The first few memorable May Days in my life involved a practice called “Maying”. As first, second and third graders, we constructed baskets woven from strips of colorful construction paper. We were given plastic “grass” to line the basket, then we placed small candies and little toys inside to give as gifts to our favorite friends and neighbors. We also made a special May basket for our moms. Maying is a tradition that has mostly gone away. If it is remembered at all, folks just think of it as a quaint, antiquated relic left over from the good ol’ days. I miss it.
There is another May Day tradition that is not celebrated in the United States nor Canada, but is in the rest of the civilized world. Today is labor day. I’m not refering to the U.S. version that has been tacked onto the end of summer as some sort of afterthought. Not the version featuring September holiday clearance sales at retail stores. Not the labor day when workers spend another day at work and management goes out to a picnic or takes in a sporting event.
No, May Day celebrations as Labor Day originated in the United States as an idea in 1886. Organized labor was seen as socially unacceptable. Organizers of unions were literally shot by corporate security police forces, by the National Guard and by the U.S. Army. To speak up or assert ones basic workplace rights was really a matter of life or death.
Then in 1890, American Federation of Labor (AFL) president Samuel Gompers advocated for an International Labor Day. The main demand was the need for the eight-hour workday. The slogan, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will” caught on.
On May first, 1890, workmen in the U.S. and at least 13 other nations held pro-labor demonstrations. The news media trumpeted the event as “Labor’s Emancipation Day”. The concerted, continuous efforts of organized and non-organized labor finally achieved the goal to establish the eight-hour standard for workers.
In 1894, Gompers, in a move that turned out to be a tactical error, convinced President Grover Cleveland to declare Labor Day to occur in September in order to free it of political flavor. Later, President Cleveland ordered the U.S. Army to shoot striking workers of the Pullman Railroad Car Company.
The rest of the world witnessed the anti-worker violence perpetrated by police and troops who killed hundreds of working people. The workers wanted an end to the 12 hour workday. Many would have been happy with 10 hours. Leaders across the world inaugurated their own May Day labor days as acts of sympathy with those who suffered in America.
Ever since the mainstream media’s demonization of unions, once again, labor rights have eroded. With many layoffs, those who remain must work long days. Many workers must resort to part time work which offers few if any benefits. To make ends meet, they need more than one part time job. The result? The return of the 12 hour or more day.
Why can’t Labor Day come back to May First? Why can’t it be more than a day for department store sales events? Oh, and why can’t we bring back the tradition of Maying? Then we might really have something to celebrate. We can attend ballgames and enjoy picnics with extra gusto.
I hope you have a meaningful and happy May Day, wherever you are.
The Blue Jay of Happiness remembers what we presented for you last year. https://bluejayblog.wordpress.com/2011/05/01/may-day/