May 1st, International Workers’ Day, is a day to recognize the struggles of the working class. It is honored by people all over the world.
Although May Day is celebrated all over the world, most workers in the United States have never heard of it and have no clue that it started in the United States. It came out of the struggles for the eight-hour workday. At the time of the industrial revolution during the late 1800s, people often worked over twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The mostly immigrant workforce was forced to work in horrible conditions, crammed in sweatshops. Entire families including children had to work to survive.
Working people didn’t want to simply work their lives away. By the 1880s, a movement developed demanding an eight-hour workday. Many of the organizers were revolutionaries. They saw that the fight for better conditions for workers was linked to the fight for a society in which the power and wealth would be in the hands of the people who did the work, not the wealthy elite.
On May 1st 1886, 350,000 workers went on strike in over 12,000 workplaces all over the U.S. On May 3rd, police in Chicago opened fire on striking workers, killing at least four. In response, revolutionaries organized a rally the next day at Haymarket Square in Chicago to denounce the killings. When the rally was over, a bomb was thrown into the crowd killing seven cops. The cops opened fire, killing at least four workers. The government used this as an opportunity to persecute revolutionaries and leaders of the workers movement. Workers’ organizations all over the world voted that May 1st be recognized as International Workers’ Day.
Where are we today in the United States? Like workers before us, many of our lives are dominated with work and the struggle to survive. We have been coping with multiple crises, from the rising cost of living, unemployment, underemployment and understaffing. Over 45 million people in America, or 14.5 percent, lived below the poverty line in 2014. More work is piled on fewer people. More work is low-wage, part-time and without benefits. Despite record profits, Boeing recently announced that it would cut up to 8,000 jobs.
Like in the U.S., bosses all over the world are attacking workers’ standard of living and reaping enormous profits. A report by the charity group, Oxfam, revealed that the 62 wealthiest individuals have as much wealth as the bottom half of the worlds’ population – 3.6 billion people! Young people all over the world are the only generation in modern history that can expect to have a lower standard of living than their parents. We see all of this as education, healthcare and other social services continue to be defunded and eroded.
But in the face of all of these attacks, there is a force to change this situation. There are scattered attempts of working people to fight back. In France, workers in the railways, airports, and other workplaces have gone on strike and students shut down their schools in response to the attack the government launched against decades of workers’ gains. Thousands have occupied public squares across the country. In the U.S., there have been strikes of Verizon workers and teachers in Chicago.
Like those who came before us, we can begin to fight to reclaim our lives. It’s important to look at our history to get a sense of what is possible, but at some point, we need to begin to make our own history. Will we be the ones to step up to the task?