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May Day 2020: Worker Unity in the Age of Pandemic

Is it finally time for "Solidarity Forever" to be sung in unison across the United States?

Protesters wearing protective face masks demonstrate while maintaining social distancing during the "MyGruni" Car parade on May Day during the novel coronavirus crisis on May 1, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. May Day protests are taking place across Germany today, though as gatherings are limited by authorities to a maximum of 20 people per gathering due to coronavirus lockdown measures, many small protests are taking place instead of traditional, large-scale marches. (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Protesters wearing protective face masks demonstrate while maintaining social distancing during the "MyGruni" Car parade on May Day during the novel coronavirus crisis on May 1, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. May Day protests are taking place across Germany today, though as gatherings are limited by authorities to a maximum of 20 people per gathering due to coronavirus lockdown measures, many small protests are taking place instead of traditional, large-scale marches. (Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Unlike the rest of the world’s democracies, the United States doesn’t use the metric system, doesn’t require employers to provide workers with paid vacations, hasn’t abolished the death penalty and doesn’t celebrate May Day as an official national holiday.

Outside the U.S., May 1 is international workers’ day, observed with speeches, rallies and demonstrations in Asian, Latin America, Europe, Africa, Australia, and Canada.  This year, the global COVID-19 pandemic will keep most workers around the world in their homes rather than, in a typical year, taking to the streets to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions.

But today on this May Day, 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, farmworkers and food processing workers, and many others are in the news.  Trump’s demands that workers in dangerous and vulnerable jobs—such as meat-processing factories—return to work as “essential” employees, without guaranteeing adequate safety measures, is yet another example of why we need a stronger labor movement.

"International celebration of working-class solidarity was started by the U.S. labor movement and soon spread around the world, but it never earned official recognition in this country."

No sector has 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 by 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, once 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 legislative to adopt a similar bill.

But no other cities or states have so far adopted similar laws, leaving laid off workers—28 million have already applied for unemployment insurance—vulnerable to further trauma even after the economy recovers.  Indeed, the current crisis has exposed the fragility of the nation’s economy, health care, and housing systems, and could—some progressive activists insist—lead to a dramatic rethinking of what the country should be doing to improve living and working conditions for America’s families. That’s precisely what the nation’s radical movement was 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 by the U.S. labor movement and soon spread around the world, but it never earned official recognition in this country.

The original May Day was born 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. New technologies made possible new industries, which generated great riches for the fortunate few, but at the expense of workers, many of them immigrants, who worked long hours, under dangerous conditions, for little pay.

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 the appointed date, unions and radical groups orchestrated strikes and large-scale demonstrations in cities across the country. More than 500,000 workers went on strike or marched in solidarity and many 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.

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Within a few years, unions and radical groups around the world had established May Day as an international holiday to commemorate the Haymarket martyrs and continue the 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. Unions sponsored parades to celebrate Labor Day, but such one-day festivities didn’t make corporations any more willing to grant workers decent conditions. To make their voices heard, workers had to resort to massive strikes, typically put down with brutal violence by government troops.

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. But contrary to what President Cleveland had hoped, American workers, their families and allies, found other occasions to mobilize for better working conditions and a more humane society. America witnessed massive strike waves throughout the century, including militant general strikes and occupations in 1919 (including a general strike in Seattle), during the Depression (the 1934 San Francisco general strike, led by the longshoremen’s union; a strike of about 400,000 textile workers that same year; and militant sit-down strikes by autoworkers in Flint, Michigan, women workers at Woolworth’s department stores in New York, aviation workers in Los Angeles and others in 1937) and 1946 (which witnessed the largest strike wave in U.S. history, triggered by pent-up demands following World War II). The feminist, civil rights, environmental, and gay rights movements drew important lessons from these labor tactics.

Meanwhile, May 1 faded away as a day of protest. From the 1920s through the 1950s, radical groups, including the Communist Party, sought to keep the tradition alive with parades and other events, but the mainstream labor movement and most liberal organizations kept their distance, making May Day an increasingly marginal affair. In 1958, during the cold war, 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.

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."

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 government (representing 37 percent of all government employees), so business groups and conservative politicians have targeted public sector unions for destruction.  Last week Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell proposed, in a memo leaked to the press, that the federal government withhold funds to cities and states who are facing bankruptcy due to the closure of most businesses. His plan is designed to punish Democratic cities and states and bust public-sector unions, who are leading the fight against Trump and the Republicans.

Over the past decade, while wages and living standards for the majority of Americans have declined, unions have started making a comeback. The idea of a $15 minimum wage was a pipe dream in 2010 but now is mainstream. 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. The new slogan for many unions is now “One job should be enough.” Congress hasn’t increased the federal minimum wage ($7.25) since 2009, so activists have pushed the issue in cities and states. The Fight for $15 burst forward, with wildcat strikes at fast-food and retail outlets morphing into 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 fight for higher wages has coincided with an upsurge of labor activism, including successful strikes by GM workers and teachers in 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 this year to celebrate May Day, there’s no reason why Americans can’t join together remotely to sing “Solidarity Forever.”

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of  The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style (published in January by The New Press). He is coauthor of the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.

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