Photo of a protest crowd on a Toronto street on a spring day with apartment buildings around.
May Day 2010 in Toronto. Photo: Enid Godtree.

May Day: International Workers’ Day for Over a Century

Prices are high and rent is unaffordable. We keep working harder, but we never seem to get ahead. Most of us are a few paychecks or one really bad sickness away from losing everything.

Not everyone is in the same boat. In the last three years, every 30 hours both a new billionaire was created in the world and one more million people fell into extreme poverty.

The super-rich aren’t getting ahead because they work harder or smarter than the rest of us. It’s because they are the bosses that control wages and working conditions.

As long as there are fewer jobs than people, if one of us chooses not to work, there will be someone else willing to take our place. The fancy term for this is the “ideal rate of unemployment.” In Canada, that’s set at around six per cent, or 960,000 workers. That is, nearly one million people without work and looking for work is considered “ideal” for the bosses.

With unchecked powers, there’s really no limit to how bad work can get.

Unless workers do something. That something is to get all employed and unemployed workers together and walk off the job.

That’s what was happening 137 years ago in May in Chicago, when workers were striking for an eight-hour work day (down from 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week). A bomb went off, and then protest organizers — workers’ leaders — were hanged. Three years later, workers around the world began to rally around the first of May as Workers’ Day.

Today, May 1 is a holiday in almost every country, except Canada and the U.S.

May Day isn’t about the holiday, but about remembering that the whole system is set up to keep each of us apart and thinking that we are individually failing. Only when we unite together as workers do we have a chance.

The eight-hour work day was won, but today, many of us can’t survive with just eight hours of work. Our victory was stolen, but we can win again.

We can build a world without inequality, together.

This article appeared in the 2023 May/June issue.