On May 1, the Party for Socialism and Liberation rallied to celebrate International Workers’ Day in Manhattan’s busy Herald Square shopping area. Passing tourists and shoppers stopped to listen as organizers spoke about the importance of reclaiming the history of May Day. Declared a holiday in 1889 by the International Socialist Conference, May Day commemorates the 1886 labor uprising in Chicago.
In May 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike for an eight-hour working day along with a demand to end the terrible working conditions and the brutality against workers fighting for their basic human rights, explained Michaela Warmsley, an organizer with PSL. Drawing parallels between that period and the current one, Warmsley said, “We’re still struggling to keep the eight-hour work day. … Why is it, in the financial capital of the world, we need three side hustles to pay the rent?”
Joyce Chediac, a registered nurse and union activist, described some of the many gains that union struggles have won for all workers, organized and unorganized. In addition to the 8-hour day these include ending child labor, a minimum wage, prohibiting arbitrary firing, standards for working conditons, workers’ compensation laws, unemployment benefits, paid vacations and holidays, weekends as a time off, employer-based health coverage and pensions.
‘It’s us, the people, who hold the real power’
This year’s May Day celebration comes on the heels of several high-profile unionizing efforts. Workers at Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island recently won the vote to unionize along with successful organizing drives of several Starbucks storefronts. Around the country, many new unions have formed in the past several years while existing unions have been successfully striking for improved pay, working conditions and benefits.
Charlie Steinman, a organizer from Student Workers of Columbia United Auto Workers Local 2110, described the recent 10-week strike of working graduate students at Columbia University that won a contract with major gains. Columbia fought hard against the strike for almost three months, Steinman said, because “if they gave in, everybody else would realize that this is the way to do it, and they were right.” Currently, other university staff are approaching the end of their contract with the school administration, and are looking to this recent success as a model for their bargaining effort.
Jeremiah from City Workers for Justice, which seeks to make the city of Wall Street more just and equitable for all New Yorkers, called out the administration of Mayor Eric Adams for neglecting the municipal workers who keep this city running by not paying them living wages in one of the most expensive cities in the world. “How can you live in New York City on $30,000 a year?” he asked.
‘Our class is the essential class’
Karina Garcia, a long time organizer from PSL, spoke to the integral role of workers in society. Starting a chant of ‘people power’ among the gathered crowd, “When I say ‘people power’ it might sound like an empty slogan, but the reality is people’s power is part of every single thing that happens in society.” She pointed out that the wealthy left the city in droves to escape the pandemic, while the working class are the ones who stayed and kept the city alive. “The ruling class made a big mistake when they started talking about essential workers. Because they admitted what so many of us knew already, which is that our class is the essential class.”
Adina Benno, an organizer with the United Federation of Teachers and teacher in the Brooklyn, spoke to the power of teachers and community coming together and pushing back against lackluster support from the city for school services amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of union organizing and a threatened strike in 2020, “we were able to get schools closed, we were able to get access to WiFi as a public resource to all our students,” she said. “[But] our struggle is not over. We must organize together to put the rights of working people first, and this is socialism.”