Today’s a big day, in case you didn’t know it. May Day is more than just a call for help from on board a ship or plane.
May 1 is also May Day. But, why is May 1 a day worth celebrating you ask? Well, apparently that depends on whom you ask.
Like many people, apparently, I thought May Day was a celebration of the beginning of spring, a time of rejuvenation and rebirth.
After all, plants are starting to green up, the grass is growing in full swing and the temperatures finally leave behind the fickle nature of March and April when it could be 80 degrees today and 55 degrees tomorrow.
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Springtime is clearly a time for things to start again and not just in the plant world. People start to come out of their homes in earnest and community activities take a distinct turn for the more active. One look at the community notes feature in this newspaper will tell you the amount of stuff going on is much greater now than in, say, January.
All that is surely worth celebrating. It feels good to get outside, to exercise a different set of muscles and to enjoy our natural gifts.
And, like apparently many people, I thought May Day was a celebration largely held in many communist and socialist countries and not so much a Western observance.
Certainly, the state and federal governments don’t recognize May Day as a holiday. Good Friday tends to be the holiday of rebirth that enjoys the support of our politicians and most other folks.
But I’ve also learned that May Day has another, distinctly American backstory.
May 1, 1886, was the day the American labor movement held its first large rally in support of the eight-hour workday when more than 300,000 workers from more than 13,000 businesses walked off the job protesting long work hours and unsafe working conditions, according to a history written by the Industrial Workers of the World labor organization.
American laborers had been agitating for shorter work hours for more than 25 years before that day to improve working conditions. They hadn’t been terribly successful to that point because many of the previous attempts at protest had ended in violence and there wasn’t much support for the movement outside its own members.
But in 1886, that changed. Two days after the walkout, violence erupted again between striking workers and police. The next day, members of the labor movement gathered in a an open air meeting in Haymarket Square that ended when police marched on the speaker’s wagon. Someone – it’s unclear who – threw a bomb into the area and killed several police officers and some members of the labor movement.
America, at that point, had had enough, and the labor movement finally began making headway against the robber barons and the capitalists who had controlled the workforce with an iron fist to that point.
Now, I’m not a big fan of what organized labor has become. When they first organized to establish standard working days, safe conditions and an end to child labor, those were admirable causes. Over time, labor unions have been beset by corruption and they’ve been used as tools to line the pockets of labor leaders, all in the name of protecting worker’s rights. Most notably, unions have rallied for higher wages and better benefits. They’ve gotten that for their workers and then some. Today’s labor union members won’t do a job that’s needed doing unless it is expressly written into their contract. And their artificially high wages drive up the cost of goods and materials for everyone else.
When we complain about jobs going overseas, we can thank, in part, the labor unions, which have cannibalized their own members.
And that all got its start on the first day in May, some 130 years ago.