On May 1, 2020, Amazon, Target, Trader Joe’s, Instacart, and Whole Foods workers proceeded with their planned general strike over COVID-19 working conditions, calling in sick or walking out during lunch break, with calls for support and boycotts from consumers. Citing unsafe working conditions, inadequate personal protective equipment, and close working quarters, workers called for increased hazard pay, closure of stores with confirmed cases, as well as paid sick leave.
COVID-19 has revealed that those deemed essential in our society—warehouse workers, grocery store workers, cleaners, meatpackers, delivery drivers, migrant agricultural workers—are often also the most marginalized, namely black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC); women; youth; and undocumented individuals. Many are part-time or gig workers, whose hallmarks include low wages, shift work, and no benefits.
Significantly, the date chosen for the strike, May 1, is widely known as May Day or International Worker’s Day. Although also associated with European pagan festivals, for many May Day is a reminder of Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre – a symbol for the international struggle for workers’ rights. On May 4, 1886, clashes between police and labour protesters left many injured and dead, a continuation of a strike that had begun one day earlier, with calls for an eight-hour workday from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.
In 1889, the Second International officially designated May 1 to support workers. Unlike the First International (1864), a federation of worker’s groups, influenced by the ideologies of Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Auguste Blaqui, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the Second International was a federation of socialist parties and trade unions only. Founded in 1889 in Paris, by 1912 the Second International represented all the socialist and social democratic parties in Canada, the US, Europe, and Japan. Over time, May 1 became particularly significant in Eastern European and former Soviet bloc countries, with organizers like Rosa Luxemburg attracting international attention. Although large scale celebrations declined after the fall of the USSR, May Day continues to be celebrated worldwide.
Throughout the years, the labour movement’s unionism and activism can be credited for many rights and protections currently enshrined in laws. These include minimum wage, a forty-hour work week, outlawed child labour (Zinn 403), and time and a half for overtime. Union workers tend to make more than their non-union counterparts, often with health coverage and pensions. However, these rights came at a high cost.
After the destruction from WWI, people from around the world began to increasingly challenge institutions such as imperialism and Western capitalism (Ortiz 128). Although many workers movements took place in Europe, both Canada and the United States have a long labour movement history as well.
On March 25, 1872, the Toronto Typographical Union engaged in strike action after its demands for a nine-hour workday and shorter work week were ignored. When a parade in support of the strike was held, George Brown, editor of the Toronto Globe pursued legal action, since union activity was illegal under Canadian law. On June 4, 1872, after public protest, the Trade Unions Act legalized unions. In subsequent years, memorial parades were organized, until the Canadian government recognized September 1 (Labour Day) as an official national holiday. Other highlights from Canadian labour history include Ontario’s 1914 Workmen’s Compensation Act, which introduced Canada’s first state social insurance plan and 1972’s Saskatchewan Occupational Health Act. The Health Act, the first of its kind in North America, gave workers the right to be aware of hazards and dangers in the workplace, the right to participate in health and safety issues through a workplace committee, as well as the right to refuse unsafe work.
In the US, labour organization was undermined over the years, as employers hired private militias and armed detectives to break union campaigns, often with the support of various governments. However, workers continued to organize, mass strike, boycott, and destroy property. Examples include the Great Upheaval and the abovementioned Haymarket Massacre (Ortiz 118). The Great Upheaval, or the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, was a series of country-wide strikes protesting the poorly paid and dangerous railroad work. Over 100,000 railroad workers participated, however, in the end, unions continued to be broken and wages were cut.
Similarly, in the Appalachian Region, coal companies opposed organized labour and often suppressed union agitation. In 1921, in one of the US’ most significant labour uprisings, the United Mine Workers (UMWA) rallied in Charleston, West Virginia (Catte 44-46), eventually leading to the Blair Mountain Uprising in nearby Logan County. Founded in 1890, the UMWA advocated for the safe working conditions and fair pay of coal miners. Also involved in the struggle for coal miners’ rights, was one of the famed leaders of the US labour movement, Mother Jones, or Mary Harris Jones. In 1898, Jones became one of the founders of the Social Democratic party, as well as the International Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905.
In addition to problems with employers themselves, divisions in the working class often occurred as well, as workers often received different pay according to race and gender, with many mainly white-dominated unions adhering to these principles. The roots of these struggles can be traced back to the founding of the United States itself, with an economic system largely based on slave labour. Fears of Southern economic collapse, as well as Northern to a lesser extent, were seen during the brief period after the Civil War known as Reconstruction 1865-1877, which extended citizenship and protection to all born in the US. As a result, years of Jim Crow segregation, voter suppression, and lynching ensued. Unjust laws and lack of economic opportunities contributed to the Great Migration of Black Americans north, beginning during WWI and ending in the 1970s (Wilkerson 272).
In the north, white workers, including recently arrived Europeans, aligned with whiteness, often sided with employers and unions barring non-whites from membership as they competed for already scarce jobs. This kept BIPOC wages low and restricted the type of work that was available (Wilkerson 271-272), forcing them to work for less than whites in agriculture, mining, transportation, construction, and railroad. In particular, many agricultural workers were fired, deported, and had their land expropriated when trying to organize. In the South, with its legacy of forced labour, vagrancy laws were enacted to supply workers. Anti-Mexican, -African Americas, and -Native American-sentiment was apparent in the South, while anti-Chinese sentiment existed in California (Ortiz 120-126). The race riots of the 1910s and 1920s and repatriations of Mexicans during the 1930s were seen as a way to stop organizers from unionizing, as well as expropriate property (Ortiz 130-132).
Over the years, many “riots were often carried out by disaffected whites against groups perceived as threats to their survival” (Wilkerson 273). Sadly, these conflicts “pitted two groups that had more in common with each other than either of them realized. Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had traveled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by the earlier, more sophisticated arrivals” (Wilkerson 273).
The labour movement also struggled during the years of anti-communist sentiment or the “Red Scare,” at first following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and later during the 1940s and 1950s Cold War years. US attorney general A. Mitchell Palmer’s infamous “Palmer raids,” based on the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, led to persecution of those considered radical and left wing, including unions. During McCarthyism, the second wave of the Red Scare, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, led hearings and investigations into suspected communist espionage and infiltration.
In more recent history, one of the labour movement’s most famous slogans, ¡Sí se puede! (Yes, we can!) stems from the California National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), cofounded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1962, to organize migrant Latinx American farmworkers. In 1966, the NFWA merged with American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), creating United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. In 1965, Chavez and Huerta led a five-year strike by California grape pickers, leading to a nationwide boycott of grapes. On July 29, 1970, these 30,000 grape workers signed union contracts (Ortiz 155). Other actions included bargaining by lettuce growers, table-grape growers, and others. In 1971, the organization became the United Farm Workers (UFW). In 1975, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act passed, the first to recognize the right for California’s farmworkers to bargain collectively.
Most recently on May 1, 2006, Latinx workers led El Gran Paro Estadiounidense (the Great American Strike), “the largest general strike in the history of the Americas” (Ortiz 163). Meat packing plants, garment manufacturers, trucking, food services, and port transportation shut down in what was deemed, “A Day without Immigrants” (Ortiz 173). The strike was in response to the passage of bill HR 4437, which tightened border controls, criminalized illegal immigrants, and disallowed those already in the US a path to citizenship, among other restrictions.
For AU students who would like to learn more about the history of the labour movement, the Labour Studies Major offers various courses, such as (LBST) 332 Women and Unions, (HIST) 336 History of Canadian Labour, and (LBST)335 Global Labour History.