Opinion: May Day still has significance to our workforce in San Diego. Here’s how.

By Jim Miller Community voices contributor
April 30, 2024 3:10 PM PT

Miller is a local author, professor at San Diego City College, and vice president for the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931. He lives in Golden Hill.

May 1 is International Workers’ Day, a day when we should all remember the folks who brought us the weekend. Rather than a legacy of the former Soviet Union, it is a holiday with deep American roots.

It was on May 1, 1886, when workers in Chicago called for a general strike and they vowed not to return to their jobs unless employers agreed to an eight-hour day. While this struggle ended in violence in Haymarket Square and resulted in the unjust execution of several immigrant workers, it must be noted that Americans would never have gotten the basic workplace rights they enjoy today were it not for the radical demands of these early advocates for workers’ rights.

While there is much to be said about the significance of the history of May Day and the Haymarket martyrs, what is particularly noteworthy at this moment in time is that what we now consider basic rights were once radical demands that the robber barons of the first Gilded Age fought with everything they had. But what the workers in the eight-hour day movement were struggling for was not just the bread and butter demands that took center stage, but the even more daring idea that ordinary working people should have a role to play in American life, and the accompanying notion that economic rights were central to a real, thoroughgoing democracy.

During this earlier period of American history, unionists, populists, and others who believed in small “d” democracy were disturbed by the accumulation of vast wealth and political power by the very rich, who they compared to King George, while framing their struggle as one of “wealth versus commonwealth.” The answer to this was to build a union movement and push for a government that represented the people, not just the rich and the emerging corporate lords of the American economy. The kind of concentrated power they saw building was the central obstacle to real democracy, and the ability of working people to have any dignity and autonomy in the workplace and/or voice in the political arena.

Someone does not need to read Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” to see the obvious parallels to our own age in this history. But what, in our new Gilded Age, can workers, unions and others who are concerned with the current, dangerous level of economic inequality and subsequent failing health of American democracy do to contest it?

One big, very encouraging thing is already happening as support for unions is surging across the country, with American approval of labor unions now at the highest level it has been for decades. This new enthusiasm for unions, however, will not be sufficient on its own unless it is accompanied by persistent efforts at the local, state, and national levels to break down the legal, economic and political barriers to organizing. The desire to have a union is not enough if we continue to allow employers to undermine what should be a basic human right.

Consequently, if we want to win the future, we need to talk about redistributing wealth openly and honestly through progressive taxation and roll back the top-down class war that has obscenely concentrated wealth at the top over the last several decades. Progressive labor should also start discussing things like a universal basic income, a shorter work week and more flexible arrangements on the job.
Unions need to include things like housing, transportation and child care in negotiations. It’s also important that a more robust social safety net be part of what worker justice means in an era where there may be less work and more unemployment and inequality due to the technological disruption of many traditional jobs. We need a new kind of workplace that puts humans first and moves beyond grind culture to a better quality of life for everyone in every sector of the economy.

Here in San Diego, that means not surrendering to the logic of austerity and pushing for the San Diego Service Worker Minimum Wage Ordinance that would bring a $25 per hour wage increase for tipped and non-tipped employees in union and non-union hotels in the city of San Diego. This ordinance would also include hotel stagehands and janitorial positions with the idea that raising the bar for them would set the standard for other workers.

In sum, be bold. As the old labor song put it when no one thought it possible, “We mean to make things over.”

The San Diego Union-Tribune