May 01, 2020

May Day: Born in the USA

Happy Beltane, May Day and International Workers' Day! The first was a Celtic holy day. The second was a traditional European spring festival with pagan overtones. You could even say it was kind of Freudian...can you say May poles and fertility?

As for International Workers' Day, folks, especially in the Cold War era, associated it with Soviet communism and the militaristic parades that used to fill Red Square in Moscow. It might be good to recall that the May Day labor celebration grew out of efforts to establish the eight hour workday right here in the USA. It was only later that the day was adopted by the international labor and socialist movement.

A major struggle in much of the 19th and 20th century has been to reduce the hours of the working day, which could run as long as 14 hours or more in the early days of the industrial revolution.
A slogan of the movement was "eight hours for work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours for what we will."

Trade unionists in Chicago declared a strike for the eight hour day on May 1, 1886. One May 4, as police attempted to disperse a protesting crowd of workers at Haymarket Square, an unknown person threw a bomb which killed several police officers. The remaining police in turn fired at the crowd, killing four.

The bomber was never brought to justice. The only thing most historians agree on is that the eight people arrested and sentenced for the bombing weren't the guilty parties, several of whom weren't even there at the time. Of these, four were eventually executed. They are known as the "Haymarket martyrs."

The struggle to limit the working day didn't end there and was eventually won for many US workers by trade union organization and by the political reforms in the New Deal era and beyond, although some laws exempted protections for some of the most exploited workers, such as farm and domestic laborers.

Like everything else in the history of the struggle of working people for basic human justice, the fight goes on. The fight has always been about more than wages, hours and working conditions, as important as these are. It's also been about the need for culture, rest, leisure, education and dignity.

Lately, this hasn't been going so well, as you may have noticed. But it's not over yet.

Finally, here's a shout out to the frontline workers who have walked off the job today to call for safe working conditions, a living wage and respect.

(Note: some of this was cobbled together from older May Day posts.)

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