Next week is the big May Day march with the San Diego Labor Council and our community allies. Why does this matter for labor? By remembering the forgotten history of American workers we both honor their legacy and understand that our current rights as workers should not be taken for granted. So what are the origins of May Day?
May Day has deep American roots. It started in 1866 as part of the movement pushing for the 8-hour day. As historian Jacob Remes reminds us:
The demand for an eight-hour day was about leisure, self-improvement and freedom, but it was also about power. When Eight Hour Leagues agitated for legislation requiring short hours, they were demanding what had never before happened: that the government regulate industry for the advantage of workers. And when workers sought to enforce the eight-hour day without the government—through declaring for themselves, through their unions, under what conditions they would work—they sought something still more radical: control over their own workplaces. It is telling that employers would often counter a demand for shorter hours with an offer of a wage increase. Wage increases could be given (and taken away) by employers without giving up their power; agreeing to shorter hours was, employers knew, the beginning of losing their arbitrary power over their workers.
Just as there were in the late 19th century, there are forces afoot in America today that are in the process of trying to return us to the era of the old robber barons when the notion of a world with workplace democracy and basic workers’ rights was merely a dream. What is important for us to keep in mind during our new Gilded Age is how hard the struggle was to get many of the things we take for granted in the American workplace and in our democracy.
Despite the threats we face, there are signs that American workers are not rolling over. The wave a teachers’ strikes across the country, in red and blue states, is a signal that rather than imploding after Janus, public sector workers are fighting back and winning. Elsewhere, workers have defeated “right to work” measures, fought and won higher minimum wages, stood up for immigrants under assault, and have continued to robustly struggle to empower workers in the face of a distinctly hostile national political landscape.
Next week, we invite you to join our brothers and sisters in the San Diego labor movement as we remember the past and stand together for a better future for American workers. Wear “Red for Ed” or an AFT button or shirt.
May Day March Kickoff: 3:30pm at Thomas Jefferson School of Law 701 B St. San Diego, CA. 92101
Rally 5:00pm at Sempra Energy 488 Eighth Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
After rally, March continues to Barrio Logan