Every first of May, we celebrate Labour Day. But why? How did this commemoration begin?
There are two distinct meanings that ‘May Day’ may take.
First is the May Day Festival, an ancient tradition celebrated in the British Isles way back to medieval times, characterised by festivities, maypole dances, and the welcoming of spring.
The second one is the celebration of the Labour Day, also known as the International Workers’ Day, which is commemorated to express solidarity with workers as well as a day of protest. In the U.S. this is celebrated every first Monday of September. For a lot of countries, it is on the 1st of May.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on the second meaning — How did this day become a day for workers?
On May 1 to May 4 of 1886, a series of strikes and demonstrations were conducted by workers in Chicago in order to push for an eight-hour workday. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, many people are suffering due to the long hours and inhumane working conditions.
These series of protests are now known as the Haymarket affair. These protests are unlike any other, however.
On May 3, a riot sparked between the police and the workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant. The next day, the deaths and the wounding of workers due to this riot led to another protest in the Haymarket Square.
On May 4, during the attempt of a group of police officers to neutralise the crowd, a bomb was thrown by someone (who never admitted to the crime), killing at least 15 people and wounding more than 200.
In commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, the International Socialist Conference declared May 1 as the international holiday for labour. Many governments eventually acknowledged the celebration, turning it into the International Workers’ Day as we know it today.
In line with the celebration, workers are planning to protest the working conditions in companies like Amazon, Instacart, Walmart, Target, and Trader Joes’, amongst others.
Unable to conduct physical protests due to social distancing protocols, these protests will come in the form of boycotts, mass walkouts during shifts and sick-outs. Some of their demands include the provision of personal protective gear, health care benefits, paid leaves, as well as hazard pay.
Faced with a global pandemic, some people are forced to stay in work since they belong to industries providing essential services. This day is a reminder to companies to take care of their employees who are putting their lives at risk to keep operations up and running.
“These workers have been exploited so shamelessly for so long by these companies while performing incredibly important but largely invisible labour,” according to Stephen Brier, a labour historian and professor at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.
Brier said that now that they are regarded as essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, they possess huge leverage and power, especially if they organize effectively.