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On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of railroad, mine, and factory workers in the United States put their livelihoods on the line and participated in a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. They were attacked by strikebreakers and police, but their uprising led to the creation of a holiday to honor workers—May Day—now known as International Workers Memorial Day in many countries around the world.
These working men and women also achieved their immediate demand: a standard workday limited to eight hours. And while it took several more decades of struggle, the U.S. labor movement eventually won a much bigger victory: the legal right to form unions and collectively negotiate with their employers.
Today, this right is under attack in the face of some employers’ and lawmakers’ successful efforts to undercut unions through legal restrictions, retaliation, and intimidation. Indeed, only a small share of the U.S. workforce retains the right to consistently negotiate binding contracts.
Yet collective bargaining remains workers’ best weapon to fix an out-of-balance economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, the decline in unionization in the United States and many other countries over the past few decades is directly associated with an increase in the share of national income going to the top 10 percent of the population. Most CEOs are free to negotiate their own salaries and bonuses. Working people deserve the same freedom to engage in negotiations over how they will be compensated for their hard work.
For all the political and legal obstacles in their way, today’s workers have still managed to mobilize a vital movement that will shape the future of bargaining in ways that could engage the 90 percent of working families that do not enjoy access to a union contract. Like their forebears in 1886, working people today are not waiting until the perfect legal framework is in place before creating a new democratic platform for having a say, as equals, over their working conditions. In fact, the harder some employers have worked to restrict employees’ right to collectively bargain, the more nimble and creative the modern labor movement has become.
In Brooklyn, for example, the tenants and staff of the Crown Heights Tenants Union are earning a say over the conditions and terms for those who live and work in large apartment buildings, negotiating with the buildings’ billionaire owners over the upkeep of the facilities, wages, displacement, and inflated rents. Both the buildings’ staff members and tenants want binding contracts. One agreement might turn out to be a traditional union agreement, and the other a contract between tenants and the building owners. But by joining forces, tenants and workers have made sure they have a voice in determining future standards of housing in New York City.
In Connecticut, a coalition that included child-care providers and senior caregivers, fast food workers, unions, and community organizations came together to combat low wages statewide. Mothers working multiple jobs in the fast food and retail industries found themselves in a classic bind: earning too little to pay for child care given low wages, but unable to access underfunded state child-care services. Drawing on research from the University of California at Berkeley, scholars at the University of Connecticut calculated that “the cost to the State of Connecticut for the reliance of working families on Medicaid/CHIP and TANF is $486 million, representing 54 percent of the total costs of those programs to the state.”
Armed with these data, the coalition of workers and community members attempted to win passage of a bill that would have taxed these employers for the cost their low wages exacted from the state. The tax would have established a fund at the disposal of those providing child care and elder care, and those needing their services. The bill didn’t pass, but the coalition ultimately won the creation of an advisory board to make recommendations to the state to correct the problems created by large low-wage employers. The advisory board offers low-wage employees a platform to jointly establish protocols and standards to ensure a fair return on their work in underpaid sectors of the economy.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Restaurant Opportunities Center United represent some of the hardest-to-organize sectors of their respective industries. Yet they have never waited for permission from the National Labor Relations Board. Instead, they have set out to find new ways for these workers to collectively confront employers industry-wide. Acting as a bargaining unit for an entire sector, they are reshaping working conditions not only for themselves but for future generations of people. And they are doing it by insisting on better standards in the sectors that make all other work possible, including fair wages, time off with their families, and—not unlike the workers of 1886—control over when they work and for how long.
At a time when the prevailing view seems to be that that the labor movement is dying, if not already dead, these examples tell a different story.
At a time when the prevailing view seems to be that that the labor movement is dying, if not already dead, these examples tell a different story. The struggles of working people—not the legal obstacles they face—have always defined the labor movement. Successful social movements have always fought to topple unjust laws. During the civil rights era, black Americans did not wait for the Voting Rights Act to pass before showing up at the polls in Virginia or Tennessee. Undocumented youths did not wait for the DREAM Act to pass before enrolling in colleges around the United States.
This May Day serves as a reminder that laws only change when a movement is willing to break them. Around the country, working people are organizing to change the rules so they are able to live with dignity—just like the workers at the original May Day strike. And they are not waiting to be recognized as unions to build a 21st century framework for truly equal collective bargaining rights for everyone. Collective bargaining in the United States may be under attack; but the future of collective bargaining has never been brighter.
Erica Smiley is the Director of Organizing at Jobs With Justice, a national network of community-labor coalitions founded in 1987.
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