Labor’s May Day Call

When millions marched this past May 1st, they sent a message to end a system of global competition based on eroding labor rights.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


Article created by the International Relations Center.

The immigrants’ rights demonstrations and boycott in the United States galvanized a huge proportion of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers and 40 million-strong Latino population behind the simple concept of allowing workers and their families to live without the threat of imprisonment and deportation. The nationwide boycott that closed down everything from restaurants and port facilities in Los Angeles to meatpacking plants in the Midwest, proved the economic power of immigrant workers and revealed unexpected support among workers, church groups, African Americans, and other parts of society. In Mexico , the unusually large turnout for the May Day demonstrations resulted from the convergence of public outrage at the police repression of striking workers at a Michoacán steel mill, the recent death of 65 miners in a mine explosion, government intervention in internal union affairs, and the presence in Mexico City of the “Other Campaign” led by the Zapatistas. Waves of organized workers, human rights activists, farmers, punks, and students flowed into the central plaza, traditionally reserved for the orderly ranks of the government-controlled unions.

In both countries what happened on May 1 reflected social pressures that had become uncontainable. As in France and other parts of the world, the demonstrations were a response to governments that have adopted strict anti-labor policies to compete on a global market.

The North American Free Trade Agreement decimated the small and medium industries and subsistence farming in Mexico that provided most employment. Now, what is often referred to as “Mexico’s escape valve”—the emigration of the un- and under-employed northward—has become the United States’ pressure cooker.

Anti-immigration groups have sought to portray the issue as one of border security. But as the immigrants marched, they chanted “We are all Americans”—belying the fear mongering that immigrants are terrorists in disguise. The work stoppages illustrated that immigration is fundamentally a labor issue in the United States as well.

This has thrown the Republican Party into disarray—split between the demands of its socially conservative right for a return to Wonder Bread communities and the demands of its corporate backers for more stable access to cheap labor. It has confused the Democratic Party, which seems to be more interested in testing which way political winds are blowing than resolving a fundamental problem of national integration and labor rights.

In Mexico the escape valve has become a motor of the economy. At over $20 billion a year, remittances bring in more money than foreign direct investment and are equivalent to 71% of oil exports—at a time when oil revenues have soared. They help pay foreign debt, offset rural impoverishment, and gloss over regional disparities.

This has led some to question the Mexican government’s commitment to solving the immigration crisis within the framework of “co-responsibility,” as emphasized at the Cancun trilateral summit in late March. But if you ask migrants why they are leaving family and community possibly forever, they will not say it’s because the Mexican government failed to deter them. They will reply that they either do not have work or do not receive a wage that supports their families. Right back to the labor question.

Government policies over the past decade have willfully undermined the role of organized labor in defending workers’ rights. They have actively sought to control the working population routinely excluded from the bonanzas reflected in corporate annual reports. Whether it’s keeping immigrant workers in a perpetual underclass by rejecting broader legal immigration and legalization, or refusing to respect the right to organize, these anti-labor practices are at the root of the contradictions that led to the May Day distress signal. In Mexico and the United States, broad sectors of the labor force are no longer even assured the security of a decent income, benefits, and legal status—despite working fulltime jobs.

The argument that unemployment and the working poor would gradually disappear under free trade regimes has proved false. The International Labor Organization recently issued a report on labor in Latin America that destroys any hope that the situation for workers is improving even in times of economic growth.

Fifty percent of the Latin American workforce cannot find jobs in the formal sector. Twenty-three million are unemployed, and 103 million work in the informal sector with no rights or benefits. The informal sector now employs 53% of the economically active population and generates six out of every 10 jobs created. As the economy goes underground, labor rights are buried.

Things get worse if you’re a woman or young person. Female unemployment is 40% above male and monthly income is 66% below. According to the ILO report, youth make up 42% of the unemployed. Not surprisingly, the numbers of women and youth migrating to the United States have grown exponentially.

Lais Abramo of the International Labor Organization summed up the challenge. “A decent job means that it’s not enough to create employment—we have to create conditions for a dignified life.” Historically, an organized labor movement capable of demanding and enforcing its rights has been the only way to guarantee that a job assures dignified living conditions. It still is.

Mexicans working in the United States and workers in Mexico share more than a common language and culture. They both work under conditions that deny them basic human and labor rights. And this year, they were both in the streets to change that.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate