Outside the U.S., May 1 is international workers’ day. In Asia, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Canada it’s normally observed with speeches, rallies, and demonstrations calling for higher wages and improved working conditions. Unlike the rest of the world’s democracies, the United States, which alone among first-world nations doesn’t require employers to provide workers with paid vacations, doesn’t celebrate May Day as an official national holiday.
This year, the global Covid-19 pandemic will keep most workers around the world in their homes on May Day. But Americans are more aware of the plight of workers than at any time in decades.
Despite the Trump administration’s incompetence and indifference in handling the virus crisis and the economic collapse, the courage and resilience of front-line health care workers, grocery store and drug store employees, farm workers, food processing workers, and many others are in the news.
Trump’s most recent demand – that workers in meat-processing plants return to work as “essential” employees, with no guarantee of adequate safety measures – is is yet another example of why we need a stronger labor movement.
Few sectors have been more disrupted by the current crisis than the tourism and sports industries, where millions of hotel, restaurant, stadium, and sports arena workers have lost their jobs. Last week, the labor movement in Los Angeles – which is heavily dependent on tourism – won a big victory when the City Council passed an ordinance by a 15-0 vote to require those businesses to offer jobs in the hospitality and other sectors to their former employees, based on seniority, at their existing wage levels, when they start rehiring. The measure will guarantee that workers are not replaced by newer, cheaper labor once the economy rebounds. UNITE HERE (the hotel workers union), the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor spearheaded the campaign for the law. That coalition will now seek to get the state legislature to adopt a similar bill.
But in too many other cities around the country, the 28 million people who have already applied for unemployment insurance remain vulnerable to further trauma, even if the economy starts to recover. The current crisis has exposed the fragility of the nation’s economy, as well as its health care and housing systems. As a result, many progressives are demanding a dramatic rethinking of what the country should do to improve living and working conditions for America’s families.
That’s precisely what the nation’s radicals were thinking in the late 19th Century when they first developed the idea for May Day. Yes, this international celebration of working-class solidarity was started in the United States by labor organizers. The holiday Americans had invented soon spread around the world, even if it never earned official recognition here.
The original May Day was a byproduct of the movement for an eight-hour workday. After the Civil War, unregulated capitalism ran rampant in America. It was the Gilded Age, a time of merger mania, increasing concentration of wealth, and growing political influence by corporate power brokers known as Robber Barons.
As the gap between the rich and other Americans widened dramatically, workers began to resist in a variety of ways. The first major wave of labor unions pushed employers to limit the workday to 10, then eight, hours. The 1877 strike by tens of thousands of railroad, factory and mine workers — which shut down the nation’s major industries and was brutally suppressed by the corporations and their friends in government — was the first of many mass actions to demand living wages and humane working conditions. By 1884, the campaign had gained enough momentum that the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution at its annual meeting, “that eight hours shall constitute legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”
On that first May Day, unions and radical groups orchestrated work actions and large-scale demonstrations in cities across the country. More than 500,000 workers went on strike or marched in solidarity and even more people protested in the streets. In Chicago, a labor stronghold, at least 30,000 workers struck. Rallies and parades across the city more than doubled that number, and the May 1 demonstrations continued for several days. The protests were mostly nonviolent, but they included skirmishes with strikebreakers, company-hired thugs, and police.
On May 3, at a rally outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company factory, police fired on the crowd, killing at least two workers. The next day, at a rally at Haymarket Square to protest the shootings, police moved in to clear the crowd. Someone threw a bomb at the police, killing at least one officer. Another seven policemen were killed during the ensuing riot, and police gunfire killed at least four protesters and injured many others.
After a controversial investigation, seven anarchists were sentenced to death for murder, while another was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The anarchists won global notoriety, being seen as martyrs by many radicals and reformers, who viewed the trial and executions as politically motivated.
Within a few years, inspired by both the American labor organizers and the Haymarket martyrs, unions and radical groups around the world had established May Day as an international holiday to celebrate the ongoing struggle for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights and social justice.
In the U.S., however, the burgeoning Knights of Labor, uneasy with May Day’s connection to anarchists and other radicals, adopted another day to celebrate workers’ rights. In 1887, Oregon was the first state to make “Labor Day” an official holiday, celebrated in September. Other states soon followed.
In 1894, the American Railway Union, led by Eugene Debs, went on strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company to demand lower rents (Pullman was a company town that owned its employees’ homes) and higher pay following huge layoffs and wage cuts. In solidarity with the Pullman workers, railroad workers across the country boycotted the trains with Pullman cars, paralyzing the nation’s economy as well as its mail service. President Grover Cleveland declared the strike a federal crime and called out 12,000 soldiers to break the strike. They crushed the walkout and killed at least two protesters.
Six days later, Cleveland — facing worker protests for his repression of the Pullman strikers — signed a bill creating Labor Day as an official national holiday in September. He hoped that giving the working class a day off to celebrate one Monday a year might pacify them.
For most of the 20th century, Labor Day was reserved for festive parades, picnics, and speeches sponsored by unions in major cities. Meanwhile, May 1 faded away as a day of protest in America, even though the Communist Party and other radical groups tried to keep the tradition alive.
In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, with a renewed Red Scare still in full swing, even in the wake of the most virulent forms of McCarthyism, President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Loyalty Day. Each subsequent president has issued a similar proclamation, although few Americans know about or celebrate the day.
However, things have begun to change recently. In 2006, some U.S. unions and immigrant rights groups resurrected May Day as an occasion for protest. That year, millions of people in over 100 cities — including more than a million in Los Angeles, 200,000 in New York, and 300,000 in Chicago — participated in May Day demonstrations. Each year since immigrant workers and their allies have adopted May Day as an occasion for protest.
America is now in the midst of a new Gilded Age with a new group of corporate Robber Barons, many of them operating on a global scale. The top of the income scale has the biggest concentration of income and wealth since 1928. Several decades of corporate-backed assaults on unions have left only seven percent of private-sector employees with union cards. More than half of America’s 15 million union members now work for the government (representing 37 percent of all government employees), so business groups and conservative politicians have targeted public-sector unions for destruction. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel opposed federal relief funds to cities and states facing bankruptcy and massive layoffs, a plan designed to weaken government employee unions, who have led the fight against Trump and the Republicans. Meanwhile, a Brookings Institution report released in November found that more than 53 million people, or 44 percent of all workers ages 18 to 64, earn low hourly wages. Many families need more than two jobs to make ends meet, including one-fifth of all schoolteachers.
But as wages and living standards for the majority of Americans have declined in the past decade, the appeal of unions has started to make a comeback.
The new slogan for many unions is now “One job should be enough.” Congress hadn’t increased the federal minimum wage ($7.25) since 2009, so activists launched “The Fight for $15,” with wildcat strikes at fast-food and retail outlets prompting successful legislative initiatives and ballot campaigns. According to the National Employment Law Project, 24 states and 48 cities and counties will raise their minimum wages sometime in 2020. In 32 of those jurisdictions, it will reach or surpass $15 per hour. Activists also pressured McDonald’s, Walmart, Disney, Bank of America, and other large employers into raising their pay scales. The idea of a $15 minimum wage, a pipe dream in 2010, is now mainstream.
The fight for higher wages has coincided with an upsurge of successful strikes by GM workers, and of teachers in both red and blue states. According to a recent Gallup poll, public support for unions reached a two-decade peak of 64 percent. There’s a growing demand for paid family leave – a policy that, had it been in place three months ago, would have lessened the suffering caused by the pandemic. During the current election season, many Democratic politicians have called for a federal $15 minimum wage, unlinking health insurance from jobs, reform of labor laws to make it easier for workers to unionize, a requirement that workers elect representatives to serve on the boards of U.S. corporations.
Workers at Amazon, Walmart, and other companies will be engaged in a one-day job action on Friday. Renters around the country have planned a one-day rent strike.
So, while there may not be big parades and mass protests on May Day in this pandemic year, there’s no reason why Americans can’t join together to sing “Solidarity Forever” –even if remotely — while sheltering in place.
Peter Dreier is Professor of Politics at Occidental College. You can tweet with him @PeterDreier.