Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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May 1: Despite the reports [shared yesterday, go back one day] about its ineffectiveness and maybe dangerousness, the Food and Drug Administration authorizes the emergency use of the antiviral remdesivir on COVID-19 patients. States begin to ease restrictions on stay at home orders. The Trump administration replaces HHS’s principal deputy inspector general General Christi Grimm, who published a report criticizing the administration’s response to the coronavirus (see March 23).*

From the Cutting Room Floor...

Today is International Workers’ Day (a.k.a., Labor Day) in much of the world outside the United States—ironic since the day is so closely associated with Chicago. On May 1, 1886, around 200,000 workers across the country organized into over 1,000 demonstrations, demanding the same eight-hour workday that many other industries who were not full of immigrant labor already enjoyed. On May 4th, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, between Desplaines and Halsted, in the heart of the meatpacking district, around 3,000 protesters responded to the call for a mass meeting at 7:30pm. They were protesting police violence that killed four workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory during a work stoppage the day before. Several speakers shouted out from the makeshift stage, and even Mayor Carter Harrison attended, declaring it a peaceful assembly. Around 10pm, it began to rain, and the crowd broke up. Almost 200 police from local precincts surrounded the speaking platform to scatter the remaining protestors, some of which yelled back that it was a peaceful protest and the police presence wasn’t necessary. And then something exploded among the ranks of the police, killing as many as seven and wounding perhaps 60 more. Chicago police opened fire haphazardly, gunning down eight civilians, with many dozens wounded.[1] The next day, the Chicago police began rounding up labor leaders from around the city. Even though police offered no concrete proof that some of them were even present at Haymarket that night, the city hanged four of them on November 11, 1887.

That was by no means the only violence to come out of those days of protest. Also on May 5, the Wisconsin National Guard, called up by Governor Jeremiah Rusks, fired into a crowd of marchers in front of the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View, Wisconsin, killing seven.[2]

We don’t celebrate Labor Day on May 1 because of what happened as a result. In 1889, an international gathering of socialists in Paris officially declared May Day a holiday honoring workers’ rights, nodding to the events in Chicago and Wisconsin three years earlier.[3] Five years later, in the middle of another labor uprising, Democratic President Grover Cleveland decided to support the celebration of Labor Day in September preferred by New York’s Irish workers rather than the one in May celebrated by southern and eastern European immigrants—and recognized by socialists.[4] Now many of us get the day off in September to enjoy our hotdogs and to not think too much about how their suffering of workers today is eerily similar to the suffering of workers around the world back then.

We also think too little about unions. Unions were once powerful entities that could check the exploits of big business. Now, in our so-called “gig economy,” where company loyalty is secondary, workers find themselves alone and vulnerable to the rapacious whims of rarely seen managers, shareholders, and venture capitalists.

That said, labor is not dead. The USA has seen over one hundred labor actions so far in this pandemic—a number higher than all of 2019.[5] Mike Elk, Clarissa León, and Kat Callahan of Payday Report have been tracking all of them.[6] 

What they report is that when Amazon workers ask for extra pay or extra equipment to meet the demand for extra labor in unsafe conditions, Amazon resists anyway it can—a true exemplar of the American corporation’s “moral decay,” according to one observer.[7] The strikes in the meat-packing industry continue as Smithfield tries to blame its immigrant labor for outbreaks.[8] Autoworkers successfully lobbied GM, Chrysler, and Ford to delay opening when assembly lines couldn’t be made safe.[9] Workers in nursing homes, are also threatening to walk out if management refuses to help keep them safe and provide hazard pay.[10] Ω Even workers at the LSL Healthcare, a PPE manufacturing plant in the western suburbs of Chicago, are presenting demands to management after they learned that one of their own was ill with COVID. Management knew but kept it from workers.[11]  It’s as if an American armaments manufacturer tried to shirk out on paying or protecting its workers in the middle of a war. Oh wait, that has happened before.[12]

This is just another point in a trend. Workers in jobs deemed essential, many of whom who are people of color and immigrants, stand in the firing lines against this virus, are paid very little for it, and often must fend for themselves. This does not include the now over 6 million people who have lost their jobs. Many of the newly unemployed and their families face eviction and homelessness in a housing system that was already collapsing. It almost seems like these employers are saying the lives of the people in this group don’t matter.

Essential workers in the clinics, nursing homes, and grocery stores, in the post offices and at the Amazon warehouses, have been working this whole time, desperately trying to do their jobs and not get sick. They are joined now by the delivery truck drivers, contractors, landscapers, manufacturers and retail assistants who have been ordered back to work amidst the “re-opening,” regardless of whether it is safe. If school boards decide to open schools when August rolls around, we will add the teachers to this list of essential workers.

Today, the image that comes to me is that of the African American man grabbing dozens of chickens off the feces-covered chicken pen floor outside of Demopolis, Alabama. And the Mexican American worker on the sweaty slaughterhouse line in Sioux Falls, Iowa. And the poor white woman running the mask-making machine in Chicago. And the Puerto Rican woman delivering groceries to an apartment door in Philadelphia. All of them put their health on the line and in doing so contribute to public health and individual thriving of those quarantined at home on Zoom all workday. Nearly all of us are all invisible cogs in some commercial machine. But the machine churns up some cogs faster than others.

A new time of relaxing government restrictions is now coming upon us. But the whole point of “flattening the curve” by having so many of us stay in our homes was to allow for test development and contact tracing. The United States federal government already dropped the ball in February; now it looks as if March was lost as well.[13] The experience of essential workers through the month of April, however, seems to demonstrate that April was another lost month. While many of us sat home—binging Tiger King, doomscrolling through images of bodies piled in refrigerated tractor-trailers in Queens, raging over every insipid presidential tweetstorm, drooling over cooking shows, mewling over at home manicures—too few tests were deployed, too few procedures put in place, and too few workers were hired to help get us back to any kind of normal. Even if the East Coast megapolis is beginning to look better, 75% of the country’s population spread over 90% of its continental land mass are beginning May in the same place they ended February—misinformed and unprepared.

“May Day” can mean advocating for laborers. But it’s also the urgent call of a pilot whose plane is going down.


[1] Lily Rothman, “The Bloody Story of How May Day Became a Holiday for Workers,” Time, May 1, 2015,

[2] David Semenske, “1886: The Bay View Massacre,”, July 24, 2007,

[3] Amy McKeever, “Labor Day’s Surprisingly Radical Origins,” National Geographic, September 4, 2020,

[4] Jenny Gross, “McGuire or Maguire? A Tussle Over Who Founded Labor Day,” The New York Times, September 5, 2020, sec. U.S.,; Karen Zraick, “What Is Labor Day? A History of the Workers’ Holiday,” The New York Times, September 1, 2018, sec. U.S.,

[5] Janine Jackson, “‘This Many Strikes Says That Something Fundamentally Is Changing in the Country,’” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, April 16, 2020,

[6] Mike Elk, “COVID-19 Strike Wave Interactive Map,” Payday Report, 2020,

[7] Ross Barkan, “There Is No Greater Illustration of Corporate America’s Moral Decay than Amazon,” The Guardian, April 1, 2020, sec. Opinion,

[8] Walter Einenkel, “Smithfield Pork Executives Deflect Blame for the South Dakota COVID-19 Outbreak on Immigrant Workers,”, April 22, 2020,

[9] Mike Elk, “With 23 UAW Members Dead, UAW Halts Big 3 Reopening Next Week – Payday Report,” Payday Report (blog), April 24, 2020,

[10] Chip Mitchell, “Nursing Home Workers in Illinois Move Toward Strike as Deadly Virus Spreads,” WBEZ Chicago, April 27, 2020,

[11] Arise Chicago, “LSL Healthcare Production Workers Deliver Demand Letter,” Facebook, May 1, 2020,

[12] Wisconsin Historical Society, “Register of the Harold R. Christoffel Papers, circa 1937-1990,” Archival Resources in Wisconsin: Descriptive Finding Aids, accessed May 1, 2020,;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-mss01046;focusrgn=bioghist;cc=wiarchives;byte=380412756.

[13] Michael D. Shear et al., “The Lost Month: How a Failure to Test Blinded the U.S. to Covid-19,” The New York Times, March 28, 2020,

Read more

Immigrant workers from LSL Healthcare, who make PPE, demand 14 days paid quarantine after a co-worker died from Covid-19. Arise Chicago. “LSL Healthcare Production Workers Deliver Demand Letter.” Facebook, May 1, 2020.

Reuters, “White House blocks Dr. Anthony Fauci from testifying to Congress,” May 2, 2020.

Lerman, Rachel, and Nitasha Tiku. “Amazon, Instacart Workers Launch May Day Strike to Protest Treatment during the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Washington Post, May 1, 2020.

*If the pdf thumbnails are not appearing, please reload the page.

Mitchell, Chip. “Nursing Home Workers In Illinois Move Toward Strike As Deadly Virus Spreads.” WBEZ Chicago, April 27, 2020.
Einenkel, Walter. “Smithfield Pork Executives Deflect Blame for the South Dakota COVID-19 Outbreak on Immigrant Workers.”, April 22, 2020.
Elk, Mike. “With 23 UAW Members Dead, UAW Halts Big 3 Reopening Next Week – Payday Report.” Payday Report (blog), April 24, 2020.
Medina, Daniel A. “As Amazon, Walmart, and Others Profit Amid Coronavirus Crisis, Their Essential Workers Plan Unprecedented Strike.” The Intercept, April 28, 2020.
Jackson, Janine. “‘This Many Strikes Says That Something Fundamentally Is Changing in the Country.’” Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (blog), April 16, 2020.
Levey, Noam N. “Trump Administration Blocks Public Disclosure on Coronavirus Supplies.” Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2020.
Mcminn, Sean, and Ruth Talbot. “Mobile Phone Data Show More Americans Are Leaving Their Homes, Despite Orders.”, May 1, 2020.

AHA. “Hospitals and Health Systems Face Unprecedented Financial Pressures Due to COVID-19.” American Hospital Association, May 2020.

Meyer, Gregory. “John Tyson Laments Breakdown of Meat System His Family Pioneered.” Financial Times, May 1, 2020.
Featherstone, Liz. “On Strike — No Rent.” Jacobin, May 1, 2020.
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Additional Links

* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (, the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (, the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (, as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.