Despite the backlash against progressives in the U.S. and the ongoing war in Ukraine, I choose to be optimistic this May Day 2022. We have much to celebrate this year, including the recent organizing victory of the Amazon workers in New York and the union drives of Starbucks’ workers around the country that succeeded in the face of massive union-busting.
The increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and less greedy people is fueling class consciousness and increased struggle these days. Elon Musk, who purchased Twitter for $44billion recently, has a staggering net worth in excess of $264 billion. He earns 40,000 times more than the average American worker. His fellow billionaires are not far behind. In the shadows of Musk’s fortune, millions of Americans are hustling to survive. While unemployment is down, underemployment (that’s people who make less than what they need to live decently) has increased.
May Day is a worldwide working-class holiday. It is observed all over the globe to commemorate the 40-hour week. But with rising food prices, deepening debt and spiraling costs for housing and health care, the option of working only 40 hours a week seems like a luxury. While others choose to leave low-paying jobs to hustle or live on edge of the economic system, others are forced to work 40 hours.
Today, 136 year after Chicago anarchist organizers fought to establish the eight-hour day and 82 year after the 40 hour week was established, many low-wage employees are in a precarious position, working more hours than 40 just to make ends meets. Tens of thousands worked at low wages to provide essential services and conveniences to those who could afford them, at the height of the COVID epidemic. They delivered packages and groceries in record volumes. They cleaned and maintained public facilities. They were caregivers. bus driversFarmers and other farmworkers. Some received hazard pay but others died from their duties which put them in danger.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement was launched in 2011 to protest corporate greed of the richest 1 percent of the population, noted scholar and activist Noam Chomsky, declared it a “response to 30 years of class war,” meaning the neoliberal war on poor and working people.
Since then, we’ve seen a wave of teachers’ strikesThreats to strike in 2018-2019 as well as this year. In 2018, there were 17 prison labor strikes, which were held in the most restrictive and difficult conditions. Workers in prison were paid $2 a day and $1 an hourTo risk their lives fighting forest fires in California, and to do other jobs for less than the minimum wage. Strikes were intended to protest prison conditions and super-exploitation.
We cheered on fast-food workers in 2021 as they staged walkouts and were impressed at the savvy and courage of young students at private and public universities, who refused to teach for poverty wage wages. Many of these workers include women and people of colour.
With an increase in work refusals and actions under very adverse conditions, for less than a living wage, class struggle is back. The rise of class consciousness and class struggle is palpable.
As we remember the past and plan for the future, May Day is a time to reflect on the past and connect our organizing vision to the community struggles that go beyond the workplace. Because the most directly impacted are Black and Brown working-class protests against police violence, they are part of the class struggle. Immigration is also a class issue.
It’s not surprising that May Day was the day Chicago’s immigrant rights movement marched from Union Park to the city every year. Since the 19th century, immigration policies and practices have been driven by fluctuating labor needs of U.S. capitalists.
Feminist issues also have to do with labor. May Day is a holiday that addresses heteropatriarchy as well as sexism. It includes sexual harassment on the job, gender pay inequities, and the double burden of unpaid reproduction labor.
There is also race. Some people unfairly compare race and class as competing organizing focuses. The bottom line is we have to build anti-racist feminist labor struggles that center around a principled unity on all the issues that impinge upon workers lives, and those don’t stop at the work site. We need an antiracist feminist labour movement that doesn’t just focus on a particular industry or job, but also on the working class and the capitalist system which keeps them down.
Over the past decade, workers have taken to the streets to protest a variety of issues that have an economic nexus but are not directly related to their workplace. Millions protested racism police violence. Hundreds of thousands marched against sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination. Tens of thousands demanded immigrant Justice. Workers’ struggles include labor struggles, but they include other issues too.
As Audre Lorde once famously said: “We cannot build single issue movements because we do not live single issue lives.” So, just as United Auto Workers supported the civil rights movement, the Longshoremen’s union opposed South African Apartheid. National Nurses United, the Communication Workers of America, and many unions including SEIU supported Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. The progressive labor movement looking forward must continue to champion a broad, radically inclusive platform of issues that impact working people’s lives.
Workers and organizers in the United States launched the fight for a 40-hour week in the late 1800s. Many of them were immigrants with expansive views of freedom.
We are now living in difficult times. White nationalism is trying to win the hearts and minds white workers and urging them blame non-white workers and immigrants for their woes. A multiracial, anti-racist mass movement that links labor to a larger platform of progressive demands — including but not limited to an electoral strategy — is our best hope for building on the fighting spirit that won a shorter workweek, and at its very best, also envisioned and fought for much more.