“Competition in a global economy is… not an option…. Rich people can always take their wealth elsewhere.” That was how one columnist in the Wall St.
Journal (Bret Stephens, WSJ, 4/24/12) denounced the French voters for in effect rejecting the austerity measures of Sarkozy in their recent (Sunday, April 22) elections, and this has been the theme of the corporate propagandists for decades now. What they are saying is this:
“The owners of capital can take their investments anywhere in the world where they encounter cheap labor, low taxes and lax or no environmental regulations. They moved from the US to Mexico and from there to China. Now, as a result of the struggles of Chinese workers, they are in the process of moving to Vietnam and Cambodia, where wages are even lower still. And you, the workers, are powerless before this drive. Trying to stop it is like trying to stand up to a tsunami. All you can do is hunker down, accept cuts in your standards of living, and hope that the worst doesn’t befall you, personally.”
As May Day (May 1) approaches, it is useful to look back and consider the traditions of the international workers’ movement, the traditions of May Day, and what they mean in the face of what seems to be a never-ending race to the bottom in which one group of workers leap frogs backwards over another in the hopes of keeping a few crumbs.
However, what workers have won in struggle they will not just surrender without an equal struggle. And around the world, there is a rising tide of struggle as May Day, 2012, approaches.
Workers’ Struggles Around World
The economic crisis in Western Europe (the European Union) has been much in the news recently. This crisis is being used to drive down the living standards in this region, but workers are not just passively letting this happen. Greece has been in the forefront of this effort as Greek workers and youth have poured out into the streets in massive displays of protest against the cuts in pensions, benefits, wages and jobs that are being imposed there. Similar protests have been held in Italy and Spain. Feeling the pressure of the working class, the government in the Netherlands just recently collapsed.
There has been a new round of strikes and labor struggles in Egypt, and in Iran, even with all the repression, bus workers in Tehran have been organizing to the extent that the regime felt forced to sentence a leader of their union, Reza Shahabi, to a flogging and to six years in prison. From a strike of government workers in Nigeria to a general strike in South Africa (early March), workers throughout the African continent are starting to rebel against this race to the bottom. A similar process is under way in Latin America and also in Asia, where power loom workers in Pakistan have struck as well as workers in Cambodia and elsewhere. And in China, where potentially the most powerful working class in the world is, there have been hundreds of protests and strikes weekly.
In the United States, the main form of opposition to the attacks of global capitalism has been through the Occupy movement. This movement, despite some mistakes, has started to affect the workers’ movement also. At the Nov. 2 Occupy-called Oakland general strike, some grocery workers appeared. They came there to support Occupy Oakland, but also to see how they could combine with it to start to combat their own union leaders and transform their union. And now, for the first time in decades, several local unions (including the nurses, the janitors and transit workers) are calling for actions on May Day. Limited as these actions may be, the fact that they are recognizing May Day is a result of the pressure from Occupy Oakland. Also, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is calling for a one hour stop-work rally at several of its work places on May Day.
May Day, 1886
It is in this context – of the global attacks of capitalism and the slowly rising tide of resistance – that the history and the meaning of May Day should be considered.
May Day as a day of worker struggle was initiated in the United States. Following the overthrow of slavery here, workers increased their struggles and renewed their efforts to organize and resist wage cuts.
This effort built to a crescendo in 1886. The figures tell the story: From 1881 to 1885, the number of strikes increased from 471 to 645 and the number of workers who participated increased from 129,000 to 242,000. In 1886, the number of strikes jumped to 1,411 and the number of strikers went up to almost a half million.
This strike wave had several demands, but foremost among them was the demand for the 8 hour work day. (At that time, workers were working anything from a ten to a 16 hour day.) And May 1 was set to be a general, nation-wide strike for the 8 hour day. By the second week in May, some 80,000 had struck in Chicago, 45,000 in New York, 32,000 in Cincinnati, and so on in almost all the major US cities of the time. In some cases, the workers simply imposed an 8 hour day, and the workers’ movement was so powerful that there was little the employers could do about it. As one labor paper (John Swinton’s Journal) reported at the time, “It is an eight-hour boom, and we are scoring victory after victory. Today the packing houses of the Union Stock Yards all yielded… men… are wild with joy…” This nation-wide movement represented an advance for the US workers’ movement. Previously, the tendency had been for workers to struggle in one region or one city alone; there was little recognition in practice of the need for a national movement.
In the years that followed, May Day became established as the international day of workers’ struggle, and it was taken up by workers throughout the world. From Russia to Western Europe to India, from Africa to Asia to Latin America, May Day became celebrated by the world workers movement as a day of struggle. Gradually, however, over the years, as the opportunists and those who work hand-in-hand with the employers started to take over the workers’ movement, the real meaning of May Day was watered down. At first it was transformed into a mere celebration or a holiday rather than a day of struggle. In the United States, it was nearly wiped out of the collective memory altogether. In its place was imposed Labor Day (first Monday in September) as a holiday. While all workers enjoy an extra day to relax, enjoy a nice barbecue or a day with the family, the idea of a national – never mind an international – day of struggle was nearly eliminated.
Foremost among the unions that led the eight hour struggle was the Carpenters Union, whose president, Peter J. McGuire, was a socialist and a participant in the First International. Today, that same union is controlled by a millionaire business man – Doug McCarron – who is one of the foremost advocates of the idea that the employers and the workers are on the same team, and that the unions must help the employers increase their profits. As for the union, McCarron sees it as merely an employment agency. “We are marketing a good product” (the carpenters themselves), he says. He is joined in this view by the tops of all the mainstream unions. As for the local leaders, having failed to organize an opposition to this policy, almost all of them are forced in the end to carry it out also.
They see their task as increasing the “market share” (their term) of their unions. And how does a business increase market share? By keeping prices down. And what are those prices? Why, the cost of labor – the wages and benefits – of their members. And who are their competitors? The non-union workers as well as workers in other countries.
One very real consequence of this approach is that in the US, most workers have in effect lost the eight hour day for which their ancestors fought so hard. They are forced to work ten and twelve hours a day; they are forced to work two jobs, just to make ends meet. In other cases, they work under mandatory overtime conditions because the employer finds it cheaper to hire fewer workers, thereby avoiding paying for health care, social security and other benefits for additional employees. That great conquest of the earliest May Days has been largely frittered away by the leaders of the workers’ organizations.
International Solidarity in Deeds, not Just Words
Thus we have come full circle. Whereas in the past, raising the struggle of workers to the national level in the United States was a huge step forward, today a similar but even greater step is required. In the 19th century workers recognized that wages and conditions in one part of the US affected wages and conditions in another region. Today, however, living in the reality of global production and the global market, that recognition must be raised to a higher level in practice, as opposed to mere words. Today, what is required is international worker solidarity. A first step in that direction could be direct links between workers in struggle around the world. With the internet and social media, such links would be far easier than ever before.
Within the European Union we are seeing the first steps in that direction as a united struggle is starting to develop against the austerity measures that are sweeping the region. But this is only a start. What is necessary is an international union movement that establishes minimum conditions throughout the world. If workers are forced to strike against a company in one country, then that company must be shut down globally. And the same must be done for entire industries. Without such international solidarity in deeds, not just words, companies will simply shift production to whatever region or country they can find where wages are cheapest.
But there is more. As the workers’ struggle develops, the most combative layer of the class – together with their pro-worker allies – will tend to organize and combine in the work places, in the communities and in the schools. What they organize can only be described as a party – a mass workers’ party. And just as with the mass union movement, such a party cannot succeed unless it is international. That is also what is required: An international party of the world working class, one which rejects the dictates of the “free” market and of capitalism itself.
This crying need is in the process of developing in the factories of China, in Tahrir Square, Egypt, amongst the transport workers of South Africa and the oil workers in the Mid East and elsewhere. When it bursts through to the surface, it will be a huge step towards the liberation of humanity from the yoke of capitalism itself.
From 1886 to the present, that is the real lesson of May Day as the international working class’s day of common struggle.
John Reimann is a retired carpenter and an expelled member of the Carpenters’ Union in the United States. (He was expelled for leading rank and file struggles against the union bureaucracy.) He is a long-time socialist, who organized for a number of years in Mexico. He is presently a member of the Industrial Workers of the World.