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The Public Eye

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Celebrate May Day
By Rachel Townsend

Bryan went to work one morning. He was working for a food processing plant. Soon after he started his shift he heard a shout, and like all of the coworkers around him, he scrambled to get out of the way of a falling piece of machinery. When Bryan was hurrying to move he twisted his ankle.

It didn’t hurt much right away but by the next morning his whole foot was swollen. He went to work despite the pain.  The following day his foot was in such bad shape he could barely walk. The doctor told him that he needed bed rest and under no circumstance should work for at least three months. Bryan’s workplace refused to pay his doctor bill. They weren’t responsible; at least that’s what the company doctor told him.

If this story sounds familiar it is. This is the story of Jurgis from Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” This story is also identical to many of the reports from workers in Northwest Arkansas. The Northwest Arkansas Worker’s Justice Center receives on average 35 new calls a month. There are hundreds of case files that tell stories just like this one.

One worker who came to NWAWJC was forced to sign a document that waived his right to worker’s compensation. He was told if he didn’t sign then he would not be paid. He signed the wavier after three weeks of refusing and fell only a few days later. His injuries were so bad that he was in a wheel chair. The hospital told him if he was ever going to regain full use of his body he needed intensive physical therapy. He has no insurance and no job because of the injury.

In an effort to recognize the ongoing human rights struggles in Northwest Arkansas, NWAWJC will have a candlelight vigil at 8 p.m. on May 1 at Murphy’s Park in Springdale. This service will honor those women and men who make our food and build our homes often at the expense of their own bodies.

What is the significance of May 1 and why should it be celebrated? May 1, 1886 gave us the first widespread call for the eight-hour workday. May Day or Labor Day or International Worker’s Day—depending on who you ask—is celebrated in over 66 countries, but rarely here in the U.S.

When people in the U.S. think about May Day they often picture ribboned poles that sparkly-eyed children, skip joyfully around. While that version of May Day is true, it is not as nearly as compelling as what has happened in the U.S. as a result of the call for an eight-hour day.

May 1 is often associated with the Haymarket Riots in Chicago. In fact May 1 was the beginning of a general strike and peaceful protests all over the U.S. These public gatherings were a response to deteriorating working conditions, constant wage reductions and unsafe line speeds in meat packing plants.

In the 102 years since the publication of “The Jungle” and in response to working people all over the world, a lot has changed. The U.S. Federal Government has created the office of the Food and Drug Administration. This office was organized a year after the “The Jungle” was published. The job of the FDA is to make sure the food we consume is safe. The eight-hour workday became a reality in the U.S. in 1938. It wasn’t until 1971 that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created to protect workers from unsafe working conditions.

Come and join the Northwest Arkansas Worker’s Justice Center on May 1 at Murphy’s Park as we celebrate these real gains and honor those workers who still today struggle for  the protections hard won by their predecessors.

For more information about the kind of community organizing that the Northwest Arkansas Worker’s Justice Center does call 750-8015 or visit us online at www.nwawjc.org.

Rachel Townsend is director of The Northwest Arkansas Worker’s Justice Center

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