May Day Past and Present

Nicole Vitello
May 1, 2017

Today is International Workers Day, also known as May Day, which has roots in U.S. history, but is barely recognized here as it is officially in 66 other countries and unofficially in many more. Yet we owe our eight hour work day and five day work week, among other labor protections, to the 300,000 men, women and children who walked off their jobs on May 1, 1886, to protest their working conditions and lack of power in the growing capitalist industrial system, of which their labor was a necessary part. 

This was a radical move for workers who as individuals were subject to long hours, low pay, dangerous industrial working conditions, child labor and intimidation from bosses. As individuals in a factory, they did not have the power to change their situation, but as a group of 300,000 people in the streets, they gained collective power, the power to negotiate the terms of their labor and a share of the wealth their labor was generating. 

Modern protest movements are taking their cue from May Day by calling people to the street to protest policies affecting immigrant labor, from farm workers to workers in the tech industry. To me, what is lacking in these protests is the question of how all workers can better share in the wealth generated by the fruits of their labor. You can protest against, but what are we working for? What has been built in the last 133 years since the first May Day protest to provide a more equitable model of wealth sharing?

It is through this lens that I would like to talk about Equal Exchange’s structure, as I did in a recent podcast on An Organic Conversation. Founded in 1986, Equal Exchange is a worker-owned cooperative that trades commodity products like coffee, tea and bananas directly with organized farmers globally. Interestingly, Equal Exchange celebrates its birthday on May Day each year. It was May 1, 1986, that U.S. customs officials released the first shipment of Nicaraguan coffee from the Port of Boston - brought in through a loophole in the law despite being an embargoed product - 100 years to the day after the first May Day strike. (Read more about the history of Equal Exchange.)

Equal Exchange worker-owners

A worker cooperative is an alternative for-profit structure based on standard democratic principles. It is not designed to maximize profits, nor returns to investors, but rather to bring to the workplace many of the rights and responsibilities that we hold as citizens in our communities. These principles include one-person/one-vote equality; open access to information (i.e., open-book management); free speech; and the equitable distribution of resources (such as income). 

A worker co-op is not owned by outside shareholders or a small group of founders or partners, but by all the employees in equal portions. Top-level managers and entry-level employees alike own an identical share and receive an equal share of any profits or losses. These worker-owners both elect the board of directors and fill a certain percentage of the board seats (at Equal Exchange, worker owners fill six of the nine board seats). The board, in turn, is responsible for hiring and supervising management. Consequently, a circle is formed, as in American civic democracy, of everyone being accountable to someone else.

The Equal Exchange cooperative model addresses not only the rights of workers here in the U.S., but also the collective power that small farmers can have when they organize themselves into agricultural cooperatives to trade directly. As manufacturing and food production is increasingly exported to countries with cheaper and less protected labor, the cooperative model becomes more than just a means for farmers to amass volume for export. The cooperative model becomes an alternative to economic colonialism. 

In the economic colonialism model, it is not necessary to own banana plantations or avocado groves, which is risky and expensive. Instead, it is only necessary to control the means of production and access to the market. This is a power dynamic much like the one the May Day workers protested against. Alternatively, farmer members in agricultural cooperatives own their land, which comes with owning the risk, the investment, the ability to negotiate as equals, access to markets, and democratic decision-making on how to spend the social premium dollars.

Worker-owned cooperatives are a powerful alternative model and a means for workers and farmers to share in the wealth generated by the sweat of their labor. That is something to be celebrated this May Day.

Find more on the history of May Day here