Friday, May 1, 2009

Reflections on May Day

"Eight hours for sleep, Eight hours for work, Eight hours for what we will."

Today is May Day, which is International Workers' Day and the original Labor Day. In the spirit of this day of celebration, I'm going to talk (briefly) about the history of May Day, and then more fully about where I think the labor movement stands today.

In 1886, the soon-to-be American Federation of Labor (AFL) declared that May 1st would be a national general strike on behalf of the eight hour day. Anywhere from 300,000 to a million workers downed tools and walked off the job to rallies, where speakers proclaimed that the American labor movement had declared that the workday would henceforth be only eight hours, with no reduction in pay.

It wasn't a request, it wasn't a protest, it wasn't an appeal. Rather, the American labor movement simply announced that workers had made the decision and that was that. The idea that American workers could dictate their working conditions unilaterally is so audacious, so far removed from the unthinking acceptance of management prerogatives we see today, that it almost seems to have come from a different world.

Yet eighty thousand workers in Chicago took part in a parade that wound around the city, especially around the McCormick Reaper Factory where a bitter strike was going on. Two days later, a rally was held outside the factory, and a great mass of protesters confronted some 400 strikebreakers. Chicago Police fired into the crowd, and two workers were shot and killed. The next day, a protest rally was called at Haymarket Square and the rest was history. May Day was afterward adopted world-wide as a memorial to the workers' struggle and those workers who lost their lives in Chicago, and in a larger sense to all workers who die fighting for their rights.

And that's the history that gets told in every union hall and at every union rally. It's a saga of victory and defeat, of a radical demand that has become an unthinkingly normal part of American working life.

At this moment in time, the original May Day seems peculiarly both remote and immediate. The national unemployment rate is 8.5% - if you take the more accurate measurement that includes "discouraged" workers (unemployed people who want to work but have given up on finding a job) and the underemployed (people who want to work full-time but can only find part-time work), the unemployment rate is 15.6%. While the current recession seems to be at least leveling off, it's going to take a long time to fully recover:

And yet, I don't feel dispirited on this May Day. Unionization rates in 2007 rose from 12.0% to 12.1% and then again in 2008 from 12.1% to 12.4% - the first time in 25 years. It's quite possible that this year will see the passage of universal health care or the Employee Free Choice Act and possibly both. The UAW, my union, now owns 55% of Chrysler and 39% of General Motors, something that I don't anyone would have imagined would have happened back in 1935 when the UAW first began to organize auto workers in Detroit.

In short, the situation is uncertain. The old orthodoxies about the economy seem to have been refuted by the course of events, and there's a number of thinkers and groups that are jockying to fill the intellectual space left in their implosion. Yet we still don't have even a full vocabulary for talking about where we are and where we want to go, let alone a full policy program or an overarching ideology.

But if there is a good place to start, I think it has to be the idea of democratic control over economic life. One thing that this recession has shown us is that there is something fundamentally irrational and unlivable about an economic system in which the lives of tens if not hundreds of millions of people can be suddenly uprooted because of something completely out of their control yet entirely man-made. We should have some say in how we live our lives, some influence if not outright control over the parameters of what's acceptable and what's not in a civilized economic order, some way of protecting ourselves, and guiding our society from the present to a collectively-imagined future.

After all, that's what the American labor movement was doing on May 1st, 1886. They had a belief that it was wrong for people to spend every waking hour working at the direction of other people, that it was wrong for people to wake up in darkness and go to sleep in darkness without ever being able to walk freely in the sunshine. But above all, they believed that in a democracy, people have to exercise autonomy and freedom in their day to day lives, have to have time to walk and see what's happening around them, to talk and debate with their fellow citizens, to read about current events and improve their minds, to vote and volunteer and run for office, to live freely at least eight hours out of every day. And that's the part that's important - "eight hours for what we will" - the idea that for part of every day, each worker should be free to decide how to live their lives.

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