In 1886, the working class decided May 1 wasn’t going to be like any other day. Rather than work their usual long hours in harsh conditions, the working class took to the streets and began to strike.
Thanks in part to their efforts during this strike, the eight-hour work day was implemented, and demands for a series of other progressive workplace reforms were set into motion. To commemorate the strike that occurred in 1886, labor activists began celebrating International Workers Day, or May Day, each year to bring attention to the plight of the working class.
Perhaps it seems pointless for many of us to observe May Day, but we are living during a time when labor organizing can be useful in improving lives in materialistic ways. When the working class organizes into unions, they are able to effectively demand higher wages, more comprehensive benefits and safer, more pleasant workplaces. Since these are things that most people deal with every day throughout their lives, everyone would be able to see significant, tangible improvements in their lives.
The benefits of unions are clear. According to a report from the Economic Policy Institute, workers who are unionized typically receive 20 percent higher pay than workers that are not unionized. In addition to higher pay, unionized workers also tend to receive more comprehensive health benefits. Unions also played a central role in creating safer workplaces, establishing reasonable work hours, and abolishing child labor.
The recent teachers strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma illustrate the value of unions. In West Virginia, teachers realized they were not being fairly compensated for their valuable labor. They organized a statewide strike that shut down every public school for nine days. Through this direct action and organizing, the teachers were able to see real results: a 5 percent pay raise. The West Virginia teachers strike set an example in other states throughout the country, most notably teachers in Oklahoma, who also went on strike for nine days. The Oklahoma strike won an additional $479 million in school funding for students and teachers.
Labor organizing has also been talked about frequently at VCU this year. In December, a protest was held in support of the art program’s adjunct professors, who were requesting to be paid a living wage. Though this situation has yet to be resolved, organizing a union is one way in which adjunct professors can fight for higher wages and benefits. This illustrates how unions and other forms of organized labor can work to create a positive difference in people’s lives.
Oftentimes, it seems as though the only way to make a change is through the political process. While working within the confines of the political arena certainly has its benefits, working for reform in the workplace is one way that many people can experience positive change in their daily lives. The best way to reform a workplace is through a union, as it allows for workers to collectively bargain for the changes they wish to see the most.
Rosa Luxemburg, a German political theorist, wrote about the significance of May Day in one of her earliest essays, writing, “when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance, then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.”
May Day should be observed as a day to rally behind organized labor in their pursuit for a better workplace, and thus a better world. This year, May Day is intended for action so next year May Day can be centered around celebrating a world that is more fair, more safe and more equal.
Jimmy O’Keefe, Contributing Writer