Today is May Day, or International Workers’ Day, a holiday created in remembrance of those killed in the the Haymarket affair, a violent clash between police and workers in Chicago demanding better working conditions with the 8-hour workday being at the top of the list. In the United States, we celebrate our version of May Day on Labor Day in September, but the spirit of the holiday is still there. The problem is that it would be more meaningful for the United States to celebrate May Day, it would show solidarity with the rest of the world and that the only major difference between workers is the place they call home.
Imagine if it was a mandatory day off in the United States? No grocery stores open, no gas stations, no shops, no schools, no TV or radio. A day to remind everyone that we all play a significant part in society and ought to be treated as such. As automation looms on the horizon it would be easy to discard workers as soon as a better deal comes along, but that ignores their inherent humanity. The issue now isn’t the 8-hour work day, it’s a living wage, practical benefits, and a chance to thrive no matter what the occupation. Some might argue that a fast food worker isn’t as important as a doctor, but does that mean the McDonald’s employee shouldn’t be able to afford a home, a car, the occasional vacation? That they shouldn’t have access to healthcare or a retirement plan? There was a time when a factory worker had access to these things, and its safe to say that we were in better shape as a country.
So, what happened?
Calls for deregulation in the 1970s followed by the breaking of union power in the 1980s helped with this. The adoption of “trickle down economics” in the Reagan administration allowed by insane tax cuts helped distance the owners from the workers. Why should someone pay their workers better if there isn’t the threat of government intervention?
Now the worker has almost nonexistent power, wages haven’t increased to coincide with inflation, and the income gap keeps growing while the middle class shrinks.
How can this be fixed? Some might argue that awareness is key. Every morning when I check my email there’s a new slew of petitions for this cause, or that cause, and I never sign them. I never sign them because it’s an excuse to feel like I did something without really doing anything. Signing a petition entitled, “Raise the minimum wage to a LIVING wage! Sign if you agree!!1!!1” is about as effective as making a Facebook post that adds value to one like or one share. It’s self-congratulatory and isn’t helping. Even if 10,000 people sign a petition that won’t get the attention of the government. That’s .0033 percent of the population. In a group of 100 people that would be a third of a person voicing their discontent.
Corporations won’t listen either, because a petition means nothing to them. They operate based on the bottom line, and unless something directly negatively affects their profit margin, they will not listen.
The other problem with petitions is that they are disorganized and have no bargaining power. Sure, we want living wages that match inflation, but what will we do if we don’t get it?
The most obvious answer is a total boycott of a certain company while threatening to vote for only politicians that support this goal. This requires concentration and dedication. So what does that mean? It means actually doing something that might cause you a little discomfort.
For example, when I worked at McDonald’s, I made around $9 an hour, give or take a few cents. I figured that if I worked 40 hours a week and was taxed 15 percent, I would have had a yearly income of $14,688, which would have been okay for a single guy. What about a single parent with one kid?
Two kids? Even worse.
Now, I know there are some who will fold their arms and grumble about personal responsibility and that it’s not the taxpayer’s problem to fund someone’s life. All callousness aside, I’ll half-agree, but because I believe it should be the corporation’s problem.
How do we fix the problem? A fairly simple demand:
Pay your workers a living wage (about $15/hour), keep food prices the same, or we won’t give you money.
We have grown far too complacent when it comes to injustice. I understand, sharing information on social media, signing petitions, and talking to people about issues is a great way to raise awareness, but that awareness will not translate to results if there isn’t pressure behind it. Getting Bernie Sanders, or someone like him, into office would have started the process but there needs to be public participation too. It means making some minor sacrifices, and the funny thing is these sacrifices don’t require much effort. Don’t like how fast food workers are treated? Don’t buy fast food. See? You’re already doing something. But if you complain about how fast food workers are treated then go to McDonald’s for lunch, it rings hollow. You become a self-righteous hypocrite who cares more about the perception that you did something rather than actually doing something.
So on this International Workers’ Day, remember all the people that you directly or indirectly rely on for your lifestyle, remember that they are people too who deserve more than the bare minimum, and before you sign any petitions, click “share,” or make a lengthy post about the plight of workers (I know, I’m doing that right now…) consider whether or not you really mean it.
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My debut novel, In the Land of God, is also available on Amazon as an eBook for 99 cents, or as a paperback for $12.