Bread & Roses: Workers of the World! Unite and Stay Home!

SNA (Tokyo) — May Day came into this world on May 1, 1886, with a general strike to win “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.” Three days later, workers gathered in Haymarket Square, Chicago, and clashed with cops sent in to shut them down. At least four civilians and seven officers died. Four workers were later sentenced to death for conspiracy to riot, despite not a shred of evidence. May Day spread beyond the borders of the United States to Europe and elsewhere. Today, we see the eight-hour workday as a social norm, albeit observed more in the breech. But workers shed blood and tears to bequeath this right to us. We should devote one day a year to recognizing those heroes’ achievement and sacrifice.

This year, May 1 marked the centennial of May Day’s arrival to Japan. Over 10,000 workers gathered at Ueno Park in 1920. In the prewar years, the government crushed syndicalism, but the close of the Pacific War led to the establishment of three labor rights (rodo sanken) as per Article 28 of the Constitution: the right to solidarity; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to collective action.

Marches resumed in 1946 with over a million workers participating around the country. Postwar workers starved for the freedom that had been so ruthlessly denied them during the war. The joy they felt to stand proud, out in the open under the blue sky and assert their rights in their full voices is hard to grasp. What did workers truly starve for? What did they demand at the first postwar May Day? Rice.

After unconditional surrender, amid the scorched fields, burnt urban embers, and streets crowded with urchins, workers dared not dream of winning something so grand as honest wages. They needed food more than anything; so much so that that first event is known as the foodstuffs May Day.

Japanese society soon embarked on a laser-focused commitment to rapid economic growth at all costs. Sweetheart unions took hold in most major corporations. The General Council of Trade Unions of Japan (Sohyo) formed the core of the labor movement that was both pro-management yet somehow “left-wing.” (Students of modern Japanese politics soon notice that terms like left and right differ from the West. So that leftwingers tend to be conservative in the sense of wanting to preserve the Constitution, where as rightwingers want to change it.) Sohyo led the May Day marches.

Come the late 1980s, Prime Minster Yasuhiro Nakasone rammed through deregulation (for corporations, not citizens); privatization (i.e. selling massive public firms at bargain basement prices); and union-busting (the story told on my January column). By 1989, the union federations had splintered into three smaller ones – the conservative Japanese Trade Union Confederation (Rengo), the communist-affiliated National Confederation of Trade Unions (Zenroren), and socialist-affiliated National Trade Union Council (Zenrokyo).

Each federation began holding their own separate May Day. The largest and “sweetheart among sweethearts” among the labor federations, Rengo, stopped observing May Day on May 1 in favor of a weekend day. So much for solidarity; even May Day itself cannot escape sectarianism.

Last year, May Day coincided with the coronation of Naruhito as the new Emperor of Japan, ushering in Year One of the Reiwa Era. The event upstaged any talk of May Day. That made this year’s centennial Japan May Day all the sweeter for many syndicalists around the country. We set about making up for lost time and doing May Day like never before. And then…

Nearly every nation on earth today sustains unprecedented work stoppage and devastation in education, employment, business, and every area of daily life due to the exponential spread of the novel coronavirus. Japan declared a seven-prefecture state of emergency on April 7, and then a nationwide one on April 16. Since then, authorities have urged workers in non-essential industries to exercise self-restraint (jishuku) and avoid the three mitsumissetsu (social proximity), misshu (large gatherings), and mippei (unventilated and closed in spaces). This precludes street protests, leafletting, collective bargaining sessions, and other staples of industrial action. Haymarket Square is closed for quarantine.

In the face of this virus-driven social metamorphosis, perhaps we should resign ourselves to sitting at home spending some quiet time beside the hearth with loved ones. Just kidding! After careful deliberation, my union, the Tokyo General Union (Tozen Union), decided to go ahead with May Day after all.

Shedding blood and tears is one thing, but shedding virus-containing mucous droplets on comrades is another. We knew we could not meet by the thousands in a large public park, so instead we decided to hold an international Virtual May Day. We would not feel the warmth of our sisters’ and brothers’ linked arms, but on the plus side we managed to transcend borders through the magic of the internet, free of sectarianism and other things that divide us.

We used Zoom to link with other unions, NGOs, NPOs, and any domestic or foreign organization that shares our goals of protecting workers’ lives and rights. As far as we can determine, we were the first to organize a virtual May Day. (A quick Google search showed that LabourStart and a union in Aberdeen, Australia, apparently had the same idea for the name of an event, but their virtual May Days made no attempt to recreate a street protest.)

Tozen Union was established in 2010 as the first ever foreign-led amalgamated union.

Although the novel coronavirus affects all people equally, foreigners working in Japan are hit particularly hard due to their nearly universal irregular employment status. Many now find themselves out of jobs, income, and options. Foreigners often hold down multiple jobs, which in ordinary times affords them a bit of cushion if they lose one job. Double income households have added security.

Coronavirus has knocked out all or part of their income in many cases for all their jobs. Maybe their spouse is also laid off or furloughed. Many foreign workers are not enrolled in the health insurance and pension schemes, meaning that falling ill could make household finances even tighter.

Many fixed-term visas are set to expire during the quarantine. The Immigration Bureau has extended by three months the deadline for applying for visa extension, but has not extended the visas themselves, meaning they cannot work during those three months, just as they most need work. Employers may try to fire them during the period when their working visa is effectively suspended.

They are also ineligible for welfare (unless they are permanent residents) and often find local city office workers suggesting that if they are that broke, then they should go back home to their countries. Such a statement betrays an impoverished imagination. Many foreigners live in Japan with an eye to staying permanently, as a member in good standing of Japanese society. Some are routinely treated like that even after living in Japan more than three decades.

This is precisely why Tozen Union came upon the idea to use the internet to bring workers together for May Day. Workers throughout the world are suffering many of the same fears and much the same fate during this pandemic. We determined to convey the message to all workers that they are not alone.

We demanded 50% hazard pay for essential workers in healthcare, food service, and many other industries. We demanded that all workers in nonessential industries are paid 100% to stay home. Pay to stay was one of several demands we declared during the event.

Workers of the world! Unite and Stay Home! Pulling off Virtual May Day was quite a challenge and we were in no way polished or even professional in the execution. But it is up to workers to determine what kind of post-Covid world we intend to live in. Like all industries and activities in this era, labor unions and workers must adapt and innovate in dramatic fashion in order to solidify our solidarity.

This article was written by Hifumi Okunuki, and originally published by the Shingetsu News Agency (SNA).