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Mobilizing on May Day

Amy Traub

This year in the United States, International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, actually feels like the day of resistance and struggle it was intended to be.

Last week teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked off the job, shutting down schools in a collective effort not only to improve their own abysmal pay but also to reverse the years of massive cuts to public education that have left their students without the resources to succeed academically. Arizona teachers are also speaking out for school bus drivers, cafeteria staff, and other school employees who are underpaid.

Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva points out that in a state where half of public school students come from communities of color (mostly Latino and Native American communities), the underfunding of education is also a crucial issue of racial equity.

The New York Times recently highlighted the way that policymakers in state and local governments nationwide acted to degrade the quality of public sector employment across the board, reducing public payrolls to make room for tax cuts that benefit corporations and the wealthy. In standing up for themselves, their students, and the other working people who enable our public schools to function, teachers in Arizona and Colorado, as well as earlier waves of striking teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, are pushing back against exactly this politics of austerity.

Private sector workers face an even greater squeeze as profits—and the largesse from recent corporate tax cuts—are funneled overwhelmingly to shareholders and chief executives. Newly available public data from the federal Security and Exchange Commission reveals just how tremendous the gap between working people and corporate bosses has grown: The CEO of Yum Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell, made 1,358 times more than the typical employee keeping those restaurants operating. Walmart’s CEO took home 1,188 times more than the company’s median worker. It’s no wonder that working people organizing through groups like the Fight for $15 and OUR Walmart have taken collective action to demand a better deal on the job. For their part, corporations complain that having to reveal the pay ratios is “a pain in the butt.” 

At AT&T, which had promised to invest its tax windfall in its workforce, thousands of workers in Illinois,  Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin and are poised to go on strike, denouncing the company for breaking its promise and eliminating jobs, closing call centers, and shifting work to low-paid contractors.

From airline catering workers to graduate teaching and research assistants at the nation’s most elite universities, to farm workers and domestic workers fed up with laws that leave them vulnerable to sexual assault and harassment on the job, working people are joining with co-workers to call for fair pay and treatment at work.

The federal government could do a great deal to support them all. In our new briefing book, Everyone’s Economy, my Demos colleagues and I lay out an array of policies to lift up working people, from raising job standards through a higher minimum wage and paid sick days, to devoting more resources to combatting discrimination and harassment on the job, to restoring our freedom to join together with co-workers to negotiate for a fair return on work. We make the case for a public jobs guarantee, arguing that it will raise standards for a broad range of workers and should prioritize racial equity.

As my colleague Tamara Draut points out in the new edition of her book Sleeping Giant, America’s contemporary working class continues to be overlooked because of preconceptions about race and gender that lead us to pay attention to white men in hard hats while ignoring women of color at the checkout counter. The strikes and mobilizations around the country suggest that the “sleeping giant” may be stirring.