I am writing this on May 1 – International Workers’ Day – a good old-fashioned socialist-minded holiday celebrated around the world. In the United States, we make a point of celebrating working folks on Labor Day in September, a holiday removed by months and capitalistic attitude from International Workers’ Day.
The holiday we overlook actually commemorates an American event. On May 1, 1886 members of a growing labor movement in the U.S. started a general strike for the eight-hour workday. On May 4, in Chicago, police moved to disperse a crowd supporting the strike. A bomb was thrown, and police fired on the crowd. Seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed; many others were injured. Hundreds of labor leaders and supporters were rounded up. After a travesty of a trial, four were hanged to death.
Maybe it’s time for us to bring this holiday home and make International Workers’ Day an all-American event. We’re already celebrating our “essential workers.” Why not expand on that sentiment? For a change, we could even bring some substantive assistance to the party this time.
All manner of lawn signs and TV advertisements make much of our gratitude to essential workers. But you can’t live on gratitude alone.
I’m always suspicious when lip service is so very bright and shiny. Such accolades are often slathered on – extra thick and syrupy – to cover up rotten day-to-day treatment. Think of Veterans’ Day, Mothers’ Day, or National Administrative Professionals’ Day (the latest incarnation of Secretaries’ Day).
Throw ‘em a parade, give ‘em a bouquet, and praise ‘em as indispensable. That’s enough.
Talk and confetti are cheap, unlike raising wages, or protecting rights and safety on the job.
The latest insult on top of injury comes to a group of workers who help to keep us fed. Before the pandemic, workers in meat processing plants in the United States were a frequent focus of immigration raids by ICE.
Now, we’re told these are essential workers, who heroically allow us to keep on keeping on. They are brave (their jobs are dangerous), and we do need them. But all the props and huzzahs are empty when we treat these workers as expendable.
Other essential workers include doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers, grocery store employees, food service workers, janitors, delivery drivers, bus drivers, warehouse workers. Unsurprisingly, it appears many of these workers are contracting COVID-19 at a higher rate than the general public.
Some essential workers – from Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Target and others – have called for protests, including a mass strike, for today. This being the 21st century, the protest has a hashtag: #EssentialWorkersDay.
Beyond this protest, there’s another reason to celebrate the holiday, thanks to a recent proposal in Washington.
Just a few days ago, on April 28, Rep. Ro Khanna, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and more than 50 other legislators issued a proposal for an Essential Workers Bill of Rights to be included in the next coronavirus relief package. Among other measures, the bill of rights would require workers receive appropriate safety equipment, a livable wage and paid sick leave, and enjoy protected collective bargaining agreements.
What better way – and what better day – to cultivate a brighter future from the bitter seeds of a pandemic?
Sounds like a holiday to me.