By Emma Picht
Boston University News Service
Some people featured in this article are listed by their first names only, due to concerns of security and safety.
People clad in red gathered on the grass at Ringer Park in Allston on May 1 to march in honor of International Workers Day, an annual celebration of the working class after May Day was chosen as the start date for an international demonstration to obtain the eight-hour workday in 1886.
Organized by Boston’s Industrial Workers of the World, the Lucy Parsons Center, City Feed Unite, Food Not Bombs, Warm Up Boston, Red Banner, Brandeis Leftist Union and the Allston-Brighton Tenants Union, the congregation opened at 5:30 p.m. with speakers advocating for workers’ rights and unionization.
A small boy, no older than eight, asked one of the participants what was happening, “We’re celebrating.”
Dakota of the Lucy Parsons Center spoke first, recounting the violence that labor activists faced when advocating for the creation of eight-hour workdays.
“While the celebration of May Day began as a pagan festival with the coming of spring and fertility, the origins of our contemporary holiday are traced to … the height of a vibrant and international working class campaign to win an eight-hour workday,” Dakota said.
Dakota then turned to the tragedy of the Haymarket Affair in 1886, “As the general strike continued through May 3 in Chicago, the pigs opened fire on the unarmed striking workers at the McCormick [Harvester Company] Works killing six and wounding untold more.”
Although there are still historian disputes regarding the number of casualties from that day, local newspapers at the time cited six workers killed by gunfire but protesters were armed, so police were justified in their open fire.
Passionate speakers advocated for community organization and denounced those in power who abuse the lower and working classes. “[The companies] see unionizing not as a right to uphold but a direct threat to their bottom line,” said Bruno of the Allston-Brighton Tenants Union (ABTU). “Tenants win when we stand united.”
Members of the ABTU passed out pamphlets with their manifesto denouncing exploitative landlords and advocating for tenants to organize and build struggle committees:
“When the landlord serves a family its eviction papers, the struggle committee stops the landlord from kicking them out by physically organizing a defense of their home. When the landlord raises rents, the tenants collectively refuse to pay higher rents. Our wages aren’t going up, so why should we be paying more money to live in the same apartments? When the landlord steals common areas and laundry rooms, the struggle committee organizes the building to take them back for the people.”
Local organizers Ash O’Neill and Kylah Clay, who helped unionize a local Starbucks in Allston, were in attendance.
Clay spoke to the importance of the May Day celebration, “We’ve become accustomed to a lot of our working conditions, in a way that has desensitized us to just how bad our working conditions are, and in a way that has made it unrealistic to remember just how bad it was before and the fact that we, workers, changed that.”
“I really feel like part of the community,” said O’Neill. “And I think that [the march] is helping, you know, connect us with other organizers and people in our community who stand in solidarity with us.”
Just a few months ago, Clay and O’Neill’s efforts to unionize their Starbucks location were met by union-busting efforts — any action taken to prevent workers from organizing and legally unionizing — demonstrated by the local and regional Starbucks offices.
“A lot of higher-up corporate people were showing up and holding captive audience sessions where we weren’t told whether they were required or not,” said Clay. “But essentially, if you didn’t show up you’d have to have a one-on-one. They used that as an opportunity to spread misinformation and fear about the union. And they lied about what would happen if we unionized and what we would lose.”
These captive audience sessions are a common tactic utilized by corporations to discourage workers from unionizing. To avoid backlash, Clay and other organizers took caution when discussing unionizing with their coworkers.
“It started off with whispers, asking people if they wanted to go get doughnuts at Union with me and eventually dropping enough of the hints that I was comfortable enough to bring it up to Ash,” said Clay. “And when we were ready to launch our camping, we had so much support immediately that it was pretty easy to get our cards signed.”
Today, the Starbucks at 1304 Commonwealth Ave., where Clay and O’Neill work, is unionized. However, they have yet to see any benefit from their organizing as the company has not entered into a bargaining phase with the union representatives.