Celebrating May Day
Working people have proved time and again that when they join together in a union, they have the power to win better pay, better working conditions and a chance at a decent life. Organized labor won the broadly shared prosperity that in the 20th century became synonymous with the American way of life. Today, as corporations resist union organizing and consolidate power, work must be done to restore lost progress, and to ensure that this time, Americans of color fully share in the gains they have been blocked from, as the wealthy few used race to divide working people. This Saturday, for International Workers’ Day — more commonly known as May Day — we commemorate the struggle and sacrifice of working people who built that movement and won the 40-hour week through decades of struggle, and we anticipate future victories that include all working people, no exceptions.
May Day marks the 1886 general strikes that took place at Chicago’s Haymarket Square and in cities across the U.S. in demand of a fair workweek. More than 300,000 workers participated. Ohio workers took part in the May Day demonstrations and subsequent labor organizing. In Cincinnati, 32,000 workers walked out in support of the eight-hour workday. The American Federation of Labor, an outgrowth of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions that planned the general strikes, was formally established in Columbus that same year. It took decades of struggle — and some workers were killed — but by 1938 organized labor won the 40-hour workweek in the Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal.
May Day is now formally commemorated in 66 countries and celebrated informally in many more. Now, as corporations resist labor organizing; misclassify workers; hold wages down; continue to use race to divide Americans and marginalize those who are undocumented, there is much work to do to protect the victories and advance progress. The eight-hour workday has been won, though work remains to defend it. As critical infrastructure workers face heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19 — many for pay that falls short of the cost of living — and workers face long-term unemployment, unions are as vital as ever. Where they are strong, unions make wages more fair across race and gender; they help low- and middle-income workers keep a larger share of the value they create by preventing the wealthiest from capturing most of the gains; and even non-unionized workers in union-dense industries get higher pay. If passed, the federal Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act will make organizing easier by ending delay and intimidation tactics employers use to resist workers’ efforts to form a union.
Today the demand for a minimum wage that meets the cost of living has become the animating force behind revitalized union organizing drives and won passage of a $15 minimum wage in nine states plus D.C., home to nearly four in 10 Americans. Bills in Ohio’s House and Senate would make $15 a reality for Ohio’s lowest-paid workers, and the federal Raise the Wage Act would extend that to all of America. I found in my latest report that a $15 minimum wage in Ohio and equal treatment for tipped workers would benefit nearly 1.6 million Ohioans with an average annual raise of $3,900. It would also make wages more fair, for women paid only 86 cents on the dollar compared with men, and Black Ohioans, whose wages have been pushed down over four decades.
Working people deserve better. They deserve safe workplaces, fair pay and a voice on the job.
This Saturday, Clevelanders will join working people across the world to demonstrate in honor of those who fought, and some who gave their lives, in the struggle to build an economy where all working people can thrive. Policy Matters staff will join the Northeast Ohio Worker Center in University Circle at noon. The event kicks off the center’s campaign in support of a Worker Bill of Rights. Won’t you join us?