Skip to content

Taking Back Power

On May Day, reflecting on the year in labor

Arise, fellow workers: May Day is upon us! Hoist the maypole, drop some banners, take the day off work, and dance in the streets because this day is ours. It’s been bought and paid for many times over with the blood, sweat, and tears of those who came before us. No matter what the ghost of Grover Cleveland and the Labor Day lobby want us to think, the first of May will always belong to the toilers. As is tradition, with it comes not only the first stirrings of spring, but a renewed sense of hope—and more importantly, purpose—for the struggles ahead.

This year’s International Workers Day will be one to remember. As we recognize all we’ve won since May 1, 1886—the day that 80,000 people marched through the streets of Chicago in the world’s very first May Day demonstration, led in part by anarchist orator and organizer Lucy Parsons, her husband Albert, and their children—even the most starry-eyed union maid must admit how much further we need to go.

On that first May Day, workers were calling for an eight-hour workday. Now, 133 years later, workers across the United States are still exploited for the profit of their capitalist overlords, many forced to work long hours in unsafe working conditions for low pay. Today’s gig economy mirrors the “piecework” system of the early twentieth century in which workers were paid by output, not time. Compare the many women garment workers who would take home extra sewing work to complete by candlelight, straining their eyes and fingers to earn a few extra pennies per piece, with the independent contractors of today—the domestic workers, adjunct professors, freelance writers, sex workers, ridesharing drivers, and many others who must cobble together scraps of work in the hope of approximating a livable wage. The majority of them are still excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which furnishes a number of critical worker protections. We’ve got electric lights now, sure, but beyond that, how much has really changed?

Even the most starry-eyed union maid must admit how much further we need to go.

These untenable conditions are, of course, why independent contractors are at the center of one of the biggest stories in labor right now. Whether it’s Uber and Lyft drivers organizing strikes to protest their employers’ predatory practices or the launch of the Industrial Workers of the World’s new Freelance Journalists Union, the precariat have made it clear that they’re more than willing to stand up against the gig economy and fight for better working conditions. It’s a good thing, too, because the odds remain stacked against them. As the National Employment Law Project reports, corporate lobbyists have dug in at both the state and federal level to push legislation that would deny gig economy workers access to a minimum wage and other basic employee protections. The Trump regime’s Department of (anti-)Labor has signaled support for these efforts, because of fucking course it has.

Leaving the Department of Labor and National Labor Relations Board in Republican hands means that workers have suffered, and will continue to suffer, as Trump lackeys further roll back worker protections, punish gig economy workers, cut important safety regulations, and push for a federal “right-to-work” law engineered to kneecap unions’ power. Trump’s prospective nominee for the Federal Reserve Board, conservative ghoul Stephen Moore, even expressed his support in 2016 for rolling back child labor laws, noting his desire to see children “starting to work at 11, 12.”

The threats faced by immigrant workers are even more dire, thanks in part to the impact of Trump’s racist, xenophobic policies and brutal workplace raids by ICE. This is what makes the examples set by the Teamsters Joint Council 16 (who have declared themselves a “sanctuary union” and sworn to protect their undocumented members), Brandworkers (a retail and food service advocacy organization who have fought back against ICE), and Jobs With Justice (a national coalition that has created a Worker Defense Toolkit to help unions and workers targeted by immigration raids) so vitally important: a labor movement that does not mobilize to protect its most vulnerable workers is not a labor movement worth having.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress,” Frederick Douglass once said, resonant not only in his capacity as an abolitionist but also a union man, elected president of one of the nation’s first Black labor unions, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU), in 1870. The labor movement of today, forcefully diminished by decades of anti-worker legislation, is well-versed in struggle, but in 2019, there has also been a significant amount of progress—even a fairly staggering amount, given the current administration’s prolonged war on the working class and the continued ravages of living in a neoliberal hellscape.

A labor movement that does not mobilize to protect its most vulnerable workers is not a labor movement worth having.

The wave of #RedforEd teachers’ strikes that rocked 2018 has continued to spread; teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland as well as Denver, Colorado and West Virginia struck for higher wages, smaller class sizes, better working conditions, and to push back against encroaching charter schools. Graduate students, adjunct professors, and student workers have been organizing and striking as well, with teaching assistants and grad students hitting the bricks in Chicago, Pittsburgh grad students holding a vote for union recognition, and CUNY adjunct professors’ #7korStrike campaign all adding to the momentum. Nurses in New York City represented by the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) threatened to strike—and won their demands for safer staffing levels without having to go out at all.

Given the Supreme Court’s current conservative bias, unions feared that the outcome of the Janus v. AFSCME case would be disastrous; they were right in that regard, as the court’s decision was not only incredibly damaging to collective bargaining rights but has set a dangerous, anti-worker precedent. But the doomsday scenario that some predicted never came to pass. Instead of draining union coffers and decimating membership rolls, post-Janus, public sector union membership has held steady—and in some cases actually increased.

Labor actions have also swept through the food service industry: several locations of the Northwestern chain Burgerville organized with the IWW and won the nation’s first federally recognized fast food union, while workers at Little Big Burger have gone public with their demand for recognition. San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing became one of the first American craft breweries to unionize. Amazon warehouse workers in New York are continuing their push for unionization, as are Whole Foods workers—despite CEO Jeff Bezos’ aggressive history of union-busting. Most recently, Stop & Shop workers across New England brought the bosses to their knees by calling over 30,000 workers out on an eleven-day strike that cost the company millions.

While print newspapers have long enjoyed union protections, until recently, digital media workers had been left to fend for themselves in an increasingly volatile industry. Many still are, but since 2015, thousands of new union members have joined the Writers Guild of America, East and the NewsGuild, and digital media publications continue to fall like dominoes into union recognition (though some, like Condé Nast, Vice UK, and Buzzfeed, are stalling, or using tired “we’re a family!” rhetoric to justify refusing to recognize their workers’ unions altogether).

It’s already looking as though one of labor’s next great battles will be pitched in the Democratic presidential primaries, and more broadly, in the 2020 election. Trump has settled into a cozy routine of attacking union leaders and organized labor in general, through policy machinations as well as with his own greasy Twitter fingers. His ire will almost certainly not abate as unions—who he erroneously regards as “his” people due to a profound and lazily racist ignorance of who actually constitutes the working class in this country—inevitably hand out endorsements to a Democrat.

With all this momentum, and all of this newly won power, it would be a dreadful shame to slide back into complacency.

But the jury remains out on exactly which of the many current presidential hopefuls will clinch the coveted union nod, and with public support of unions hovering at a robust 62 percent, labor has a chance here to really make its vote count. Much has already been made of former vice president and establishment favorite Joe Biden’s efforts to shore up labor support (he notched the first endorsement of the race, from the International Association of Firefighters), but Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg have all been making union-friendly noises, with several rallying around the Stop & Shop strike. Kamala Harris has been openly courting union leaders in California, but Bernie Sanders is probably Biden’s biggest threat in terms of securing the union vote.

In a country where the mere specter of socialism is enough to send the ruling class and their lapdogs into paroxysms of horror, we’re sadly quite far-removed from the days when Eugene V.  Debs, quoting Samuel Johnson, tossed off rebellious bon mots like “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” as a candidate for president. Still, it will be a severe disappointment to the many thousands of rank-and-file workers who have found renewed strength or brand new energy in this movement if the labor establishment chooses to back yet another centrist, corporate Democrat. With all this momentum, and all of this newly won power, it would be a dreadful shame to slide back into complacency. As Mother Jones said, “This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes!”

May Day is a perfect catalyst for the current moment. It’s a day of rebirth, of joy and pageantry and solidarity, a day of rest, and riots, and revolt, depending on which color flag you fly (or burn). It’s a thumbed nose to that pale facsimile they call Labor Day. In most other countries, it’s a day off work. But, more than anything else, May Day is a time to remember the dead and to fight for the living. We need to do both: our futures depend on it.