This May Day 2022, despite the violent backlash against progressives across the U.S., and the war raging in Ukraine, I am choosing to be optimistic. 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.
Class consciousness and heightened struggle is fueled these days in part by the highly publicized and increasingly grotesque concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer greedy hands. Elon Musk, who recently purchased Twitter for $44 billion, has a jaw-dropping net worth of over $264 billion. He makes 40,000 times the income of the average U.S. worker. And his fellow billionaires are not far behind. In the shadows of Musk’s fortune, millions of Americans are hustling to survive. Unemployment is down but underemployment (that is, people making less than they need to live decently) is up.
May Day is an international working-class holiday celebrated all over the world to commemorate the fight for the 40-hour workweek; but with rising price of food, deepening debt, and the spiraling cost of housing and health care, and other basics, the option to work only 40 hours a week seems like a luxury for many, even as others walk away from suffocating low-paying jobs, choosing to hustle or live on the edge of the economy instead.
In the current moment, 136 years after Chicago anarchist organizers led the fight for the eight-hour workday, and 82 years after the 40-hour week was implemented, many low-wage workers are in a precarious state, working more than 40 hours at multiple jobs just to make ends meet. At the height of the COVID pandemic, tens of thousands of low-wage workers put their lives on the line providing essential services and conveniences for those who could afford it. They delivered groceries and packages in record volume. They cleaned and sanitized public facilities. They were caregivers, bus drivers and farmworkers. A few got nominal hazard pay, others died because their duties put them in vulnerable situations.
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’ strikes and threats to strike in 2018-2019 and again this year. In 2018 there were prison labor strikes in 17 states, which were organized under the most repressive and difficult circumstances imaginable. Incarcerated workers were paid $2 a day and $1 an hour to risk their lives battling forest fires in California and doing other jobs for below minimum wage. The strikes were a pushback against super-exploitation and prison conditions in general.
In 2021 we also cheered on fast food workers as they staged walkouts, and were wowed by the savvy courage of young graduate students at public and private universities who refused to teach for poverty wages. Many of these workers are women and people of color.
Class struggle is back, with an uptick in work actions and refusals to work under sorely adverse conditions for less than a living wage. Class struggle and class consciousness are palpably on the rise.
This May Day, as we reflect on the past and organize for the future, our vision of organizing has to be connected to our community struggles that transcend the workplace. Working-class uprisings against police violence are a part of the class struggle, because it is Black and Brown working-class and poor people who are the most profoundly impacted. Immigration is a class issue too.
It is not surprising that May Day for many years was the day the immigrant rights movement in Chicago turned out thousands in an annual march from Union Park to downtown. Fluctuating labor demands of U.S. capitalists has fueled immigration policies and practices since the 19th century.
And feminist issues are labor issues too. Sexual harassment on the job, gender pay inequities and the double burden of unpaid reproductive labor make May Day a holiday where heteropatriarchy and sexism have to be on the agenda as well.
And then there is race. Some unfairly juxtapose race versus class as competing focuses for organizing. 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 anti-racist feminist labor movement that focuses not just on a single industry or job site but on working-class people overall and the capitalist system that keeps them down.
In the last decade-plus, we have seen workers take to the streets around a range of issues with an economic nexus, but not strictly tied to the workplace. Millions protested racist police violence. Hundreds of thousands rallied against sexual harassment and abuse. 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 and the Communication Workers of America supported Occupy Wall Street, and many unions, including SEIU, supported Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives. The progressive labor movement looking forward must continue to champion a broad, radically inclusive platform of issues that impact working people’s lives.
In the U.S., the fight for a 40-hour workweek was launched by workers and organizers in the late 1800s, many of them immigrants, with expansive views of freedom and liberation: anarchists, socialists, pre-Bolshevik communists and nascent feminists.
Now we are living in difficult times with white nationalism vying for the hearts and minds of white workers, urging them to blame non-white workers, immigrants, feminists and leftists 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.