Voices from May Day: New Yorkers in Union Square Celebrate Workers, Working-class History

The annual International Workers Day celebration brought together hundreds of workers and organizers. Read what a few of them have to say.

Lula O'Donnell May 5, 2023

On Monday, May 1, hundreds of people, representing different unions, organizations and labor campaigns, gathered at Union Square on a breezy afternoon to celebrate International Workers Day, also known as May Day, which is an official holiday in much of the world outside the United States. It dates back to the May 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago that saw police violently suppress the movement for an eight-hour work day.

At Union Square, people milled about the southern end of the park — which was draped in red — in conversation with each other, checking out what socialist and communist literature tables had to offer and listening to speakers. “We’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll the union on,” sang the Raging Grannies, swaying in unison. 

“I am 90 years old and representing you, the workers of this city!” said Evelyn Jones Rich to a cheering crowd. Rich is a member of the Cross-union Retirees Organizing Committee, a group fighting to reverse the City’s decision to move city retirees to a private health-care plan run by Aetna. “We are standing up to Mayor Adams because he is trying to take 250,000 of us into a Medicare Advantage program that will deny us the health care that we were promised decades ago! … We are not giving in; we are not giving up; we are in it to win it!”

Youth, too, were present. Dozens of  CUNY students with Revolutionary Internationalist Youth (an offshoot of Internationalist Group) stood in a group holding signs demanding “Smash the Taylor Law” and “Free Mumia now!”

After three hours at Union Square, the group, largely organized by the International Action Center, set off on a march headed to Grand Central Station.  “Workers to power, long live May Day,” chanted the crowd as its members made their voices heard across Manhattan, marching up Park Avenue to the beat of Rude Mechanical Orchestra. 

The Indypendent spoke with a cross section of May Day demonstrators about their struggles and hopes for the future. 

Anonymous, Multinational Communist Party

The Indypendent: What is the newly formed Multinational Communist Party? And what makes you different from any other communist group?

We’re learning how to talk to people. In all my years [doing communist organizing], we put on lots of demos like today — fabulous demos — we handed out tons of signs to lots of cool people. But in all of that time, there was no practice with learning how to talk to people. All of that work is the work that Lenin says to do, trying to shrink the distance between each other through conversation — that’s not easier said than done. As a reporter I’m sure you can relate to that, just walking up to someone on the sidewalk — imagine doing that for socialist revolution, right? The distance [between people] is crazy. But we have to — our survival depends on it.

What is the value in still coming out all together on May Day?

There’s always a need to come out, and a need to make people feel more comfortable when they’re here. And there is a need to not be so sectarian and divisive. Everyone here has a table for socialist revolution, and yet they’re not talking to each other. I think that the differences between different communists of the 20th century — we could look at it in a very different way now.

What are you hopeful about regarding worker solidarity?

I’m very optimistic about two things. One, you couldn’t say ‘labor unions’ before COVID. Post-COVID, that entire conversation has changed—the social awareness about labor unions was not there in 2019. So that is very hopeful, seeing how that cat’s out of the bag. The [other] thing I’m very hopeful about is that there’s a more developed conversation around the world amongst young people about having to get off their phones and get more attracted to the third dimension. I’ve been off for five years. Completely off. I’m in another world. People are my content.

We need to show rich people that workers are indispensable. Because if we don’t work, they’re not rich.

When we’re on our phones, we are not talking to anybody else in-person. Years of that build up, and it becomes very scary and socially-anxious, fearful and overwhelming, to just want to have a conversation face-to-face with someone. And that needs to be gotten over. The only way to do that is to start getting comfortable being uncomfortable while talking to people.

The revolution will not be televised. The revolution is a material experience that happens here in the third dimension, not the second dimension of flat social media. How did Lenin and Mao and Fidel and Ho Chi Minh and Thomas Sankara organize? They didn’t have social media. The only way is to get out and try talking to people and get off the screen.

Gloria, Laundry Workers Center

Today we are demanding justice for workers; we fight for workers because workers are so exploited in this country. Right now, we have a campaign for construction workers, the cabricanecos. They suffer a lot of retaliation because of their campaign and some workers have gotten fired from their job. Workers are very important. Any kind of workers. It doesn’t matter if you are an immigrant — we need to give respect to the workers. We need to show rich people that workers are indispensable. Because if we don’t work, they’re not rich. The economy doesn’t work. The rich people need to think about it: what are you going to do if there’s no workers? We are workers and we move the economy. The problem is that many workers don’t [know that]. They think that they need to come to work. The workers need to know their rights.

I have been a part of the group for two years. In my country, my dad was in a union, in Mexico City. I was suffering retaliation when I worked in my country… So I [fought back against it]. I feel we need the people to understand the workers. You need to speak out. You feel oppressed or you feel something is not good, speak out. You have the right. It’s about the dignity of the workers. Everyone deserves self-respect. This happens not only to me, but to every worker. I feel bad, because sometimes workers want to close their eyes and not see the rights they have.

I want more respect for the workers. There are many immigrant workers here who move the economy. I want respect for them, so that every worker gets the same.

Alice Sturm Sutter, Raging Grannies

Raging Grannies started in the 1980s when there were nuclear weapons on ships coming into the Vancouver Harbor. And a group of women, a group of activists there, said, “Nobody’s listening to us.” And some said, well, let’s get dressed up in funny hats and do a spoof and write funny songs, and then maybe we’ll get more attention. So that’s how the Raging Grannies started. I don’t know if they stopped the nukes from the harbor, though. 

We have several gaggles all over the world, at least in Canada and Germany and here. I got involved maybe 20 years ago.

Have you been a grandmother for 20 years?

No, I was a grandmother to a cat. We’re grandmothers to the world, that’s how I see it. We’re grandmothers to everybody, even to you.

What is your perception of this event and what hopes do you have for peoples’ movements?

I always wish that we were 1000 times larger. But we have a good spirit. We have a variety of ages and races and ideas and reflections. And I think it’s energizing. May Day itself was started in the Haymarket struggle and massacre in the 1880s. We don’t want to lose May Day, it’s evolved into various shapes and sizes. I always want to have one united May Day, but there are different actions in different parts of the city, which is okay, too, so long as people are getting active and starting to become aware of the many injustices that we have right now.

Is there anything you’ve been particularly inspired by today?

The revolution will not be televised. The revolution is a material experience that happens here in the third dimension, not the second dimension of flat social media. 

Certainly to free Alex Saab. The energy of the people. The call for a movement beyond the Democratic and the Republican Party. To always vote for ‘the evil of two lessers,’ as one of my friends always said—we have to do a lot more than that, we really need to turn the system around so we can get it at a different kind of party in the end. And we need to get the money out of politics. On a national level, we need to rank-choice voting, where people won’t be afraid to vote for a socialist or Green Party.

It’s really in the ballot or the bullet. I think we know where we want to get to, but we don’t know exactly how to get there. If we could do it through the system, it would be better than marching in the streets. But mass movements, when they get bigger and bigger, give me hope.

Percy Lujan (far right) with members of Semillas de Libertad.

Percy Lujan, Semillas de Libertad

We are a Peruvian group. Recently, there was a coup in Peru. They removed a democratically-elected president [Pedro Castillo]. And they put a different administration that has really cracked down on people’s democratic rights. When the coup was done, Peruvians rose up all over the provinces, and they were met with repression from the state, the military and the police. As of now, it seems that there are over 80 people dead, and hundreds more injured. And many of the democratic rights to free assembly have been suspended. This is rooted in an ongoing struggle that’s been happening in Peru for the last years, probably 10 years. 

So what’s going on now? Is the repression still happening?

Yes, there are still many protests in the capital, but also more so in the provinces. The agricultural communities in the provinces have stood up and said, ‘No, we’re not going to take it, we’re going to keep fighting.’ But there hasn’t been much of a consolidation of the movement at this point. However, there are attempts by different groups. At the end of the day, there’s many different interests at hand in these protests. There are people who are calling for the freedom of President Castillo, which is one of our demands, other people are more emphatically calling for Dina Boluarte, the current President of Peru that was put in power after the coup, to be taken out of power.

Why did Semillas de Libertad decide to come to this demonstration? 

May Day has been a historical day for many different types of struggles. So, as Peruvians, here in the United States, here in your city, we thought it was very important for us to be here because of the nature of the struggle in Peru, which is rooted in the struggle of indigenous communities in Peru, of community organizations, agricultural organizations, as well as the labor struggle in Peru. That is why we see the need to stand here and be represented at this rally. We are Peruvians that live here in the tri-state area. So this is our attempt to show a presence in the May Day Rally.

Elza Resctman (far left), Sindu Vangti (second from right) and members of SPOC-UAW.

Elza Resctman and Sindu Vangti, SPOC-UAW (Sinai Post-doctoral Organizing Committee)

S.V.: We’re with SPOC-UAW, the Sinai postdoctoral organizing committee, and we just formed a union with the UAW in July of last year. We are postdoctoral researchers, which means we are people who do all kinds of biomedical research in Mount Sinai. And typically postdocs all have PhDs, so that’s the thing that ties us together. A lot of us have been heavily invested in doing research at Mount Sinai and also helping out with various other things, especially during the pandemic. And over the years, we’ve noticed that our salaries weren’t really matching up to New York City living standards. We don’t always get the same benefits as other staff, because we’re always treated as temporary visiting researchers. 

We also saw how our fellow researchers at Columbia unionized and got a contract. And when they won their first contract, their working conditions changed quite a lot. They were significantly happier after that. So we wanted that for ourselves. We decided to join the UAW and the national unionization movement in academic research.

E.R.: I’m a mom and when I came here to New York City, I had a two-year-old and I couldn’t pay for childcare, because it’s $2,000 a month, which we can’t pay on postdoc salary. And so we went to the administration and asked for help, and they wouldn’t help us, of course. So then we saw what happened at Columbia where they negotiated for parental leave and subsidies for childcare. We wanted to do the same thing. And so that’s what we did. Ninety percent of us voted yes, for the union, out of 500 votes. And then we started bargaining six months ago. Since we’ve started bargaining, the employer, Mount Sinai, has been very slow and is stalling—so we need to up the pressure.

How do you see your struggle as postdoc researchers connecting to May Day and to all the people here today, all the workers’ struggles?

E.R.: We know that unions in general increase working conditions for the better, for everyone. So when we fight for something like maternity leave, we are creating the standard across academia, whether people are unionized or not unionized. So it’s actually for all workers. And when we fight for international [workers] coming with visas, we also fight for people that are not unionized. So we are part of the bigger struggle.

Within the scope of the 500 [workers in the union], would you say that people are generally anti-capitalist or aware of the anti-worker nature of the system? 

E.R.: There isn’t a socialist or communist consciousness. Which maybe will change. It seems like there’s waves of change—maybe that’s what we’ll see in the future. I hope so.

Amba Guerguerian contributed to this report.

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