This May we sound the alarm about what’s happening to labor.
Last month, the labor movement faced another setback when an overwhelming majority of Amazon workers in a Bessemer, Alabama warehouse voted to oppose unionization efforts. The vote took place not long after troubling accounts of Amazon drivers being unable to take bathroom breaks during their shifts made national news headlines–allegations of unfair working conditions which the company denied. (CBS News) While the outcome of the vote was met with varying levels of surprise from labor leaders and experts, the unsuccessful campaign echoes the decades-long push by corporations and politicians to weaken unions in favor of unbridled capitalism, and at the expense of workers. (Reuters)
Though disappointing for unionization efforts, the failed union drive in Alabama has nevertheless revived discussions about the future of unionization in our country, which feel especially timely: the month of May has long been a historically significant month for both workers and the labor movement. While the U.S. officially celebrates Labor Day in September, the first of this month, also called May Day or International Workers’ Day, has traditionally been observed in other countries as a day of worker solidarity.
We’ll explore the history behind May Day and its significance for workers today. Further, we’ll “seize the moment” during this historically significant month to emphasize the importance of strengthening unions, which continue to be under attack–most recently, by some of the most influential corporate behemoths–and offer ways we can attempt to change the ongoing narrative.
The Origins & Legacy of May Day
Although May Day is not widely recognized in the U.S. as a workers’ holiday as it is in other countries, its origins and importance within the International Socialist movement can actually be traced to workers’ protests within the U.S. On May 1st, 1886, more than 200,000 workers in Chicago and a handful of other U.S. cities gathered in a national demonstration in support of an eight-hour workday, in what is now referred to as the Haymarket affair. Many workers had been subjected to inhumane working hours and conditions, including up to 16 hour-workdays, and were calling for a shorter workday–although this goal would not be achieved until decades later when U.S. law codified the eight-hour workday in 1916. (TIME, Al Jazeera)
While the nationwide strike was intended to be a peaceful protest, 67 policemen and hundreds of protesters were wounded and several were killed in a bomb explosion and ensuing police shootings. In 1889, it was decided at the International Socialist Conference that May 1st would be an international holiday recognizing workers, paying homage to the Haymarket affair incident three years prior. (TIME) Today, more than a dozen countries recognize May Day as an international workers’ holiday, and workers in countries around the world still organize protests on this day. (Al Jazeera)
It’s true that the U.S. government doesn’t officially recognize workers’ rights on May 1st, but workers’ rights activists and organizers have remained cognizant of the day’s significance. In 2012, the Occupy Wall Street movement held protests in major cities throughout the U.S. on May 1st, with the largest gathering fittingly taking place in New York City, to protest corporate greed, income inequality, and the influence of money in Congress. (The Guardian) More recently, amidst the throes of the pandemic and massive layoffs, workers for Amazon, Instacart, and Target organized a strike on May 1st, 2020 to protest unsafe working conditions. Deemed “essential” workers, a number of gig workers and employees walked off the job, calling for increased PPE and safety measures and denouncing the failure of their companies to adequately protect them–a necessary and very appropriate call to action in the spirit of International Workers Day. (NPR)
The Latest Attack on Unions, and Attempting to Change the Narrative
Unfortunately, as we’ve explored in previous articles, workers’ rights, especially the right to unionize, are still under attack. In the failed unionization push in Alabama, accusations of corporate union-busting have come to light. Amazon warehouse workers were reportedly forced to attend mandatory information sessions that discouraged employees from voting in favor of unionizing and told that union dues would eat into their “hard-earned money,” while corporate tried to popularize the slogan “due it without dues.” (NPR) The retail workers union reported that the company even altered a traffic light near the Bessemer warehouse “to prevent organizers from approaching warehouse workers as they left the site.” (New York Times)
Across the country in California, gig workers for ridesharing apps were dealt a blow in the November 2020 election after successful, and expensive, campaigning by companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash convinced voters to uphold the status quo. A majority of California voters approved Proposal 22, allowing app-based transportation and delivery companies to continue classifying their drivers as independent contractors–thus, canceling the prospect of gaining critical employment benefits and protections. Though unionization wasn’t called into question here, the passage of Proposal 22, which largely benefits large corporate actors, reflects an ongoing trend of corporate interests–and dollars–swaying voters’ decisions, largely at the expense of workers and workers’ rights. (New York Times)
It has become clear that large corporations’ anti-union messaging is prevailing and workers’ rights are increasingly under siege, while “the balance is always tipped in favor of employers.” (NPR) Stalled movement on legislation to expand collective bargaining protections, approved in the House of Representatives earlier this year and now facing an uphill battle in the Senate, also dampens hopes for the renewal of our nation’s labor movement. (Reuters) So, how can we fight back against efforts of corporations and policymakers to disadvantage workers–and keep the spirit of May Day alive?
We can start to change the narrative by reckoning with our present reality. Currently, large corporations, like Amazon and Uber, continue to fail as employers, offering their lowest paid employees–or in Uber’s case, independent contractors–meager wages, little to no ability to voice their concerns, and–in Amazon’s case–unsafe working conditions. The pandemic has only amplified these issues, as laid-off workers are turning to the gig economy and short-term roles in order to pay their bills.
That said, as these “unprecedented times” continue, we can capitalize on COVID-19 labor disruptions with continued protests and organized strikes in order to achieve our goals–or at the very least, put pressure on corporations to do better. We can also elect pro-labor political candidates and contact our elected representatives to urge them to support legislation that protects unions and expands collective bargaining rights. Of course, we can also “vote with our dollars” by refusing to support companies that stifle unionization attempts; instead, we can spend our dollars supporting small businesses and companies that allow for unionization.
Although our current narrative and political climate seem hostile to unions, on the whole, there remains a glimmer of hope for the future of our labor movement. To quote Janice Fine, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University, “the history of unions is always about failing forward…workers trying, workers losing, workers trying again.” (New York Times) Though the Bessemer, Alabama unionization drive was unsuccessful, we can continue to hold corporations like Amazon accountable and voice our support for pro-labor policies and unionization drives in the future. We must continue to “fail forward”; in doing so, the labor movement may actually have a chance at success.