Wednesday, May 01, 2019

May Day in dangerous times

Today is May Day, also known as International Workers Day (among other things), a day promoting working and labouring people and the international labour rights movement. It’s more needed now than it’s been in more than a century, and it could even prove to be our deliverance from these dangerous times.

Back in May 2013 I talked about “May Day and me”, which included some of the history of the day. That post was actually inspired by a chat I had with a friend of mine, Kit Duffy, who died in late 2015. She was the most truly progressive person I ever met, and a strong supporter of human rights for all people, and she was a strong advocate for workers’ rights. I now think of her every May Day; I think she’d be pleased about that.

For all my activist years, and for a long time afterward, backing for organised labour was weak—even for Democratic politicians. They were supposed to hold labour at arm’s length to avoid being labelled “socialist”, and most of them played along. Most, but not all.

Even earlier, when I was young and Republican, I wasn’t exactly pro-labour. In university I had a speech class and one topic I took on was arguing in favour of a “student right to work” law—basically to make compulsory union membership for university students illegal. I got all my talking points from College Republicans, and I did reasonably well, despite a number of Democrats (and far more "Indifferents") in the same class.

When I became a Democrat, I began to study all the issues I never did as a Republican: LGBT rights, obviously, but also feminism, civil rights (and black history), the peace movement (this was only a few years after the end of the Vietnam War), and even progressive Christianity. I also finally began to understand organised labour, and why it was so important.

Here in New Zealand, unions were deliberately weakened by conservative governments, a topic in itself, but they’re still around. In the early 2000s, I worked for a media company that was clearly getting ready to shed staff. I arranged for my fellow workers to meet with a union organiser, and we all unionised—just in case. My rationale was that if the company did try to get rid of us, or, more likely, to make our jobs so terrible over time that we’d quit, we’d need someone to fight for us. A union was the logical answer.

When I changed jobs to a different division of the company, they were shocked that I was a union member because it was unheard of (they’d just sacked their entire staff who did what I was brought in to do, and, also, it was a National Party electorate). I remained a union member right up until I left that job.

The point of this personal history is that I was once pretty much anti-union, education made me sympathetic, and necessity made me embrace unionism. There’s no reason other people can’t take the same journey, but it will take commitment.

The reason we should bother is simple: The rise and rise of the fascistic populist far-right in developed countries around the world, including the USA. One of the reasons for that is that ordinary working people feel abandoned by their governments—because they have been! The labour movement can provide an alternative to far-right populism, a vision in which ordinary workers organise to fix the excesses of capitalism, and to protect ordinary people from being victimised—the very thing that drove them toward far-right populism in the first place.

The task ahead of us is immense. People are working harder than ever and not getting anywhere—but the most senior executives of corporations sure are doing well. Just look, for example, at the chart above, which compares the hours worked per worker per year. It turns out that New Zealanders work nearly as much as Americans do, despite all the public holidays and annual leave (vacation) we get evert year (See also: “Vacation, All I Ever Wanted”).

Still New Zealand is making progress under this government: The government increased the minimum wage to $17.70 (up to $20 by 2021), it is supporting victims of domestic violence with up to ten days leave per year, plus workplace support. It also has restored rest and meal breaks for workers, and is developing tools to prevent bullying and harassment by implementing the Health and Safety Strategy. They are moving on pay equity legislation to improve access to pay claims, and increasing Paid Parental Leave from 18 to 22 weeks (up to 26 weeks by 2020). Add all that up, and things are starting to get much better for ordinary working people and their families. It’s a good start.

But even progress like the current NZ government is making won’t mean anything if ordinary workers continue to feel powerless in their own lives, something that creates an opening for the far-right populists. Still, if people feel better off (because they are), it does diminish the appeal of the far-right.

The lessons in this for the USA are that it’s vital to look after ordinary working people in order to restore the prosperity of the middle class. Fortunately, there are a lot of modern Democrats who understand that and have promised to act on it. Hopefully they’ll begin to replace the old-fashioned “keep labour at arm’s length” Democrats so that we have a chance to defeat the far-right populists.

But it all begins with recognising the importance of labour and labour organising, and that’s what May Day is actually all about.

The chart above is from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

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