In my history class, I was surprised to learn that International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day, actually has its origins here in the United States.
Yeah. I had assumed for a long time that it was a holiday celebrated in communist countries like Cuba or the former Soviet Union.
Boy, was I surprised to learn differently.
It was the very dawning of day
when the term ‘dignity of labor’
~ George E. McNeill
Over 100 years ago, workers had 10 to 16 hour workdays in really unsafe conditions right here in America. People died and were seriously injured on the job, which inspired Upton Sinclair to write The Jungle and our very own local hero Jack London to write The Iron Heel.
And, for this, at the end of the week,
he will carry home three dollars to his family,
being his pay at the rate of five cents per hour -
just about his proper share
of the million and three quarters of children
who are now engaged in earning
their livings in the United States.
~ Upton Sinclair
It’s no wonder that people wanted to shorten the workday, but it wasn’t until the late 1880s that organized labor had enough support to demand an eight-hour workday. Let’s just say the employers weren’t too happy about this.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions held a convention in Chicago in 1884 and proclaimed that:
eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor
from and after May 1, 1886.
The next year, the FOTLU was backed by other organizations and soon there were about a quarter million workers in the Chicago area supporting the eight-hour workday.
On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers across the U.S. walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration. With each day, more and more workers walked off their jobs ~ and it was all done peacefully.
Well, that is until May 3, when violence broke out between the police and strikers. It was horrible, with people being killed and wounded. This is now known as the Haymarket Massacre, and every May Day, tens of thousands of activists join together in solidarity.
The day will come when our silence
will be more powerful
than the voices you are throttling today.
~ Haymarket Monument
It’s hard to believe that people were killed so we could have an eight-hour workday and have Saturday included as part of the weekend. It’s pretty easy to take this for granted.
But each year, on May 1st, people come together so we don’t forget how people fought long and hard for the rights we enjoy today. May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but rarely recognized in our country.
However, this year, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street and its countless demonstrations by its off-shoots, May Day takes on an added significance as people continue voicing their desire and need for change.
The Direct Action Working Group of the New York City General Assembly summed up May Day beautifully:
May Day is a holiday during which no traditional work is done,
and yet is a day explicitly about work.
It’s a day for recognizing that we are all workers,
whether we’re rank-and-file union members,
the precariously employed, students, or stay-at-home parents.
It’s a day to recognize the value of our work,
and the power we have to collectively change our working conditions and our world.
By simply stepping out of the systems of production that confine and alienate us,
we can transform the conditions of society itself.
May 1st is a day to explore the possibility of communities
based on mutual aid rather than exploitation and consumption.
Unlike Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day,
and pretty much every major holiday in the U.S.,
you don’t have to buy anything
and you don’t have to work feverishly in advance to celebrate May Day.
You can make it what you want it to be.
In fact, that’s really the only thing you have to do to celebrate May Day.
It’s a day for and full of human potential.
What will you make of it?
~ Direct Action Working Group of the NYC General Assembly
We cannot forget how much was sacrificed for us.
When an individual is protesting
society’s refusal to acknowledge
his dignity as a human being,
his very act of protest
confers dignity on him.
~ Bayard Rustin