More Less
More Less
May 01, 2016

International Workers' Day, 2016

Opinion image

In most countries May 1 celebrates workers, as it has since it was created by the Second Socialist International. Interestingly, it is not celebrated in the US, which instead observes the first Monday in September as Labor Day. America’s refusal to join ranks with other countries may stem from a reaction to the holiday’s socialist origins, a reaction that seems surprising today given that the particular date was chosen to commemorate anti-labor violence that occurred in Chicago, USA, in May 1886.

Often for political reasons Workers’ Day is treated as a day honoring the trade union movement. Indeed, in the US the rhetoric often uses the word “labor” in the context of the holiday to refer to organized labor—trade unions. This conflating may be harmful to workers’ interests generally, since, except in Scandinavian countries, trade union membership is a small fraction of the total workforce, as the table below shows. Only one-sixth of workers in all rich countries taken together are trade union members; and this fraction has been decreasing fairly rapidly in the past 15 years.

COUNTRY (Year: %)         
Australia (1999: 25, 2013: 17)
Canada (1999: 28, 2013: 27)
France (1999: 8, 2013: 8)
Germany (1999: 25, 2013: 18)
Japan (1999: 22, 2013: 18)
Netherlands (1999: 25, 2013: 18)
Sweden (1999: 81, 2013: 68)
UK (1999: 30, 2013: 26)
US (1999: 13, 2013: 11)
OECD TOTAL (1999: 21, 2013: 17)
Source: Data extracted on April 18, 2016 19:24 UTC (GMT) from OECD.Stat

Viewing Workers' Day as a celebration of trade unions leaves out an overwhelming and increasing majority of workers. Trade unions deserve celebration, but the interests of their members are not those of all workers. Trade union leaders retain their positions by obtaining better compensation and working conditions for their members, not by aiding all workers.

We cannot expect trade unions representing a minority of workers to represent the interests of workers generally; and the most important issue facing all workers today is the tremendous growth in inequality of earnings in most Western countries, with the US being the champion of inequality growth. Much of this growth has occurred at the upper end of the earnings distribution—the very highest earners have seen their wages skyrocket relative even to those of high earners. This rising inequality may explain the growing social disintegration that is observed in so many countries and that might explain the success of such diverse political protest leaders as Jean-Marie le Pen, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and even the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It is inequality, not the goals of trade union movements in aid of their members, that should concern all workers and all of us who celebrate this day and care about the creation of a society that benefits all workers.

© Daniel S. Hamermesh

Further reading:

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.