US Workers Invented “May Day”

Happy May Day, the workers of the world day!

In the past (for example, 2010) we have had major marches on this day in support of undocumented workers, and today we have had numerous marches in support of the “Occupy” causes by an array of workers, students, and others, as well as many other marches in support of unions and workers’ rights and causes.

The Industrial Workers of the World’s website points out that the country that founded May Day (May 1) seems to have forgotten it:

Most people living in the United States know little about the International Workers’ Day of May Day. For many others there is an assumption that it is a holiday celebrated in state communist countries like Cuba or the former Soviet Union.

Most Americans don’t realize that May Day has its origins here in this country and is as “American” as baseball and apple pie, and stemmed from the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.

In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places and inspired such books as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. As early as the 1860′s, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn’t until the late 1880′s that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, yet demanded by many of the working class.

Unions and other worker organizations have brought much in the way of better lives for many Americans and others across the globe. And most of the world’s workers are workers of color–-often working ultimately for white-controlled western corporations. They still need much new organization to end various types of class and racial oppression that they face. Many of these workers of color turned out today to protest for better working conditions.

Coming decades will doubtless see important and organized worker challenges to the domination of the mostly white-run corporations (executives) that increasingly control larger workplaces in a great many countries, if only because their most workers (of color) do not share their high-profit interests and often western racialized interests. The US intellectual and critical thinker Noam Chomsky has an interesting recent commentary on the relationship of democratic reforms to more extensive democratic revolutions–which sometimes come from sustained workers movements.

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