Well, May Day came and went—without much notice, ironically, at a time when state restrictions are being eased and more workers are made to work amidst the pandemic.

The irony shouldn’t be lost on anybody familiar with the history of May Day.  Also known as International Workers’ Day, it marks the anniversary of a massive worker strike in 1886, when more than 300,000 workers in over 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in demand of an 8-hour workday.

Most Americans (including most workers) probably don’t know this history—especially if they get their news from corporate media, which long ago abandoned labor coverage in favor of the sacred “business” section.  This year, as most years, May Day coverage was virtually absent.

The upshot is that Americans are now more likely to learn about labor history from bumper stickers that say: “The 8-hour workday: brought to you by labor unions.”  To this we can add weekends, minimum wage, social security, workers’ comp, child labor laws, and overtime pay—all “brought to you” by the labor movement.  Countless workers had to fight (and die) for these basic rights, which many of us now take for granted.

In the current crisis, the battle continues, as millions of healthcare, food production, delivery, manufacturing, sanitation, and other frontline workers risk their lives just to keep society going.

What do they get in return? Hazard pay? Guaranteed healthcare?

Nope, they get bells.

At least in Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania State Mayors’ Association organized three minutes of bell ringing on May 3 “in recognition of those still working amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

No doubt, “Bells Across Pennsylvania” was a nice symbolic gesture – it’s right up there with calling workers “heroes.”

But talk is cheap.  And so are symbolic gestures.  Both are grossly inadequate to what workers actually say they want.

“I don’t want to be told I’m a ‘hero’ for being a cashier,” remarked one worker in a tweet that went viral last month.  “I just want $20 an hour.  Please stop calling me a hero and instead call your representatives and tell them we need $20 an hour.”

Obviously, the Pennsylvania Mayor’s Association didn’t get the message.

Neither, it seems, did Congress, which refused to provide workers with hazard pay, guaranteed healthcare, or universal paid leave as part of federal relief packages.

This basically means employers can respond as they wish. Some, like Smucker, are giving workers “hardship pay” and offering 14 days of paid leave to anyone who misses work. It remains to be seen (publicly at least) whether other area employers are doing the same—or if they’re suspending rigid attendance policies that penalize workers for taking (unpaid) time off.

Meanwhile, low-wage workers on the frontlines—harvesting food, stocking shelves, delivering packages, caring for the sick—are seeing the highest death rates.  Many work for less than a living wage and without health benefits, meaning they could contract coronavirus and get stuck with a massive bill or no healthcare at all.

What does it mean when the jobs most critical to sustaining life are themselves not life-sustaining?

Is this how we treat our “heroes”—with compliments rather than compensation?

Is it any wonder workers are fighting back?

On May Day, thousands of employees at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, Walmart, Target and FedEx walked off the job to demand hazard pay and healthier work conditions. The strike followed similar walkouts in March by sanitation workers in Pittsburgh, bus drivers in Detroit, and McDonald’s workers across the country.  All told, there have been over 150 wildcat strikes since the pandemic started, all of them by workers fighting for safer worksites and better pay.

Naturally, this upsets the bosses whose wealth depends on keeping workers in check. If workers organize and strike, production stops—and so does the cash flow. The frenzied push by business owners to put people back to work, despite the risk of death, therefore proves one thing: they don’t make their money, workers do.

Donald Trump likes to brag about building hotels across the world, but it was thousands of construction workers who did the actual work.

Billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos play no actual role in the production of anything.  Yet they take all the profits. Bezos has accumulated $24 billion since mid-March, even as his workers strike for basic protections and get fired for speaking out. A good capitalist, Bezos knows that his wealth depends on keeping workers vulnerable.

Hopefully the crisis makes this kind of exploitation clear, spurring not only better pay for workers but a wave of organizing to boost labor standards and build worker power across “essential” industries.

Because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that workers—not bosses—make the world run.

Joe Tompkins is a Meadville resident and associate professor at Allegheny College.