Economic Update: Honoring May Day, 1886 & 2020

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From May Day 1886 to 2020, workers wage long, hard struggles to reform capitalism. From the fight for an 8-hour workday to the fight for a safe, Corona-free workplace now. Employers block and delay reforms, and try to undo them once won. They use what capitalism gives them: dominant power, incentive (profit), and means (profits). If we change the system from capitalist to worker-coop, workers alone democratically make and secure reforms. Employers, the constant enemy of reform, vanish as a separate group dominating society.


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Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, incomes, debts, coronavirus and all that it implies for us, and for our children, and for the years to come. I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

Today’s program is devoted to honoring, and explaining, and taking lessons from something called May Day. Around the world it’s a major holiday. It’s a time when working people think about their identity as working people, people who go to work 9:00 to 5:00, five, at least, days a week and do their what they’re told and leave behind the fruits of their brains and muscles for the employer, which is how the capitalist system organizes it. May Day celebrates not just working people understanding what their situation is but doing something about it—working people getting together to improve their lives. And since they are the majority, it’s improving society. I’m proud to devote this program to May Day. It deserves it. Ironically, even though the holiday began in Chicago in 1886, so it’s been around for 135 years, nonetheless, it’s celebrated in other country in general much more than in the United States, which has always found it hard to admit that we are mostly working people that our identity is shaped by being working people and that our interests ought to be understood as those of working people employed by others.

So let me begin by a brief, very brief, history of May Day. Well, back in 1886 in the United States, and particularly in and around Chicago, a major industrial locus of capitalism in those days; people experienced what they felt were intolerable working conditions. Intolerable working conditions that the theme for what work means most of the time to most people and what May Day has been the effort to change. And so it was back in 1886 in Chicago. What was the intolerable working condition then? The length of the working day. Average working days were 10 to 12 hours. That’s right. Every day and often six days a week. You went to work kind of after you fell out of bed. And you went back to bed kind of when you ended the workday. There was very little of what Europeans like to call “work–life balance”. People were physically exhausted. It wasn’t healthy. It made it impossible to have a personal life to relate to your parents, your children, your spouse. It was awful. And the desire to lower the working day, to lessen it, to shorten it began to mobilize thousands and tens of thousands. And by 1886 hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets to shorten the length of the working day. And the goal was the eight-hour day. The thing we all take for granted now had to be fought for by people in the streets. And so they went out in May, 1886. And of course, the business community, the employers screamed and yelled, “That mustn’t be. It can’t be. It shouldn’t be. It’ll drive us out of business. And then you won’t have any job at all. It’s all your fault. Stop doing it.” The mantra is always the same. But working people sometimes don’t listen. Working people sometimes are organized enough not only not to listen, but to say, “Uh-uh, we won’t work unless the conditions are improved.” And so despite the police that were called out and despite all the propaganda by all the major newspapers against it, people did it. It’s famous because there were also arrests. And there were also incidents of violence as that kind of a situation sometimes involves. Police arrested people. The organizers, in some cases anarchists, which was the favorite term then for what later came to be called, I don’t know, “socialists”, “communists”, “terrorists”—these are synonyms in the American vocabulary. And a number of the anarchists were even executed for what was never clear. Somebody threw a bomb. The anarchists were the fall guys. And they were killed, but it didn’t work. The eight-hour day emerged as the norm in America as did an invigorated labor movement. This was a success. Working people had won something when they were mobilized and organized—big lesson.

Now let’s move to today, May 1st, 2020, right upon us. Once again, we’re faced with intolerable working conditions. Here’s what’s intolerable—they’re unsafe. To go to a store, an office, a factory is to be among other people in an environment where the coronavirus can spread from one person to another. We now know that many people who have the virus don’t show a symptom, so you can’t tell easily. What has to be done is to make workplaces safe. But we’re not seeing that. We’re being told, “Go back to work. Go back to work.” And of course, we want to because we don’t have a job. We worried about getting the old job back. We don’t have enough income. The unemployment doesn’t cover. The government check hasn’t come. We all have the pressures and that’s being used to get us back to work, just like in 1886—low incomes, poverty—were the tools, the clubs used to get people to accept 10–12-hour days. Look, I want to go back to work just like everybody else. But the employers haven’t taken the steps to make work tolerable, just like the employers back in 1886 hadn’t lowered the working day to make work tolerable. So let’s go through what they haven’t done today. Just like in 1886, it was easy to point out, “You’re all being required to work 10 to 12 hours a day. The employers haven’t responded to our requests.” Here we go. In 2020, here’s what we need. There has to be social distancing. We have to be kept six or more feet away from one another that means you have to reorganize the factories, the offices, and the stores so that the work can be done in a safe way with distancing. Here’s another thing. We need to test everybody. You know how often? All the time, every day, every other day, because you can’t tell from one day to the next who is or who isn’t infected and, therefore, dangerous to everybody unless you do mammoth testing. As of the time we’re doing this program, the United States hasn’t tested 1% percent of its population. What in the world are you doing? Telling people to go back into a crowded store, a crowded office, a crowded factory when you haven’t got the testing equipment, the trained testers in the workplace to do the work? Then you have to trace whoever’s infected to see who else they’ve been with recently. That’s a whole job. You have to locate those people and get them tested. And then there’s the masks, and the gloves, and the temperature monitors—we don’t have that. We don’t have that in place. Employers haven’t done that. And the constant cleaning and the constant disinfecting so that we don’t get sick again. Here’s the bottom line, friends. The employers who want you to go to work didn’t want to take their profits, their money to make the workplace safe. Just like in 1886, they didn’t want to lose the profit of giving you a lousy wage and getting 12 hours of work. They didn’t want to exchange that for giving you a lousy wage, but at least you have only 8 hours to work. And you know something? The government hasn’t stepped in to compensate for the failure of the employers to make a safe working place, to make the workplace tolerable. The government’s supposed to come in and compensate for what employers fail to do, but they haven’t done that either. Look, we have 30 million unemployed people—right now. They need jobs—right now. And we need the work they could be doing: testing, cleaning, disinfecting, reconfiguring—everything I just listed in a rational society would be getting done.

So what do we see? We see scattered organization. We see people moving for a rent strike. Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi is leaving a notion of a general strike, workers in Amazon and lots of other places have had the organization that demand they’re doing what May Day is about. But the reality is we lack the existing organizations. We haven’t built them up over the last 30 years to mobilize, and organize, and make the anger effective to make the lessons from May Day learned. And also, there’s something else. We lack an understanding of what has to be done which is just as important as not having in place the unions, the political parties, and the social movements focused on making May Day a really count now that we need it so badly. Here’s the lack of understanding. We cannot keep reforming a system the way we have and expect things to work. Let me give an example. We got rid of everything other than the eight-hour day. But the capitalists, the employers they got back, and they got around it. You know, we have the gig economy where people work more than eight hours. We have overtime where people work more than eight hours. And we have companies that have gone all over the world to escape. The reforms are hard to win. And then the worst of it is, the worst of it is after you’ve won them, the employers figure out ways to undo them. They fight you before you get them and then they undo them after they lose and we win. There’s a lesson here we have to learn. Making reforms, improving, making capitalism less awful, less harsh, less intolerable doesn’t, in the end, solve the problem and it never did. Even if we got what I just listed, an army of people paid for by the capitalists to clean, to disinfect, to test, to trace, to reconfigure, to do all the things that a decent society would do before telling people to go back to work, before risking their lives and those of their loved ones. Even if we did it, we’d leave in place a capitalist system, which concentrates the wealth and the power at the top. We leave in place those small groups boards of directors, owners of enterprises, major shareholders who have every incentive, as soon as they can, to undo the reform if they haven’t blocked it. That’s why after the eight-hour day is won we have so many people today working more than eight hours a day. Of course. Because the capitalists undid it. They have the incentive, because it’s more profitable for them. And they have the means, they have the profits, which gather into their hands, which give them the funds to undo. They use their profits to move production out of the United States to places where there is no eight-hour day law. Come on. If we succeed in making the workplace safe, we will have to worry forever that the employers will make them unsafe again. There’s a reason we have something called OSHA, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, because capitalism has always not cared for and not taken care of the health and welfare of their employees.

We’ve come to the end of the first half of today’s program. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Be sure to visit democracyatwork.info where you can learn more about our other activities, our union co-op store that we hope you buy from, and our books: “Understanding Marxism” and “Understanding Socialism”. And lastly, of course, a special thanks to our Patreon community whose invaluable support helps make this show possible. We appreciate it more now than ever and it’s a salute to the Patreon community that we offer. Stay with us. We’ll be right back

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of Economic Update a program today devoted to May Day and particularly to the lessons that the May Day experience back in 1886, and in the hundred and thirty-five years since, the lessons we can draw from it.

When I was talking about before the break was that back in May 1886 when it started and the issue was the intolerability of a 10 to 12-hour day, workers were devoted to reform, reforming capitalism, not fundamentally changing it, just shortening the length of the working day. And many May Days since 1886 have been devoted to trying to get other reforms, get conditions improved. And you know many of them, because those that were won, usually after very long struggle, and those that have been able to survive, also requiring much struggle, and not often succeeding, they shape the quality of our lives today. In the 1930s, for example, mobilized workers were able to get a Social Security system to help people live a decent life after they’ve spent a lifetime of working based on the money taken out of their check every week for the years of labor, they should have a decent retirement when they wouldn’t have to become a burden on their children’s families. So we got Social Security. We got a minimum wage also in the 1930s. That was a reform of importance. We got unemployment compensation when you lose a job through no fault of your own that there’s an obligation in society to help you. Look how important it is that we have that now. But that had to be fought for and the employers fought against it tooth and nail delaying it by decades if you count from when people began to ask for it and then demand it.

But we have to be honest with each other. We’ve also fought for civil rights, women’s rights so that they’re not underpaid and made second-class citizens, the same for ethnic and racial minorities, religious minorities. We’ve tried to get gay people to be given decent job security. We’re concerned about our environment and the pollution that threatens us all. And we have struggled for reforms and the employers have blocked it at every turn. And sometimes we won and often we didn’t. But every time we won, here is a lesson that goes back to May Day 1886 and has been we retaught to us that we have to finally learn—reforms are inherently insufficient and temporary. You see, the employers don’t stop by blocking the reform when we wanted. Employers didn’t just block the eight-hour day for decades—they did—but that’s not all they did, when it was finally won by experiences like the May Day demonstrations in Chicago in 1886 and in other cities too. Even when it was won, the employers didn’t stop, that’s why I mentioned in the first half, overtime, that’s how you get people to work more hours. The gig economy, when you can get people to work on their own time at home more hours than they can count. And you get all those movements to Mexico or Far East to make people work again at 10 to 12 hours that was normal—you can’t get it done here, you get it done there. You respond to the efforts of the American working class to get an eight-hour day by saying, “Okay, we’ll take your job away and give it to somebody in a foreign country who’s so desperately poor they’ll work 10 to 12 hours a day like you did and like your parents did.”

So here’s the lesson to make it really blunt. We can’t keep leaving in place a system that not only blocks the reforms we need but undoes them after we’ve won them. It’s absurd, this endless fight. And you know, why the fight is there? Here it goes. It’s the system. We have an economic system that in every office, every store, every factory has a tiny number of people sitting at the top, deciding what’s good for the part of the business they’re interested in. And that’s called the profit. That’s why they’re in business. The way I know that—they say so. And everything I see, reinforces that they’re telling me the truth—profit is their bottom line. They’re in it for the profit. Therefore, they want us to work as long as possible for whatever they pay us. Of course, they do! That’s good for their profits. And they don’t want to put in good lighting, and good air conditioning, and good work conditions. And they’re not interested in our work–life balance. Because that’s not good for their profits. And here’s what you’re going to have to face as we all are. They’re not interested in spending a lot of money to test everybody for the virus, to clean everything every day over and over again to disinfect it, to trace people who have the problem, to reconfigure the workplace. That’s an army of people who have to be paid to do all of that. And that’s not profitable. That’s a cost of doing business. They keep costs low. Why? Because that makes the profit higher. You all know this. But we keep struggling to get a reform from the very people—employers—we the employees struggle to get the employer to do what’s right by the majority. Just like we need a safe workplace today in the face of the coronavirus and they needed a safe workplace in 1886 so they wouldn’t have to work 10 to 12 hours a day. But the employer doesn’t see it that way. They don’t want that. That’s a cost without a gain. Workers wanted to be paid the same for 8 hours not 12. The employer didn’t want that. What was good for the worker—less time at labor, more for your work–life balance—was not good for the employer. That’s called a conflict of interest or, if you want to go to an older language, that’s called a class struggle, pitting people with opposing interests. We got to face that, friends. The history of the capitalist system is the history of people—the majority workers, employees—struggling for reforms, having a great deal of difficulty winning them and then having an equal amount of difficulty preserving them, keeping them. We leave in place the capitalist system when all we do is reform it. We leave in place that little group at the top with every incentive to block us and to undo whatever it is we win. And they have the profits of business that our labor helps to produce to use to block us and to undo us.

So the answer can’t be struggle again for reforms. Really? Again? What May Day teaches is we’ve been there, and we’ve done that, and that’s not the solution. It’s a recipe for endlessly backsliding, trying again, being undone, trying again. Sure, we’re provoked by the crisis of the coronavirus. But we also have to learn the lessons. Otherwise, we’re going to go through this game yet again. How could it be changed? That’s called system change. And that’s what the coronavirus puts on the agenda if we learn the lessons of all the reform efforts before and since the original May Day in 1886.

Here’s the solution. An economic system that is democratized, that becomes democratic. And here’s what it means, real simple, we’ve done this in this program before. Every office, every store, every workplace becomes democratically organized, not a few people at the top: the owner, the board of directors, the big investors who own the big blocks of shares, if it’s a company that issues shares—no. That’s over. That’s the old system that got us into these messes. The new one is a democratic system. And here’s why. The coronavirus threatens all of us. It cannot be correct or right or democratic to have a tiny number of people at the top putting the decision down—it’s open, it’s not open, you come back to work or you lose your job, which is what they’re doing or proposing to do. If it threatens us all, that’s got to be a democratic decision. We have to get together to decide if the workplace is safe. And if the majority of people don’t think so that’s got to count for something or else all the notions of democracy in America go down the tube.

And here’s what, I would guess, happens if we had an economy that was democratic in which every enterprise had the big decisions made democratically—one worker, one vote. Supervisor gets a vote, sweeper gets a vote, and everybody else. We would have decided, I’m sure, that it would be necessary to make the workplace safe before we go back to work. You know why? Our survival is as important as the profit of the enterprise. If we were all responsible for both of them, we would weigh the profit—yes, that’s important—and the safety—yes, that’s important. But we’re not organized democratically. We have a tiny group for whom the profit is everything and a big majority for whom the profit is really secondary—it’s my wage and it’s my life that is being held in the balance. We shouldn’t have: our lives, our situation, our work; we are the majority decided by a minority who have a different goal—profitability—than we do, which is a decent life, safety for ourselves and all of those we may infect if we are pushed back into a horrific choice between an income we depend on and living through surviving a pandemic.

Let’s learn the lesson. Let’s learn the system changes on the agenda, not because of some abstract idea, not because of some old debate about capitalism–socialism—no, no, no. Those are the words in which people think these things through. But here’s the reality. Either we all make the decisions that will determine whether we live or not, or we give a tiny group of people, focused on profit, that decision. And let me be as blunt with you as the situation demands. We have millions of people unemployed. From the perspective of an employer, let’s open up. And if along the way a certain number of my employees get sick or die, there’s loads of people out there desperate for a job, it will not be difficult to replace the sick and dead with the desperados looking for work when we open up. The workers are many, the profiteers are few. Ugly image? Yes. Unrealistic? Not at all. It’s time. It’s overdue to learn the lesson of May Day to realize that what workers have celebrated all around the world on May 1st remains our task. Let’s stop negotiating with somebody who blocks us and undoes what we win. Let the workers themselves run the enterprise. We’ll then be talking to ourselves and we’ll cut a much better deal for us and our families then we have been able to do in this system so far.

Thank you very much for your attention. And I look forward to speaking with you again next week.

Transcript by Aleh Haiko
The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracyatwork.info. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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