Today is May Day, a day that around the world is celebrated as a celebration of workers’ rights and the power of collective action. In Europe, protestors celebrated the social and economic gains of the labor movement, while also criticizing the world’s elites over the economic crisis.
In the United States, we’ve largely forgotten that history with May Day’s relationship to workers’ rights being scrubbed in the 1950s hysteria over communism and instead christened “Loyalty Day”.
When we lost that history, working people lost part of an inspiring history of grassroots action. Things like the 8-hour day, the end to child labor, and the right to collectively bargain all came out of the struggles of unionized and non-unionized workers and their allies. Radical historian Howard Zinn said in a recent interview:
“Think back to 1886,” he urged, ” … that last part of the nineteenth century, when corporations were growing more and more powerful … And workers were working ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day in factories, and mills, and mines.” “Particularly in the period, in the 1880s, workers decided they would have to win the eight-hour day by their own efforts, by direct action, by going on strike. And they did, they went on strike all over the country. And the result was, they did win the eight-hour day in many places at that time.”
“It wasn’t written into law … until the 1930s, until the New Deal. But it was the unions, the strikers, who did it first. And so it’s very important to understand that May Day is a symbol of protest against terrible working conditions, and of workers’ solidarity to change that.”
So celebrate today as a day of power, and more importantly, (re)commit yourself to the struggle for social justice. Join a progressive group in West Michigan, call your legislators in support of the Employee Free Choice Act (which would make it easier for workers to form unions), or start a new group or project. History shows us that we have the power to change things–we just need to make the effort.
It’s also worth noting that in recent years, May Day has had a resurgence in the U.S. as a day of protest in support of immigrant rights. Since 2006, massive protests have taken place annually in cities across the United States that have in many cases link immigrant rights and workers rights and forged a broader sense of solidarity across movements.