It’s May 1st and to many that means a day of Spring flowers and Maypoles, but today stands for so much more. May 1st is also International Worker’s Day and while that may sound like a far cry from an American holiday, the history and meaning of May Day is just that: American. The origins of this day date back to 1886 in Chicago, IL. During this time, there were no laws regulating the work day, meaning employers could force their employees to work long hours and there was little employees could do. No 8-hour comforts existed as we have in this century. But the labor movement was making motions. They had set May 1st, 1886 as the day in which the 8-hour work day would be set by law.
Tensions ran high as a general strike was called in Chicago. Tens of thousands of workers took to the streets in a mostly peaceful protest. But like many protests, police were quickly on the scene and an unidentified person through a bomb into the chaos. The blast and resulting police gunfire ended the lives of eleven and wounded countless others. What followed was a Nineteenth Century witch hunt where eight labor organizers and labeled “anarchists” were convicted, seven sentenced to death. In the years that followed, they were pardoned as there was not enough evidence to connect them and the investigation and trials were seen as questionable.
You may recall this historic event as the Haymarket Affair. Not only was it a historical moment in labor rights history but it directly affects your personal every day life, as you enjoy the perks of an eight-hour work day without the threat of loss of life. In 1890, demonstrations were called to commemorate the lives lost that fateful day in Chicago. It is a way to remember the struggles workers have endured over the years. For over a hundred years, May Day has become the official holiday in many countries around the world. In the US, it is an unofficial holiday but is still of top importance for workers around the country.
About six years ago, I participated in my first May Day protest in Sacramento, CA (capital of California). There were hundreds of thousands, largely farm workers, marching for Immigrant Rights. For far too long, slavery has existed in our country under the guise of cheap food. I was there, in the thick of it. Seeing first-hand how organizing can make a difference and that May Day can still have an impact. Although we are still struggling to protect farm workers under the same laws that many of us take for granted: eight-hour work days, five-day work weeks, and basic needs, the demonstration shone light on the issue.
And now as I write this from Oakland, CA, I can hear the helicopters circling hundreds of Occupy and labor union strikers standing up for financial and social reform in our country. It doesn’t take much to see that a growing disparity is happening in the US. As the economy continues to tank, the people who are baring the weight are the workers. The struggle still continues for farm workers, for factory workers, for nurses, teachers, police officers, and others carrying the load. So while purchasing union-made, Fair Trade, and supporting UFW and the likes is important in our day-to-day lives, don’t forget the struggles the existed before and still continue to this day. Use May Day as a platform for your voice to be heard. Thousands of workers and students are going on strike and marching through the streets to demand reform today. Will you join them?