Intolerable work conditions have provoked major movements to reform capitalism throughout our modern history. But why should we keep a system that requires workers to endlessly struggle against the opponents who own and operate each enterprise with exclusive control of the profits?
The first May Day in Chicago in 1886 was a major step in the advancement of working class movements. Marchers then were convinced that 10, 12, and more hours of daily labor threatened their health, families, and their lives, and as a result, hundreds of thousands of working class people marched to reform capitalism. This effort achieved the 8 hour-workday.
As usual, capitalists were opposed, as they opposed ending child labor and other reforms the working class wanted, needed, and supported. Thankfully, a shortened work week was achieved through the working class’s efforts, resulting in a significant defeat for capitalists.
Yet, as history shows us, when defeated, capitalists do not give up.
After the 8-hour working day became law, capitalists’ lobbyists got friendly politicians and judges to let them evade, then weaken, and finally repeal hard won reforms. They instituted overtime, speed-up (in which workers were required to increase their output, double or triple their production rate, to save their employer time and money), contract work (now the “gig” economy), and relocating their businesses to where no 8-hour law yet existed.
Similarly, after the 1933 Banking Act (Glass-Steagall Act) was passed, which restricted socially dangerous financial speculations, opposing capitalist bankers again evaded, weakened, and, in 1999, finally got Congress and President Clinton to repeal it. So it was with most of the New Deal, whose beneficial social programs have been gradually undermined by capitalists’ prioritization of profit maximization.
Of the countless working class efforts to reform capitalism, capitalists defeated many. To win, workers struggled long and hard. To keep what they had won was another long, hard struggle, one that was often lost.
And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our already intolerable working conditions have become more clear. Without access to adequate personal protective equipment, we witness our nation's medical staff bury their co-workers who've succumbed to the disease and their jobs are threatened if they speak publicly about their lack of PPE.
To make matters worse, historic unemployment, already in the tens of millions, adds an economic crash on top of the pandemic. And, although our nation’s workforce prepares to return to work, there are many reasons to doubt that workers will be safe when they do so.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast, the emergency loan funds intended for small businesses are being grabbed by companies whose annual revenue exceeds the hundreds of millions, as breadlines become longer for the working class.
This May 1, 2020, let us ask the question, why do we keep a system that requires workers to endlessly struggle against the opponents who own and operate each enterprise with exclusive control of the profits?
For workers to secure reforms requires a strategic next step. They must transition beyond the employer vs. employee system, the one which defines capitalism.
With a worker co-op based economy, workers, who are the majority in every workplace, collectively and democratically become their own employer, and by negotiating amongst themselves, workers will secure more rights than they could ever achieve under capitalism.
As the spirit of the historic May Day is felt this year, with the effects of the coronavirus in our neighborhoods and workplaces, we are especially moved by the calls for general strikes, rent strikes, student tuition strikes, and workers striking unsafe working conditions, to protest today’s horrific imposition of a health crisis worsened by a capitalist crash.
Today, and in the future, let us demand the long-overdue transition beyond capitalism that both our historic and present times demonstrate we need, and that we are ready for.
Here at Democracy at Work, we contribute to this effort by continuing our commitment to creating content that advocates for this transition to workplaces that work for the workers.
In solidarity on May 1st, International Workers’ Day,
Richard D. Wolff, Founder and Board Member
Maria Carnemolla, Co-Managing & Media Director
Liz Phillips, Co-Managing & Communications Director
Michelle Scott, Communications & Media Coordinator
The d@w Team