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May Day demonstration leads to arrests
(Charlie L. Harper III)

This story was updated at 4 p.m.

At least 15 protesters organized by Rent Strike ATX were arrested today during a demonstration in honor of May Day.

APD tweeted at 3:22 that protesters were arrested for obstructing a highway as they had gathered along the I-35 frontage road in downtown Austin. Rent Strike ATX disputes the department's description of events.

The group's demands are free healthcare, no work, no debt, prisoner release and homes for all.

Rent Strike ATX wasn't the only organization that made plans for May Day.

Controversial local organization Defend Our Hoodz has also called for a rent strike to begin today. So far, residents of a half dozen apartment complexes have joined in, per the group's Facebook page, calling for an immediate stoppage of rent and utility bills, plus full wage restitution "regardless of circumstance or immigration status," per its website. It is unclear if the efforts are related.

Local police were prepared for such demonstrations.

"The Austin Police Department is aware of planned 'May Day' events, and will be appropriately staffed to ensure that attendees and the public remain safe while all parties have the ability to exercise their First Amendment Rights to assembly and free speech," the department stated in an emailed statement this morning.

Earlier this week, Austin City Hall was vandalized, with red paint smeared across the front doors and anti-capitalism messages spray painted on the steps outside, including one that read: "May 1 International Workers Day" with a hammer and sickle.

Yesterday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the Texas Workforce Commission has issued new guidance regarding unemployment claims. Now, certain people may refuse to return to work and still receive unemployment benefits, including people 65 years and older.

"This flexibility in the unemployment benefit process will help ensure that Texans with certain health and safety concerns will not be penalized for choosing not to return to work," Abbott said in a statement.

But workers advocacy groups are pushing for more protections as businesses reopen. In an April 29 letter to the TWC, the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Texas AFL-CIO, Texas Appleseed and other organizations called for this flexibility to apply to people with underlying medical conditions or otherwise immunocompromised and for clearer guidance on what qualifies as a suitable work environment.

"We really need to have more clarity in these uncertain times about who's actually going to be allowed to stay home if they don't feel safe going back to work," said Jonathan Lewis, senior economic opportunity policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "Especially because people can't contact TWC even for normal things that they need to do [because of high call volume]."

Lewis added that certain workers are more vulnerable—including people of color, immigrants and women—because they may not have the option to work from home or otherwise mitigate their risk of exposure. "There's not really a space for a strong collective worker voice," he said.


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