Happy May Day!
Across the world, workers and unions are rallying to celebrate International Workers’ Day. Events and protests are planned throughout Europe and the rest of the world, stretching from Slovakia and the Czech Republic to France, Italy, Turkey, and the United States, commemorating the labor movement, honoring workers and their contributions to society, and carrying the torch held by ancient working-class luminaries into the twenty-first century by imagining a world in which production and distribution are guided by human needs rather than private profit.
Although the United States does not officially recognize International Workers’ Day, and Americans instead celebrate Labor Day in September, which most of us associate more with barbecues and parades than workers’ rights or class conflict, the history of May Day has deep roots in the United States. May 1 was designated as a day to celebrate the working class and labor movement by the Marxist International Socialist Congress in Paris in 1889, and the date, initially proposed by the American Federation of Labor, was selected to commemorate a general strike in the United States that began on May 1, 1886 and ultimately led to the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, in which several workers were killed or injured by police.
Ironically, the initial campaign that inspired both the 1886 general strike – which included 300,000 workers across the country – and the 1889 commemoration of International Workers’ Day was the movement for an eight-hour workday, a campaign that endures with renewed relevance today. Amazon workers in Staten Island (and across the country) are calling for an end to the company’s scheduling practices, which often require workers to endure ten- to twelve-hour shifts in addition to mandatory overtime; Kellogg’s workers on strike last year were protesting, among many other indignities, the twelve-hour shifts and seven-day workweeks regularly scheduled by the company; John Deere workers struck for similar reasons last year, decrying regular ten- to twelve-hour workdays; and Starbucks workers nationwide are organizing in part as a response to the company’s onerous scheduling practices. These examples are merely a few of many, and they demonstrate that many of the rights won by the labor movement in the twentieth century have increasingly withered in the twenty-first.
American workers, through the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in 1938, which enshrined an eight-hour workday and 40-hour workweek into law, eventually triumphed in their struggle for a shorter workday, but those rights have eroded since the latter half of the twentieth century. Millions of workers – including those misclassified as independent contractors and gig workers – are excluded from FLSA entirely. Moreover, mandatory arbitration clauses, upheld by the Supreme Court in cases such as AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, legally preclude many low-wage workers from vindicating their FLSA rights in courts, requiring them instead to bring claims to private arbitrators, where the likelihood of success is slim, and, because class-actions and other forms of cost-shifting or sharing are often barred, the practical expense of bringing a claim can ultimately be prohibitive. And, of course, FLSA guarantees overtime pay only for those weekly hours worked in excess of 40 for a single employer — meaning that, if a worker must find a second job because of low pay at his first, which requires him to work aggregate hours far beyond 40 per week, FLSA is not concerned. Even where it does apply, FLSA is chronically underenforced, and many workers, particularly immigrants, are unaware of their federal employment law rights in the first place. The result is that Americans — particularly those clustered in low-wage sectors, such as service work — are working more hours than ever, far more than by workers in any peer nation in the world, and FLSA’s historical promise of an eight-hour workday has largely been rendered illusory.
In short, while May Day is an opportunity to commemorate the incredible achievements, historical and present, of the labor movement, the struggle is far from finished, and the fight for an eight-hour workday, and a better social system that values and supports all workers and all people, continues today.
To that end, the second ALU election in Staten Island ended on Saturday, and the NLRB will begin counting votes at its Brooklyn office tomorrow, at 10:00 a.m. to determine whether the warehouse workers opted to designate ALU as their exclusive bargaining representative. Moreover, the Starbucks Workers United campaign continues to electrify the nation, and, as of this weekend, more than 250 stores have petitioned the NLRB for elections, and more than 40 have voted to unionize across the country. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that President Biden is considering inviting union organizers from Amazon and Starbucks to the White House in what would be a major showing of support for the union surges. The labor movement has endured many demoralizing losses and challenges in recent decades, but, as recent events demonstrate, the present is unwritten, and past failures do not preclude future victories. The flame of solidarity can never be extinguished, and the struggle for a better world continues this May Day and beyond.