Labour leaders and socialist activists across the country came together on Friday, May 1 to celebrate International Workers’ Day, or May Day. Originally planned as a street rally, COVID-19 restrictions forced the rally to go online. This did not dampen the mood at all, however. As the experience of this pandemic crisis continues to expose all the fault lines of the capitalist system, so many of the speakers were energized and put out passionate calls not just to fight for better social services and improved workers’ rights, but to fight the capitalist system itself! This bodes well for the future of working-class struggle in Canada, as there will be many battles to fight in the near future once the isolation period is over and the capitalist class attempts to put the cost of the crisis onto the backs of working people. A revitalized, labour-led, anti-capitalist May Day could play an important role in raising the militant spirit that will be necessary to fight and win these battles, and the socialists of Labour Fightback are happy to have played the leading role that they did in bringing this event together.
The rally was held via videoconference, as well as streamed across multiple social media platforms. In total, 4,000 people viewed the rally, and twice as many were reached in some way. Prominent union and political party leaders that spoke at the rally included Canadian Union of Postal Workers President Jan Simpson (CUPW), Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113 President Carlos Santos (ATU), Ontario Health Coalition representative Natalie Mehra (OHC), New Democratic Party MP Matthew Green (NDP), Canadian Union of Public Employees Vice President Tiffany Balducci (CUPE), New Westminster Labour Council President Stephen Crozier, Ontario School Board Council of Unions President Laura Walton (OSBCU), CUPE Local 2 Executive Tynan Liebert, Toronto City Councillor Mike Layton, and CUPW Toronto President Qaiser Maroof.
In addition, a number of socialist and other political organizations were represented at the rally. Alex Grant spoke for Fightback, Elizabeth Weiss for Socialist Action, Mohsen Ebrahimi for the Workers’ Communist Party of Iran, John Clarke for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Esam for the Left-Communist Workers’ Party of Iraq, and Eliot Rossi for the International Workers of the World (IWW). Bruno Petraglia, shop steward for CUPE 4400 and Labour Fightback activist, chaired the rally with enthusiasm and appreciation for all the speakers involved. It was in fact through the initiative of Bruno that CUPE 4400 endorsed and led the original version of the rally last year, which brought 500 out onto the streets of Toronto in pouring rain and revolutionary fervour. This year’s online rally was organized by the newly created Labour May Day Committee, which was composed of many of the above mentioned participants.
Bruno opened the rally by speaking about the history of May Day, which was initiated around the struggle for the eight-hour day in Chicago in the 1880s. At a rally in Haymarket Square in 1886, a planted bomb went off, killing several police officers and leading to the shooting of many workers. The trade union leaders who organized the rally were blamed for the incident as a consequence and executed by hanging thereafter. In the aftermath, the international labour and socialist movement decided to commemorate the anniversary of these martyrs’ deaths, choosing May 1st as the date and naming it the International Workers’ Day. Ironically, conservative North American trade union leaders were not fond of the militant and revolutionary traditions that were associated with this date, and therefore chose instead—with the support of then-U.S. president Grover Cleveland—to create Labour Day as a tradition of passive celebration rather than militant protest. It has been this latter tradition that has prevailed on the continent ever since. But there is a need now more than ever to bring May Day back to its roots in North America as a mass labour tradition, and it is well on its way with this rally.
Carlos Santos of the ATU Local 113 spoke to the struggle of TTC workers to protect their health and safety in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. TTC management had been denying subway workers the right to wear masks for months before the crisis, which were needed at that time due to poor air quality in subway tunnels. While they finally relented on March 19 with the outbreak of the coronavirus, they still at that time refused to actually provide any! Since then, more than 30 TTC workers have contracted the virus, and there have been numerous work refusals organized to demand the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and for proper quarantining procedure to be followed. Most recently, management announced the planned layoff of 1,000 unionized frontline TTC workers to account for a decline in revenue as a result of the pandemic! Such a measure will necessitate service cuts, which will only increase overcrowding on buses, compromising the safety of passengers and the overall response to the pandemic. Santos has responded by demanding the provision of emergency funding by the provincial and federal governments so that service levels can be maintained.
Natalie Mehra of the Ontario Health Coalition next spoke of the need to pay homage to the Haymarket workers, as well as all those workers who have died in the fight for better conditions and workers’ rights. While the current pandemic was unavoidable, in this respect, the fact that it is currently raging through long-term care homes was completely avoidable. She paid tribute to the two long-term care workers who recently died from the virus, Stéphanie Tessier and Victoria Salvan, as well as the hundreds of elderly residents who have died unnecessarily. She spoke passionately on the plight of personal support workers, often forced to work 12-hour shifts at multiple facilities at very low rates of pay. She explained how deregulation and privatization of homes have led us to this point, which are similar conditions as those of Haymarket in 1886. She concluded that as the drumbeat to re-open the economy in the coming weeks grows, we have to make our own drumbeat louder to fight back against the greed of capitalism and to put people before profits.
Alex Grant of Fightback made it clear in his speech that this is an anti-capitalist May Day. COVID-19 has shown us that capitalism does not care for working people; that to the capitalists, we are just expendable parts of their machine. As early as January, warnings were given that the pandemic was coming. Did the government stockpile PPE, reinvest in health care and in stable, secure health-care jobs to prepare? No, to the contrary, they did nothing! Alex pointed out that Fightback has been predicting the crisis for a long time, and that we can now expect a long recession and a period of brutal austerity. At the same time, the bosses are sitting on a trillion dollars of dead, uninvested money. We say, make the rich pay for the economic crisis they are responsible for! Hell no to making the workers pay! With 1,200 layoffs of Vancouver city workers and 1,000 more in Toronto, austerity is already here. We need to fight for a socialist economy run by the workers, because the bosses have proven that they are not up to the task. Alex concluded with a call for all militant workers open to revolutionary ideas to join Fightback.
NDP MP Matthew Green stated that working people have been told for decades that we are all middle class, and that we will all transition to the prosperous white-collar tech sector as traditional blue-collar manufacturing jobs disappear. The reality, however, is that the majority have been excluded from such prosperous employment and that people are increasingly waking up to this cold hard reality. Matthew proudly stated that we have an opportunity to rebuild this country now, and that while the working class has never really held power in Canada before, we can increasingly build towards it through extra-parliamentary direct action. Capitalism is on its last legs, is more violent than ever, and the wolves of Bay Street are baying to sacrifice our most vulnerable if we let them. Borrowing words from Fred Hampton, Matthew argued that in fighting the injustice of the system, we can have theory—but if we can’t apply it, then that theory is useless. Furthermore, we can make mistakes in practice, but the key is to learn from those mistakes and correct them. In our shared struggle, we can’t lapse into sectarian bickering, but have to focus on building an ever bigger tent. Matthew finished by complimenting Alex Grant and the socialist organizers of this May Day, stating that there has to be a shift to an economy that is more democratic, or else we are sure to face destruction. He encouraged all involved to keep up the fight and never lose hope!
In all, there were 16 speakers and three musical performances spaced in between. It is impossible to cover all the speeches, but there is one more that must be mentioned. Eliot Rossi of the IWW spoke of his work with the Foodora delivery service. With the recent announcement of the sudden closing of the service, Eliot is preparing to lose his job in 11 days that he has held for the past five years. To him, however, this was no surprise. Foodora had been frustrating their business partners for years and treating their workers abominably. In the end, rather than make concessions to the workers who recently unionized with CUPW, they chose to close their doors. Eliot argued that this cannot take away the victory that was won with the classification of gig economy workers as “dependent contractors” during the unionization process. During the union drive, workers were attacked at every step along the way—told that they would not attract enough attention from the mainstream labour movement, that they would never be able to get 40 per cent of the workforce to sign union cards, and that they would never win the certification vote. But they did all of this! Eliot concluded by stating that this experience should lend gig workers confidence in the ability to organize themselves in the future, and that they must only get out there and resolve to do it!
While this May Day was an extraordinary success, the Labour May Day Committee has already resolved to make next year’s rally an even greater success. We look forward to holding the 2021 rally in the streets of downtown Toronto, where it naturally belongs. While it is nice to have thousands of eyes and ears tuning in online, it will be so much more powerful to have thousands of feet marching down Bay Street, sending a message to the bankers that we are here and coming for them! Until then, as Bruno concluded, we all must keep the flame going, keep organizing, educating and fighting!