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labor | legacies may day 2001-2012

May Day returns to its roots

It still is -- now, in fact, it's observed globally. Except, ironically, in the land of the holiday's birth. The holiday's burgeoning popularity led Congress, in 1894, to establish "Labor Day" in September to honor American workers -- a holiday established, not by ordinary workers themselves as an expression of empowerment, but by big business and their Congressional apologists as a way to try to dictate what workers were and weren't allowed to celebrate. One day belonged to the workers; the other 365 to big business, and we were to work as many hours of those days as business pleased.
May Day returns to its roots
Marches and rallies of immigrants to take place

For many older Americans, "May Day" brings to mind images of phalanxes of Soviet soldiers, goose-stepping through Red Square behind massive tanks, while millions of onlookers obediently cheer. For some, "May Day" is a pagan holiday, Beltane, known more (and loved) for maypoles or other fertility rituals than for political struggles.

But May Day, the political version, is an American holiday -- one celebrated for the last century everywhere in the world except America, and one whose origins are well worth remembering. Because May Day began as a strike for basic workplace rights we're now in the process of losing. And that strike was largely by immigrant workers, which is exactly what America will see when immigrants and their supporters strike, march and rally across the country on a "National Day of Action for Comprehensive Immigration Reform" on this coming Monday -- May Day.

Chicago, in 1886, was a rapidly growing city, a polyglot of immigrant languages and cultures. On the first May Day -- May 1, 1886 -- "International Workers' Day" began as a series of general strikes in Chicago and other Midwestern cities for the eight- hour day. Some 340,000 workers participated; it was a campaign that had already been going on strong for quite some time. But the strike took on particular significance when, two days later, police attacked striking workers at McCormick Reaper, on Chicago's south side. Four workers were killed and over 200 injured. And at a demonstration to protest the police riot on the following day, May 4, a bomb went off at Chicago's Haymarket Square -- the infamous "Haymarket Massacre" that killed eight police and wounded 60. The bombing led to death sentences for eight leading anarchists, including several German immigrants, convicted with no evidence at all for conspiracy to commit murder.

Three of the anarchists were pardoned before their deaths, the other five posthumously. But the public and police hostility to organized labor that was whipped up over Haymarket meant that, in turn, May Day became an international labor rallying cry for the right of workers to organize in general, and for the eight-hour day in particular. By the end of the decade, May Day was a holiday celebrated by workers and workers' movements in every industrialized country in the world.

It still is -- now, in fact, it's observed globally. Except, ironically, in the land of the holiday's birth. The holiday's burgeoning popularity led Congress, in 1894, to establish "Labor Day" in September to honor American workers -- a holiday established, not by ordinary workers themselves as an expression of empowerment, but by big business and their Congressional apologists as a way to try to dictate what workers were and weren't allowed to celebrate. One day belonged to the workers; the other 365 to big business, and we were to work as many hours of those days as business pleased.

The strategy failed, of course. Eventually. It took another entire generation of struggle, but by 1912, federal workers were granted the eight-hour day; and in 1917, while America was desperate for the cooperation of unions in the war effort, the Eight Hour Act became law. And there, one would think, the matter was settled.

Okay, quick: Do you actually work only eight hours in a day? Only 40 hours in a week? Five days?

Not very many of us do, any longer. We stay longer in the office, we take work home with us, we take work everywhere with us, because at some level we fear that if we don't, either the company will fail or it will replace us with people who'll make those sacrifices. Nor, in the land that gave birth to May Day, do workers here get anywhere close to the vacation or sick day benefits we get in other industrialized countries. And let's not even talk about health care coverage, which isn't even linked to one's workplace in most of the industrialized world -- it's accepted as a universal need and right. Here, our system has already rendered health care too expensive to obtain without insurance. Now, it's denying more and more of the workforce health insurance that covers meaningful parts of the cost of actually getting sick, or, for nearly 50 million of us, any health insurance at all. Income for most working families is not keeping up with inflation. And for all of these effective losses in compensation for our work, we're still working harder and longer hours than our grandparents.

It's not too different now, really, from 1886. Then, as now, big business was exploiting the desperation and relative powerlessness of cheap immigrant labor, and in the process trying to depress the wages and establish exploitative precedents for all workers. Then, as now, much of the rest of the public feared and distrusted a part of the labor force that often didn't even speak English. Then, as now, the immigrants had finally had enough. And marched and struck.

On Monday, the largest yet wave of immigrant marches and rallies will take place in scores of cities across the United States. Their immediate focus is proposed Congressional reforms, the most prominent of which is a ruthlessly exploitative "guest worker" proposal backed by President Bush that would leave immigrants' legal standing wholly at the mercy of a single employer. But the larger issue is America's imposition of corporate-friendly trade policies that have decimated economies in Mexico and elsewhere, spurring economic emigration to America, while at the same time exporting millions of better-paying jobs from America itself.

The immigrants' struggle is not just legal, but economic, and a matter of self-respect and self-preservation; it is, in important ways, the leading edge of a struggle all American workers are facing. On Monday, find the immigrant march in your community. Join it.

Happy May Day.

In defence of "Labor Day" 01.May.2006 22:51


Geoff, some important facts regarding Labor Day and May Day.

What is now Labor Day in Canada and the US (first Monday in Sept) came from a campaign by the Knights of Labor initiated in the late 1870s/early 1880s. It was already being celebrated in NYC and a couple of other major cities *before* May 1st 1886. Oregon was the first state to adopt Labor Day, late in 1886 - some 3 months after May1st.

The KoL adopted the first Monday in Sept. as Labor Day to commemorate a mass march in Toronto for the 8 hour day held in the mid-1870s. So Labor Day is unique for an US holiday in that it celebrates a working class action in another country. Certainly important.

My suggestion is that the history of the working class is strong enough that we deserve 2 holidays, Mayday and Labor Day. That is, of course, until the entire rotten structure of capitalism is gone...

Why Joe Anybody Went To The March 02.May.2006 01:37

Joe Anybody



And as history has it the May Day March back in 1971
It has real poignant punch to its whole taste in light of history repeating itself and this current administration.
Read the wikipedia link here for that story -->

the roots of May Day 02.May.2006 01:54


the roots of May Day are Pagan

Blessed Beltaine

What are the Origins of May Day? 02.May.2006 08:59


Rosa Luxemburg
What Are the Origins of May Day?

Written: 1894, First published in Polish in Sprawa Robotnicza
Published: From Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, tr. Dick Howard (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 315-16.
Online Version: marxists.org April, 2002
Transcribed:  http://www.ultrared.org/lm_mayday.html

The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890.

In the meanwhile, the workers' movement in Europe had grown strong and animated. The most powerful expression of this movement occurred at the International Workers' Congress in 1889. At this Congress, attended by four hundred delegates, it was decided that the eight-hour day must be the first demand. Whereupon the delegate of the French unions, the worker Lavigne from Bordeaux, moved that this demand be expressed in all countries through a universal work stoppage. The delegate of the American workers called attention to the decision of his comrades to strike on May 1, 1890, and the Congress decided on this date for the universal proletarian celebration.

In this case, as thirty years before in Australia, the workers really thought only of a one-time demonstration. The Congress decided that the workers of all lands would demonstrate together for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890. No one spoke of a repetition of the holiday for the next years. Naturally no one could predict the lightninglike way in which this idea would succeed and how quickly it would be adopted by the working classes. However, it was enough to celebrate the May Day simply one time in order that everyone understand and feel that May Day must be a yearly and continuing institution [. . .].

The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.