May 1st is May Day, a day of celebration for workers around the world. This dates back to a resolution adopted by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later the American Federation of Labor) that stated “eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labour from and after May 1st, 1886.”
But the struggle for the 8-hour day was about more than just hours of work. In demanding an 8-hour day, workers were saying something much more fundamental: that working people should not have to spend every waking moment on the job. We deserve time to rest, to spend with family, to go to church or to union meetings, to get involved in our communities. It was a simple and powerful demand: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”
The 8-hour day is part of the Labor Movement's legacy, and is something we continue to fight to protect. Every year, employer groups run bills in Sacramento to repeal this basic right, and every year we defeat those efforts. But I don't want to focus on the 8-hour day. Most people know that it was won by the Labor Movement. In fact, some say that's why unions *used to be* important. I don't work for the Labor Movement because we have a proud past; I work for Labor because I think we will build a better future.
In honor of May Day, here's why I choose to work for today's Labor Movement:
5. We believe in solidarity. Our movement is based on the idea that we are stronger together. That means nurses support project labor agreements so that construction workers can make a decent living, and teachers support safe nurse-to-patient staffing rules to protect patient care and worker safety. It means our members go to Costa Mesa, Wisconsin, and Colombia to defend their brothers and sisters, and the right of all workers to have a voice. We are not content to improve wages and working conditions for ourselves. Instead, we want to expand the middle class by improving conditions for all workers.
4. We are a rank-and-file movement. It's funny to me to hear CEOs complain about “union bosses.” The reality is that our unions are run by democratically elected members. Most union leaders began as line workers, started looking out for their fellow workers as union stewards, gained skills at the bargaining table, and eventually ran for office in their union. Supermarket clerks, warehouse workers, school teachers, bus drivers, plumbers, electricians, social workers, hotel workers, firefighters, and nurses — these are the leaders our unions. Unions are truly a leadership program. Every member can participate, every member can run for office, and any member could end up leading his or her union.
3. We are democracy in action. Politics these days is so much about money and about the way big corporations can buy votes. Need to feel inspired about politics? Go to a union hall. Our members are not wealthy, but they are well-informed. They know that elected officials can make a difference on the issues we care about, like creating good jobs, supporting our schools and increasing opportunity. They know ballot initiatives can have tremendous impact on the work they do and the people they serve. That's why union members volunteer to work on campaigns. They participate in candidate interviews, make phone calls, knock on doors and educate co-workers on the job. This truly is democracy in action, a way for us to make our collective voice heard. This type of citizen participation is something that's far too rare in politics today, and it's something to treasure.
2. We stand up for the little guy. Our unions represents workers in every industry and every region. We also know that if we don't defend the rights of non-union workers, no one else will. That means our fights are not small or self-interested. We take on the banks for foreclosing on families still in loan modification. We take on corporations for disregarding the health and safety of workers, nearby communities, and consumers. We take on the Chamber of Commerce when they want to repeal the 8-hour day and lunch breaks. We fight for workers who have no voice in this economy: truckers misclassified as independent contractors so they have no rights as workers, “temporary” workers who work in the same warehouses for decades without any security from one day to the next, domestic workers historically written out of basic labor protections. We don't think its right that CEOs make 380 times what workers earn, especially as they get corporate tax breaks to offshore jobs. This is wrong and we're not afraid to say it.
1. We believe in the promise of America. Seriously. You should watch a room of union members say the Pledge of Allegiance. Hands over hearts, eyes welling with tears, the whisper at the end “with freedom and justice for all…someday.” A 60-year-old veteran plumber next to a 30-year-old immigrant janitor, united in their belief that the American Dream is worth fighting for.
Don't we all want an America where hard work is rewarded with decent wages and a dignified retirement? Where working families can buy a home and send kids to college? Where each generation creates greater opportunity for the one the comes next? That's the vision of the Labor Movement, and that vision has never been more relevant than it is today.