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How Spiritual Progressives Could Celebrate International Workers Day

By Lita Kirth. Cross-posted on Tikkun Daily.
Credit: FlickrCC/Chaz_Wags.

Credit: FlickrCC/Chaz_Wags.

I once worked for a small greeting card company in Berkeley, piecework packing cards into plastic bags: $7 for a box filled with twelve-card bags. After a while, I became quite efficient and could fill almost two boxes in an hour. The owner, however, was outraged at what my hourly wage had become and moved to cut it. Clearly she had earlier decided she could afford $7 a box, but now, apparently, the idea of a mere worker getting a decent wage was more than she could stand. Disgusted and furious, I left as soon as I could find another job. Little injustices like that and far bigger ones are the reasons we have a labor movement. It has been a long, long, bitter struggle for workers to have a small share of democracy at work. Their rights are won and then eroded or circumvented. Now, so many people work 12-hour shifts or wildly fluctuating hours; several part-time jobs or full- plus part-time jobs that the eight-hour day and forty-hour week, designed for rest, human development, and Sabbath, are moving out of range once more. It's symptomatic that few American workers could tell you what May 1 is about.
May Day poster from Russia. Credit: FlickrCC/Chaz_ Wags.

May Day poster from Russia. Credit: FlickrCC/Chaz_ Wags.

However, from Argentina to Sri Lanka, from Belgium to Equatorial Guinea May 1 is an official holiday: International Workers Day. Pakistan has it. So does Jordan. Turkey celebrates it as Labour and Solidarity Day. Even Croatia celebrates workers on May 1. In other countries, unions and socialists take to the streets with red flags, or, in communist countries, official parades with military drills celebrating the (supposed) victory of the proletariat in the class war. (Chinese workers used to get the whole week off, the Golden Week, but in 2008 the "People's" government repealed it.) In the U.S., however -- and in Indonesia -- there are no official festivities. Why? Fearing to memorialize the Anarchists and their push for an eight-hour day, President Grover Cleveland only OK-ed Labor Day under pressure and put it far down the calendar in September, which luckily had some history as a labor day with the Knights of Labor. Other countries have taken up what began here on May 1, 1886: a nationwide strike for the eight-hour day led by Anarchists, who gathered peacefully in Chicago's Haymarket Square to promote the strike and protest the deaths of two workers killed by police while defending a picket line at McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. After hours of peaceful speeches, police arrived to bust up the gathering, and someone threw a pipe bomb which killed a policeman. In the night-time confusion that followed, at least seven policemen and four workers were killed.[1] The disturbance offered an excuse to round up Anarchist leaders and rush them to trial. In the hysteria that followed, the eight-hour day was buried, not to resurrect until 1935.
A memorial to the Haymarket Riot of May 1886 in Chicago. Credit: FlickrCC/TRiver.

A memorial to the Haymarket Riot of May 1886 in Chicago. Credit: FlickrCC/TRiver.

It seems that labor struggles have almost always contained an element of violence on both sides, yet there remains a connection between spirituality and worker rights. AFL-CIO leader Stewart Acuff -- recently vilified by Glenn Beck and business groups for suggesting that if Congress rejected the worker rights in the Employee Free Choice Act (It did, by one new Republican vote) labor advocates should find another strategy -- offered some wonderful thoughts in an oral history available through the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State University:
I think the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition and Judeo-Christian theology is filled with the message of love and compassion but also the message of struggle against oppression. That is the message in the Old Testament, in my view, Isaiah and Jeremiah, expressed by the angry prophets. In the New Testament, that is the gospel....I think nothing is more central to the gospel than 'that which you have done to the least of these, you have done also to me,' (the Sermon on the Mount). [2]
Acuff worked first with ACORN in the South and then with the SEIU union. While organizing nursing home workers, he experienced threats from the Klan. Clearly he's one of those dangerous "social justice" church-goers Glenn Beck warns us against. It's worth looking at that proposed law. In my view, its most important provisions are not the changed voting procedures for choosing a union, but protections against employer intimidation and some new baby teeth for enforcement, as follows (some details deleted for ease of reading):
(b) Any employer who willfully or repeatedly commits any unfair labor practice ... while employees of the employer are seeking representation by a labor organization ... shall, in addition to any make-whole remedy ordered, be subject to a civil penalty of not to exceed $20,000 for each violation.
That seems minimal enough. In addition, unfair labor practices would go to the top of the National Labor Relations Board case list so justice wouldn't take so long in coming (as it often did in the Reagan-Bush years) that workers have given up by the time their case gets heard. Spiritual progressives might celebrate International Workers Day in a meaningful way and continue their support throughout the year by doing some of the following:
  • Let your Congresspeople know that minimal justice still needs to happen in the workplace, and that the disproportionate suffering of unemployed blue-collar workers needs immediate remedy, not the leisurely focus it now receives.
  • Support sharing in the form of taxes from those with grotesque excess to green job programs and other assistance to workers whose unemployment benefits have run out (and who can't get aid to attend the public colleges their wages helped sustain), workers who now have to decide between rent and medicine, electricity and bus fare.
  • Pay a fair wage to anyone you hire and give workers hours they can count on.
May Day protest in downtown Miami, 2005. Credit: FlickrCC/danny.hammontree.

May Day protest in downtown Miami, 2005. Credit: FlickrCC/danny.hammontree.

Unlike some of the revolutionaries who fought for labor, I don't believe in class warfare. The labor movement has always benefited from the support of enlightened people of privilege. Reading through archival testimony given to Congress in the late 1800s, I was touched by a letter from a manufacturer, William J. Crawford, owner of a Buffalo, NY stone-cutting business, who was preparing to institute the eight-hour day and went on record advocating it [3]. One class alone cannot accomplish justice. Let me end with a final, small suggestion from people I know, two of my sisters who do housekeeping for a hotel that is part of a large chain. They each clean about forty rooms a day, but the vast majority of customers at this fairly classy hotel leave no tip whatsoever for the maids. How about the next time you stay in a hotel, you leave a dollar for the housekeeping staff? Multiply that by ten customers (We'll never have universal virtue in this life) and multiply that by six days a week, and you have sixty dollars, a significant and appreciated amount in the life of a hotel maid. Happy International Workers Day, everyone!
[1] Accounts vary: one or two strikers killed, seven or eight police killed. [2] Special Collections Department & Archives, Georgia State University Library, Southern Labor Archives [3] From a 1913 set of Senate documents at Harvard Law Library digitized by Google For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s email digest or visit us online.