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Report on May Day action in so-called Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in support of the 5 Demands.
On May Day, an autonomous group of individuals carried out a series of banner drops in Pittsburgh in support of the 5 global demands. In this time of crisis, it is more important than ever that we prioritize the safety and well-being of our neighbors and communities over the profits of the owning class or a quick return to “normal.” Too many of us in Pittsburgh believe that the course of the response to this pandemic is out of our control, that we can only make the best of plans and actions handed down from on high by politicians, landlords, and business owners.
It does not have to be that way. With these banners, we are spreading awareness of the possibilities of collective action, hoping to foster the knowledge that we as people can make the decisions that will keep us and our people safe, housed, and secure despite the changes that the virus has made necessary. These problems are systemic, and our demands are inextricable from one another. We cannot have homes for all if we do not cancel rent, debt, and mortgage, or if prisoners are released without healthcare and homes to go to. Our power lies in our autonomy and our solidarity—together, we can all protect one another.
Demand 1: Free Healthcare
Free testing, treatment, and medical care for all. We must be able to seek access to preventative and emergency care without fear of debt or incarceration. With health insurance tied to employment, millions of newly unemployed people have lost access to medical care in the midst of a pandemic.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, over 2 million Pennsylvania residents had unpaid medical debt. As the health crisis continues, we must expect this number to increase dramatically. We need to radically expand access to COVID-19 testing and make healthcare available for all people, regardless of class, employment status, and ability to pay. In response to the crisis, the government has funded a $2 trillion dollar stimulus package that functions primarily to bail out billionaires. This is proof that we have the capability to take drastic measures to protect vulnerable populations during this crisis; what we lack is the political will. For this reason, the masses of unemployed and working people must come together to demand a radical new approach to health care access in this country. We need to stop protecting corporations and the exploiting classes. We need testing, treatment, and healthcare for all, and we need it now!
Demand 2: Workers Decide
Work can only continue on our terms. Guaranteed benefits and expanded insurance for the unemployed. Paid sick leave, hazard pay and worker protections for essential sectors. Any essential service must adopt strict protective measures for workers and their families.
We call on Governor Wolf and the state legislature to defend workers’ right to decide how and when they go back to work, once widespread testing, tracing and necessary protective measures have been made free, accessible, and available. Workers across the globe are communicating and organizing together to resist premature reopening of businesses and worksites. Workers in “essential” industries such as healthcare, sanitation, food production, and retail are coming together to demand appropriate protections and compensation. If workers aren’t given paid sick leave, hazard pay, worker protection, and personal and medical protection, there will be hell to pay when we strike. We demand that employers stop asking workers to risk their lives for their employer’s accumulation of wealth!
Demand 3: No Paying, No Debt
Cancel rent and mortgage payments, utility and bill collections and all debt payments for the duration of the pandemic. No work means no pay. The unemployed cannot be forced to choose between survival and settling their debts.
Prior to COVID-19, two in five Americans and three in five renters across the United States would have been unable to afford a $400 dollar emergency expense. According to reports, about 59% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, with 44% struggling to make payments on their bills and credit card debts. In Pittsburgh, 22% of residents live at or below the poverty line, significantly higher than that of the state average of 13.3%. Comparisons of today’s economy to the 2008 financial crisis indicate that we are heading for a collapse that could eclipse the recession of twelve years ago. We cannot repeat our past mistakes. The $2 trillion stimulus package that was passed in late March must work for the people, not Wall Street.
Even with the $1200 stimulus check, many who are out of work will not be able to make their payments. If we are unable to work, we are unable to pay. The unemployed cannot be expected to bear the burden of debt during the pandemic.
We call upon the Pennsylvania state legislature to sign on to bill HR 6515 introduced by Representatives Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee of Allegheny County, Representative Elizabeth Fiedler of Philadelphia and Representative Danielle Friel Otten of Chester County, to suspend rent and mortgage payments during the COVID crisis. Moreover, we challenge landlords and banks to open their ‘rainy day funds’ to their lenders, and tenants and individuals to organize with their neighbors through the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters.
Demand 4: Free Prisoners
Release high-risk inmates and those held on bail from jails and prisons immediately. Release all immigrants and asylum seekers held in detention centers. Provide care for those infected and adequate minimum distance requirements for remaining inmates. Prison cannot mean a guaranteed death sentence.
Formerly incarcerated folks have reported to Jailbreak (a jail after-care support group) the poor conditions of those currently inside Allegheny County Jail. N95 masks given with the seals broken, 1 roll of toilet paper per week to be shared with a cell-mate, limited access to soap, medical care and testing, just to name a few. If the state is going to keep people in the jail, it is paramount that they treat all those behind their walls in a safe and humane manner.
Dr. Debra L. Brogen, the newly appointed Director of the ACHD, must do more. Those inside must have proper access to basic hygiene and medical needs, including testing anyone that has even 1 symptom. If Dr. Brogen does not act, the jail will inevitably become a death camp. With how easily the virus transmits we know cases are rising daily. As of May Day 2020, there are 27 positive tests for those incarcerated—out of only 48 total tests. There are over 1,600 people currently locked up. We believe in the end of the industrial prison complex. Free Them All!
Demand 5: Homes For All
Shelter the houseless. Halt eviction proceedings. Sheltering in place is the most effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Open unoccupied homes and hotels to anyone who needs shelter. End the criminalization and sweeps of houseless encampments.
Housing is a human right, and collectively we have the capability to house everyone. Renters across the region are still facing the prospect of houslessness, eviction, and increases in their rent, while landlords sit idly by waiting for our rent checks. Moments of crisis such as this pandemic force us to make a choice: safety and security for the people, or profits for those who own the buildings we live in?
Seventy percent of Americans are under lockdown orders. Although banks and homeowners have been offered forgiveness for late-payments and adjustments to mortgages, many of our most vulnerable are left without a safety net yet again. In a small sample of houseless individuals in Boston, 36% tested positive for COVID-19. Other cities have created housing programs that open empty hotels to houseless individuals. Pittsburgh must follow suit. We understand that these are temporary solutions in a long, systematic struggle against the powers of privilege, property, systemic racism, and capitalism, but even temporary solutions are worth our while during a crisis such as this.
If we cannot rely on those in power to protect us, we have to take matters into our own hands by organizing with our neighbors, negotiating with our landlords, and if necessary, taking part in a rent strike. We stand collectively in agreement with the Pittsburgh Union of Regional Renters’ (PURR) call to:
- Cancel rent
- Cancel mortgages
- Extend the eviction moratorium (currently expiring May 8)
- Provide protective equipment for all workers
- Guarantee shelter to the unhomed
- Guarantee paid sick leave
- Decarcerate the Allegheny County jail. It remains inhumane and a deadly health risk.
We know that these 5 demands are not relevant only in the time of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Regardless of the course of the pandemic and the government’s response to it, these demands will continue to guide us towards a better world in which we can all thrive. These are difficult and scary times; there is no going back to the patterns of living and working we were familiar with before this global pandemic. Even scarier is the fact that this was inevitable—this moment of realization that the system we had before was not created for the welfare of all. The needs that the 5 Demands address existed before the crisis, but have made unmistakably clear by the pandemic’s effect on a system with no extra space for those at the margins. Although COVID-19 is the immediate cause of much suffering and our response to it is our priority, the underlying problem is not the virus, but the stranglehold that capitalism holds on our lives and our ways of thinking. Until it is destroyed, we will continue to fight.