- Kali Akunoco-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, which issued a call for a general strike on May 1, 2020.
This May Day, an unprecedented coalition of essential workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target and FedEx are calling out sick or walking out during their lunch break to demand better health and safety conditions, along with hazard pay. Others are joining them for May Day actions that include rent strikes, car caravan protests and online organizing calling for a “People’s Bailout” and economic recovery plan that prioritizes workers. We speak with Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, which issued a call for a people’s strike starting May 1. “The corporations and the government are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of us,” Akuno says. “We have to put people before profits.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, here in New York, in the epicenter of the pandemic, joined by my co-host Juan González from his home in New Brunswick, New Jersey, number two in terms of infections and deaths in the United States. Well, Juan, it’s hard to say Happy May Day after that, but it’s good to have you with us.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, thank you, Amy. And I want to welcome all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, today is May Day, the international holiday that usually brings millions into the streets around the world to march in protest for workers’ rights. This year looks different because of the coronavirus pandemic. But many people are still joining a call for a general strike.
An unprecedented coalition of essential workers from Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target and FedEx are calling out sick or walking out during their lunch break to demand better health and safety conditions, along with hazard pay. Others are joining them for May Day actions that include rent strikes, car caravan protests and online organizing calling for a “People’s Bailout” and economic recovery plan that prioritizes workers.
The May Day strike follows a walkout last month by Amazon workers in New York City and more than 10,000 Instacart workers nationwide. Whole Foods workers led a national sickout on March 31st, and sanitation workers in Pittsburgh and bus drivers in Detroit have staged wildcat strikes.
Well, for more, we’re going to Jackson, Mississippi, to speak with Kali Akuno, co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson, which issued “A Call to Action: Towards a General Strike to End the COVID-19 Crisis and Create a New World,” that launches today with a people’s strike here on May Day. Their call has grown into this massive coalition of groups.
It’s great to have you with us from Mississippi, one of the states around the country that’s going forward with plans to reopen, after Governor Tate Reeves signed a “safer-at-home” executive order that lets most retailers reopen with a 50% reduced capacity. Kali, welcome back to Democracy Now! Talk about your call for a people’s strike, and your group, and the response to it around the country.
KALI AKUNO: Well, good morning, everybody, first and foremost. And Happy May Day, despite the conditions.
We are, first and foremost, trying to defend people all throughout this country. May 1st was the day that Trump and his allies, like Tate Reeves, decided to just totally disregard all of the scientific evidence, all the scientific reasoning, and try to force many millions of workers back to work. So our coalition marked that date, which, fortunately, I think, for us, happened to be May Day, and decided to stand up today to send a clear message that we will determine when it’s safe to go back, based upon the scientific evidence and reasoning. That is the first thing our coalition has grown to rise up, stay, protect and be in solidarity with folks, whether they’re taking actions at work or actions at home or they’re rent striking or taking the caravans.
So, we’re going to be out in force today. I think there will be many millions of people consciously and deliberately acting today. And I think it’s the start of a critical movement that we’re going to need in this country for some time to come, because after the crisis ends on the pandemic side, we know the economic dimension of it is still going to keep waging on. And what we’re trying to get ahead of is all of the disaster capital enforcement of weak labor laws or new working hours, lower pay, that we think is going to come in the wake of how capital is going to restructure to deal with this pandemic and exploit workers on the heels of it to try to recoup profits. So, major tests, but this is what we’re setting ourselves to do.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kali Akuno, how have you been able to put together — what are the coalitions that have come together around this? Obviously, this is being done outside the existing organized labor structures of the normal trade unions, most of whom never strike unless there’s a contract that’s ended and is being renegotiated. Can you talk about how you’ve been able to put together this grassroots labor protest?
KALI AKUNO: Number one, I think the situation really required it. A number of folks were reaching out to us in the state and in the region about some ideas, based on some early conversations that we had, based on our initial response. And I should say, a few of us, myself included, have had some prior experience with earlier coronaviruses, SARS in particular. Several good friends, particularly one that was dear, died of SARS. It was about a decade back. So, we’ve started trying to do education with a number of folks and encouraging our allies, first and foremost, to take this serious, because there was a lot of chatter that we were hearing that it’s just a bad flu, that it will pass real quick, and we were trying to dismiss people of that notion. That put us in first contact.
And then, once we issued our particular call, we just really started hitting the phones — hitting the phones, working our contacts, working our allies throughout the country to join the call, to heed. We did a ton of outreach to organized labor, where there’s actually, I would say, Juan, more support than people might think. Many people may not be able to take action in direct name, but I think we’ll see a surprising number of actions taking place by rank-and-file workers all throughout the country as a result of our call, and also as a result of all the energy and wildcat strikes that emerged in March that are still going on.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, interestingly, Kali, there was an article in today’s New York Times that may put a little bit of an international dimension of what’s going on here. There’s a major battle going on right now across the border in Mexico as U.S. companies are trying to keep the maquiladoras, the plants that manufacture for the U.S. market, open, while the Mexican government wants to keep all these industries closed because there’s been so many deaths from COVID-19 among factory workers. There is one plant in Mexico, a Lear plant that produces car seats, where already 13 workers have died from COVID-19, and yet the Lear company wants to keep that plant open, despite what the Mexican government is saying. And the U.S. is claiming that these factories are essential to the United States, not to Mexico. They’re essential to the United States, so they want the Mexican government to keep it open. On May Day, International Workers’ Day, the idea —
KALI AKUNO: Right.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — that workers in other countries are being forced to keep their plants — plants to be kept open just to service the U.S. is astounding.
KALI AKUNO: Well, we’re seeing that in other places, too. I mean, we’ve heard about some similar things going on in the Caribbean. You know, it just speaks to how this particular administration has treated this with just total disregard for human life and not getting prepared and not taking it seriously, not using, when the crisis hit, the various powers at its disposal to actually protect workers or to ramp up production in such a way that could have protected workers, to stealing — I’ll just call it basically what it is — the PPE for many of the states. It’s been a real, in my view, criminal enterprise that we are really going have to reckon with, going forward.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Kali, about something that’s happening in your community right now, in Jackson, Mississippi. We just reported on what’s happening in Michigan, the AK-47 gun-toting Michiganders who went and occupied the Capitol rotunda. Some of the state legislators felt they had to wear bulletproof vests. You’re in the capital of Jackson, Mississippi, where the mayor, Chokwe Lumumba, has extended a stay-at-home order another two weeks and also just announced he will not renew a controversial executive order banning the open carry of firearms in the city. In response, the group Reopen Mississippi is also holding an open-carry gun rally today at the same time as your May Day actions?
KALI AKUNO: That is correct. That is correct. We’ve been monitoring as much of the right-wing radio and some of the communications, monitor all night, myself included in that, trying to get some understanding of the various movements that they might take. But we expect to see something very similar to what happened in Michigan here today at the state Capitol.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m not sure if it was AR-15s or AK-47s.
KALI AKUNO: It’ll be all of that here and then some, because our laws here are even more open than they are in the state of Michigan. So, if they decide to come, they’ll have kind of every advantage to be out on the street and to try to be as intimidating as possible. We know that our city police will probably respond, try to protect as many folks as possible. We’re not quite sure, to be real with you, Amy, what’s going to happen with the state police, given somewhat a track record that we’ve seen at times with protests similar to this.
So, it makes for an interesting day. We are going to do everything we can to ensure that all of our people who come out in support of the May Day protests will be safe and sound. But what you’re really going to see is a clash of worldviews on full display here in Mississippi, that I think will mirror much of what may take place in the near future throughout the country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Kali, as part of this protest movement, you’re also calling for rent strikes, as well, and also are urging consumers not to shop at particular stores. Could you talk about that, as well?
KALI AKUNO: Yeah. We were very clear that we wanted to give multiple entry points for everybody throughout this country to engage. That was a critical thing. We know there is not a lot of workers, given the nature of the contract, who could just initially go on strike. And we were trying to be very clear from the beginning that this is a call toward a general strike, not that we will be able to pull one off on May Day, given how short the time the organizing span was.
But we’ve been encouraging folks, number one, if you’re home, to strike in place, to not work today. Don’t get on anymore Zoom calls or Jitsi calls or anything of that nature. Just take the day off. Get involved with the people.
We’ve been calling on folks to engage in conscious and deliberate rent strikes, and even for those who can pay their rent or pay their mortgage, to stand in solidarity with the millions of people who cannot, and to make sure to send clear messages to whoever you’re renting from or whoever your mortgage lender is, to outline very clearly that you cannot pay, that you will not pay, under the circumstances; and have been encouraging people to take action in the communities, practicing the best physical distancing measures possible. So we’ve been encouraging car caravans, of which there’s about 15, that we know of, and a growing number, that are going to take place today throughout this country, including here in Jackson.
And then there’s going to be, I think, a remarkable set of workers’ actions, that you mentioned at the top, which are kicking off now, I know, in some places on the East Coast and going to be spreading throughout the country, at Amazon, Whole Foods, Target, many transit workers and more throughout the country.
So I think it’s going to be a beautiful day. And for us, we’re hoping that this leads to, and we’re planning on continuing this, to strike the first of every month going forward, until some basic fundamental demands are met.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end with getting your comment on this quote from the artist Seth David Tobocman: “Why should we all be working in conditions that will kill us? First we solve the medical problem, then we restart the capitalist economy. If we restart the economy first, there will be no reason for the ruling elites to find a cure or a vaccine. They can sit safely in their gated communities while the rest of us die.”
KALI AKUNO: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts, Kali Akuno, as we wrap up?
KALI AKUNO: I couldn’t agree with that more. I mean, it’s very clear from the way that they’re even having the conversations on CNN and MSNBC now that the corporations and the government are willing to sacrifice tens of thousands of us. As one of them said, “There’s something more important than life.” I think that was the most absurd statement I ever heard. We have to put people before profits. That’s first and foremost.
AMY GOODMAN: Kali Akuno, I want to thank for being with us, co-founder, co-director of Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, which issued “A Call to Action: Towards a General Strike to End the COVID-19 Crisis and Create a New World,” that launches today with a people’s strike on this May Day.
When we come back from break, we’re bringing you a Democracy Now! radio/television broadcast exclusive: an interview with a woman who was a friend of Tara Reade’s in the 1990s, who will talk about corroborating her telling her about her allegation at that time that then-Senator Joe Biden sexually assaulted her. As we do this broadcast, presidential candidate Joe Biden is on MSNBC addressing the allegations of Tara Reade for the first time. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “My Country for Sale” by Óscar Chávez. He’s died at the age of 85 after being hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms.