‘Working people are challenging the status quo in profound ways’

IRLE Director Tobias Higbie shared this May Day 2024 message

April 29, 2024

Dear IRLE Community:

May Day 2024 arrives in the midst of a remarkable upsurge in labor action and popular protest. In the past two years, we’ve seen major strikes and new organizing campaigns across the workforce—in hospitality, logistics, healthcare, and education. Working people are challenging the workplace status quo in profound ways. 

This year’s May Day march will take place in Hollywood as a reminder of the strikes by writers and actors this past year, and the coming contract negotiations across the entertainment industry.

Way back in 1886, organized workers across the U.S. marked the first May Day with demands for the 8-hour workday, a living wage, and union representation. These were radical demands at a time when immigrants made up the majority of industrial workers, the typical workday was 12-16 hours, and there were virtually no legal protections for workers. Workers organized creatively to make the industrial workplace more humane, but it would take more than 50 years to write the 8-hour day into federal law. 

In the decades after the first May Day, workers across the planet celebrated May 1st as International Workers Day, even as the tradition waned in the U.S. in favor of Labor Day in early September. But in the late 20th century, new immigrants and their advocates brought May Day back to the U.S., combining traditional demands for unionization and better wages with a new one—full citizenship for all workers regardless of immigration status. In the 21st century—at least in Los Angeles—May Day has become a fixture in the calendar of progressive labor and community organizations.

May Day is an opportunity to bring together the wide diversity of people, organizations, and ideas that make up this thing we call “the labor movement.” There is rarely a singular message on May Day. But if you listen carefully to the various chants and songs, maybe you’ll hear the sound of a new world being born.

Yours for a better world,

Toby Higbie

Tobias Higbie is a labor historian, professor of history and labor studies and directs UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, a multi unit research center that advances labor research and education for workplace justice through the work of its subunits — the UCLA Labor Center, Labor Studies, the Labor Occupational Safety (LOSH) and Health Program and the Human Resources Round Table (HARRT).