Workers of the World, Light that Barbecue

From May Day to Labour Day

Wednesday 1 May 2002, by Chad LUBELSKY

On May 1, in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia, millions of people will be marching through the streets to celebrate May Day, commemorating the rights that have been gained, demanding what is owed, and defending what multinationals are trying to take away.

Throughout the world, except in North America, May 1 is celebrated as International Worker’s Day. In Canada and the United States, we have Labour Day, the first Monday in September, which most people associate with the struggle to accept that summer is over, and not with work, labour or solidarity. Things were not always like this.

Oddly enough, May 1 has its origins in the United States. During the late 19th century, when the effects of the Industrial Revoultion were starting to take hold, workers had few, if any rights. Journalist Michael Thomas notes that the "political and legal system failed to recognize even the most basic rights of workplace safety, community sanitation and child protection." Despite all this, the right to an eight-hour workday, something we have come to recognize as a basic right and a pillar of our workday structure, turned into the rallying call that united workers everywhere.

On May 1, 1866 the American Labor Federation declared a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. Hundreds of thousands heeded the call. Over the next several days more and more people joined the strike, culminating in a mass rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4. Toward the end of the rally, someone (it was never determined who) threw a bomb into the crowd, killing a police officer and injuring others. The police, in turn, opened fire and killed several demonstrators and injured hundreds of others.

Eight labour leaders were eventually brought to trial. Despite a lack of evidence, four were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were given life in jail (in 1893 all eight were pardoned owing to lack of evidence). Since then, these events, and the manner in which workers came together, have become a symbol for the sacrifices that were made in the struggle for better working conditions. May 1, the day of the original demonstrations, is now recognized as an international day of worker solidarity.

Labour Day

The origins of Labour Day as the first Monday in September date roughly back to the same period when the Knights of Labor held a parade on September 5, 1882. While the rest of the world chose to commemorate the events of May 1 as an International Worker’s Day, the true origins of May 1 have been all but forgotten in North America, as have any connections between labour and the first Monday in September.

According to professor and union activist Russell Campbell, one possible interpretation is that "the adoption of May 1st as a holiday by the Soviet Union would have made celebrating it politically dangerous during the strong anticommunist periods of the cold war. Even before the cold war, anticommunist sentiments may have been strong enough so we would not want to be associated with their holiday."

Morna Ballantyne, National Director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, (CUPE), notes that even though Labour Day has been depoliticized, over the last twenty years there has been increased awareness about Labour Day and May Day. "May Day has always been celebrated more widely in Quebec than in the rest of Canada. The labour movement is trying to both politicize Labour Day celebrations, and to reclaim May 1st as a day to celebrate the working class."

Beyond the different dates, lie the different philosophies behind them. "Labour Day is a unifying holiday, May 1st emphasizes the disparity between labour and management... May 1st is observed unilaterally by workers (not by management), while the September holiday is enjoyed by all. The proclamation of Labour Day in the United States can only be interpreted as an effort to isolate the working American from his colleagues around the world, and obscure the history of what management did to labour in Chicago in 1886," says Campbell.

Fast Forward to 2002

The situation for workers here in Canada is dire. While economic indicators may be positive, the wealth is not being distributed. Workers’ real wages and purchasing power are stagnant even as they are working longer hours. McJobs, part-time and temporary work are skyrocketing (a situation that affects youth and adult women particularly), leaving millions of Canadians with little if any job security or benefits. Meanwhile, health care, public education, and unemployment insurance are being decimated.

For all these reasons and more, on May 1st, there will be marches, strikes, cultural events, and demonstrations throughout the country. "Celebrating May Day links us with workers around the world. May 1st celebrations are an occasion to remind the world that it is the workers of the world that create wealth and that this wealth belongs to all of us. May Day is a world celebration bringing together workers in a show of strength - it’s a day to show that another world is possible," says Ballantyne.

Community organiser Alvaro Vargas-Castro is busy preparing events in Montreal. "May 1st is an opportunity for unions, social movements and ordinary people to come together and speak out against injustice. It’s a significant day for anyone who has ever had a job and fought for better working conditions."

Ultimately, Labour Day is likely to remain as a day for barbecuing and enjoying the last vestiges of summer, with little or no thought given to its roots. Meanwhile, the future of May Day in Canada looks brighter than it has for a long time. With events in every urban centre in the country, May 1 is once again on the landscape. It’s up to the workers to make sure it stays there.

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