halt to annual declines in extreme poverty, with 77 million more people living in extreme poverty (less than US $1.90) in 2020 than the previous year. Obviously these impacts are spread unequally. Those in low and middle-income countries, typically without robust social protection systems and who are dependent on, for example, garment supply chains, are among the most severely impacted. In fact, the International Labour Organisation, report that the number of extreme working poor – people in work but earning less than $1.90 a day – increased by 8 million in 2020.
Of course, these two trends are intimately related. Huge corporations squeeze suppliers who, in turn, squeeze desperate workers in more ‘informal’ labour markets. Let’s take the example of Amazon, who not only rely on bogusly ‘self-employed’ labour in the Global North, but increasingly outsource ‘microwork’ to those in the Global South.
The Amazon Mechanical Turk platform allows workers across the Global South to perform sporadic data labelling tasks which Amazon then use as the bedrock for artificial intelligence systems back in the Global North. As Jeff Bezos noted at the public opening of AMT, “so for a penny you might pay someone to tell you if there is a human in a photo.” And, of course there is no might about it, the workers – in Kenya, Palestine, Venezuela – are getting pennies.
Karen Hao has argued that these dynamics represent a new frontier of colonial exploitation which is, in her words, “impoverishing the same communities and countries already impoverished by former colonial empires.” Resistance and acts of solidarity amongst these workers is evident but these multinational forms of exploitation pose questions for unions and organisers everywhere. How, for instance, to connect the increasing labour militancy in the Global North to the workers ostracised and invisibilised in the Global South?
A climate-inflected reality
Ultimately any global labour movement needs to be informed by what Sharad Lele has called the environment-cum-development crisis. That is the simultaneous need to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change and live within planetary boundaries whilst also allowing countries who have not yet ‘developed’ the material inputs necessary to do so (and in the process, lift billions out of poverty). The fact that Earth is “firmly on track toward an unlivable world”, as the UN put it just weeks ago, is evidence enough of the need for this framing.
So what to do? For the Global North, overwhelmingly responsible for ecological breakdown, a movement to decarbonise through a just transition as quickly as possible is paramount. Recognition that work in carbon-intensive industries must be wound down but also that work in and of itself can lock people into environmentally unsustainable lifestyles. As such, the movement for post work and all that that entails (productivity gains passed to workers through a reduction in working time, universal basic services, a genuine social safety net etc…) must be taken seriously.
It is worth reiterating that not all those in rich countries are equally responsible for excessive resource use. Nor is post work a viable option for the millions of workers in these contexts who are on zero-hours contracts, insecure contracts and / or on poverty pay. The struggle for better work where necessary obviously continues. The struggle for less work where possible should be framed as part of the ecological debt the Global North owes to the Global South.
Connecting these industrial demands to wider political movements is the only route to an economic system that can provide a decent life for all on a sustainable planet. And, as we celebrate May Day, resistance to the status quo is on the rise around the globe. From the UK where strike activity is at a five-year high, to Sri Lanka where unions are leading a general strike to topple the government. From platform workers resisting algorithmic management in Jakarta, to Sudanese trade unions working with resistance committees to bring about regime change.
Deleuze once said that to be progressive is to “start with the edges” and be “aware of what’s on the horizon.” For the cause of labour to truly be the hope of the world, we must do just that: build solidarities and movements across borders, learn from each other, connect the dots of shared struggles.
As Justine Medina, Amazon organiser in Staten Island, puts it, “do not be afraid to fight, to get as dirty as the bosses will. Use every tool in your toolbox. Protest. Keep building.”
Liam Kennedy is a researcher at the Communication Workers Union (CWU) and an editor at Red Pepper magazine.
Follow him on Twitter: @liamkennedy_
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.