Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson: On May Day, We Recommit to the Long Struggle of the Labor Movement

“We are still fighting for a world in which every person who works for a living can afford to take time off to rest, spend time with their loved ones, and enjoy their lives.”

Brandon Johnson

Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis speaks to supporters during a rally at Union Park on September 15, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images

As Chicago’s people’s historian Shermann Dilla” Thomas likes to say: Everything dope about America comes from Chicago.” And May Day is no different. 

May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, was born in Chicago during the struggle for an eight-hour workday almost 140 years ago.

Workers back then fought for eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will.” Today, although our struggles have evolved, we are still fighting for a world in which every person who works for a living can afford to take time off to rest, spend time with their loved ones, and enjoy their lives.

Mayor Brandon Johnson speaks to the crowd at a UAW rally. Paul Goyette

When I think about May Day, I cannot help but think about one of my mentors, the late former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. It was during the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, when our streets were filled with an army of teachers, parents and community members, that Karen said our fight was about more than percentage point raises or even working conditions.

She said our fight was for the soul of public education.” 

A dozen years later, I find myself in a new role, with an even greater challenge. Today, we are fighting for the soul of the great American city. This is a struggle for the soul of Chicago. 

We are fighting systemic racism and decades of neglect and disinvestment. Our fight is against generational poverty and more than a century of discrimination in everything from housing to healthcare, policing to pollution. But as Frederick Douglass said: If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” But as Mayor, I cannot do this alone. It is going to take a massive, grassroots movement to repair past harms and build a future where everyone in Chicago can live free from violence and poverty. 

Today, we are fighting for the soul of the great American city. This is a struggle for the soul of Chicago.

In 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to our state and gave a speech at the Illinois AFL-CIO convention, where he asserted that the two most dynamic movements that reshaped this nation … are the labor movement and the civil rights movements.” 

Our combined strength is potentially enormous,” King said. When he moved to Chicago — to the West Side (the best side) — he observed rioting, racism and so much hate first-hand, yet he still looked at our great city, and at our people, and prophesized that it is reasonable to believe that if the problems of Chicago … can be solved, they can be solved everywhere.” 

I wholeheartedly agree. 

Immigrant rights supporters rally in Grant Park following a march through downtown May 1, 2006 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Olson/Getty Images
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In my first year in office, we have made major strides to solve some of the problems that Chicago’s working families have faced for generations. 

I am proud of the investments we have made — especially the nearly $80 million we are investing in our young people to employ 28,000 of them this summer. I am proud of our Housing and Economic Development Bond which will pour $1.25 billion into affordable housing and workforce development. That is a generational investment into jobs, housing, and the working families of Chicago. 

I am proud of the work we have done around mental health. We are doubling the staffing for alternative emergency responses to mental health crises while working to re-open two mental health clinics that were shuttered during previous administrations.

I am honored to stand with my union brothers and sisters — from postal workers to nurses to our siblings in the trades to flight attendants and autoworkers — who are all united in calling for a permanent cease-fire and a lasting peace in Gaza. The bedrock of the labor movement is international solidarity, and Chicago leads the way. 

I am proud that we made Chicago the first major city in the United States to abolish the sub-minimum wage. We know that the sub-minimum wage was a vestige of the slave system, when Black people, even after the Civil War, were forced to work for tips instead of actual wages, so I am proud that we worked with service workers at the bottom of the economic ladder to right this wrong.

We were able to win 10 days of paid time off for over a million workers because, more than a decade ago, Karen Lewis saw that the contract struggle for Chicago’s teachers was about more than wages.

But above everything else we have accomplished this first year, I am most proud that we were able to pass the most progressive paid time off policy of any major city in the country — doubling paid time off to cover more than 1.4 million Chicago workers.

I am most proud of that because I know what it is like to grow up in a working-class household where my father, Andrew Johnson, retired with all of his 400+ sick days. Now, millions of workers in Chicago can be sure they have the legal right to go to their child’s ballet recital, or a baseball game, or spend the day with their families at one of Chicago’s more than 600 beautiful parks. 

We were able to win 10 days of paid time off for over a million workers because, more than a decade ago, Karen Lewis saw that the contract struggle for Chicago’s teachers was about more than wages. And more than a century ago, workers in Chicago sacrificed their lives for the eight-hour day so that we could enjoy what we will.” 

This May Day, I am thinking about Karen and the long history of Chicago’s labor movement, but I am mainly thinking about the millions of working families that I represent every day. I am dedicated to serving the working people of Chicago, and I hope that workers all over this city and this country will take this May Day to reflect on the words of another one of Chicago’s great labor organizers, Mother Jones, who told us to:

Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.”

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Brandon Johnson is the 57th mayor of Chicago. 

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