Take Back May Day

Volume 112, No. 5May, 2012

John O'Connor

It is fitting that May is Labor History Month. May Day or May 1 was the original day celebrated as Labor Day to commemorate the marches for the eight-hour day that took place on May 1, 1886, chiefly in Chicago. The irony is lost not on a few that today May 1 is celebrated throughout the world as Labor Day with the exception of the country in which it began.

But that is not the only thing that is exceptional about the labor movement in the United States.

Whereas in much of the developed world unions have made the center of their struggle pushing for workers’ rights through law, unions in the U.S. have used their political and bargaining power to gain most rights for workers workplace by workplace.

Outside of unionized workplaces, Americans have very few rights, indeed. That’s not true in Europe.

Rights such as paid vacation, health care benefits, sick pay and the right not to be fired without cause that are fought for through union contracts in the U.S. are a matter of law in countries like England, France, Germany, Holland, Finland and Norway.

The way we look at fighting for these rights here is greatly problematic when you consider how few union workers are left in the U.S. compared to 30 years ago.

There could be a case made back in 1965 that workers in the United States enjoy many benefits, rights and protections through their labor movement. It’s just not true anymore.

Less than 12 percent of workers today have collective bargaining rights. While in England, for instance, by law almost all workers are entitled to up to 28 weeks of sick time, more than five weeks of vacation, a year of maternity leave (39 weeks of it paid) and the right not to be fired without cause.

So is it time to look at finding a new way to fight for our rights here in America?

Let’s take the case of Walmart, the notorious anti-union, worker-exploiting, community-destroying company that the unions have been going after for years.

Walmart has been brought before the National Labor Relations Board numerous times for unfair labor practices in denying workers the right to form a union. The company has fired with impunity workers who talk about unionizing

And what is the solution from America’s unions? Keep trying to win union rights for Walmart workers.

After chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and Walmart continually block union rights for their workers, why not stop knocking our heads against that wall and think about using the labor movement to fight for federal labor rights in the workplace?

Did the civil rights movement of the 1960’s fight for the end of segregation lunch counter by lunch counter, school by school or swimming pool by swimming pool?

No, the civil rights movement mission was to end racial segregation throughout the land through national legislation.

The labor movement should do the same. Let’s start fighting for our rights where it matters: the law of the land.

And in the bargain, the labor movement will gain something else: a badly needed revitalized and massive movement.

Imagine workers of all sorts, not just Walmart workers, going into a Walmart store and having a mass sit-in demanding just cause dismissal rights.

In the meantime, progressive and pro-labor congress members introduce national legislation for the same thing.

I’d wager that even half the Tea Party would support a law that says you can’t fire someone without good reason.

Workers are looking for ways to express their frustration with a country whose laws more and more favor the rich.

On May 1 in lower Manhattan, tens of thousands of union members and nonunion members will be marching for workers rights, jobs, immigrant rights and redistribution of the wealth from the top to the bottom.

You’ll see unions, Occupy Wall Streeters, workers coalitions and progressive and left political parties and alliances.

Out all of these, it is the unions that have the resources to help build a mass movement.

But they aren’t going to do it through the old CIO model of “collective bargaining in our shops.” Sure, it works for many of us in Local 802, but it is not going to build the mass movement that the CIO built in the 1930’s.

Maybe the fact that we are re-claiming May Day is a sign that we’re beginning to break out of the rusty mold that we have been in for the past 40 years while we watched our union density diminish from 36 percent to 11.9 percent.

As we gave May Day to Europeans, we can take something back from them: the idea that all workers deserve the rights that we won for the industrial workers of America back when we had industries.

When the labor movement begins fighting for all workers in a truly meaningful way, we will have our movement back.

Justice for Jazz Artists

Speaking of breaking out of the mold, as Allegro readers know, we have been leafleting the Blue Note and other major jazz nightclubs in New York with the objective of winning collective bargaining agreements which would include pension benefits.

Organizing for collective bargaining in clubs that hire different musicians each night or each week has never been attempted beyond an occasional appeal to the owners to do the right thing.

Local 802 hast developed the outline of a leverage campaign to bring club owners to the table to discuss issues of importance to musicians.

Our leafleting is the first stage of this campaign. Because the National Labor Relations Act does not allow us to petition for election in such clubs with short-term employment, we are seeking to gain union recognition through our Justice for Jazz Artists campaign.

In recent weeks the support from artists, side-musicians and jazz fans has increased tremendously through ads placed on Facebook, the development of a revised Web site, and our efforts outside the clubs. Though some skeptics have expressed doubt that our goals can be accomplished, we are determined to prove them wrong.

We believe that jazz and other nightclub musicians deserve benefits that are taken for granted by Broadway, symphonic and club date musicians and that the great historical injustices toward jazz musicians must be rectified.

This campaign will be long and arduous but we are committed to seeing it through and we are getting ever-closer to that goal. Go to to see how you can become part of this historic struggle.