Origins of May Day forgotten by most Americans

While cities and towns  across the U.S. prepare for next Monday’s Memorial Day celebrations in honor of our nation’s fallen military veterans, another May holiday, one meant to celebrate combatants in a very different war, has been all but forgotten in the country where it originated.

May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is a celebration of laborers and the working classes that occurs every year on May 1. The date commemorates the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, when police killed four demonstrators who were part of a general strike for an eight-hour day after a participant in their public assembly tossed a bomb at the officers.

The violence that characterized the Haymarket affair was typical of many early battles for workers’ rights in the U.S. Laborers of the 19th and early 20th century demonstrating for fair wages and safe working conditions were often met by club-wielding thugs or entire police forces bought and paid for by the owners of coal, steel, and textile corporations.

While May Day is celebrated in countries throughout the world, in the U.S. it has been largely stripped of its politically radical content and is instead celebrated as Labor Day in September. Today, May Day is largely viewed by Americans as a Communist relic of countries like Cuba and the former Soviet Union.

Given the current state of the U.S. economy and the shrinking economic opportunities for working and middle class families, that lack of historical perspective is not just unfortunate, it’s tragic.

North Carolina currently has the lowest union membership rate –3 percent– of any state in the U.S, where union participation for private sector workers has fallen below 7 percent. If our Republican-led state Legislature has their way, that number will only decline. N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis has stated that North Carolina “will continue to be the least unionized state in the United States.” Tillis has called for enshrining right-to-work laws prohibiting  security agreements between labor unions and employers in the state constitution, as have Senate leader Phil Berger and Governor Pat McCrory.

Union organizations themselves must shoulder some of the blame for membership decline, with charges of corruption among union officials dating back to the movement’s very inception. The current structure of the union system is also problematic: Once a union is recognized as the exclusive bargaining agent for an employer’s workforce, member dues contributions and payments pour into its coffers with little regard for the union’s performance.

While the officially recognized labor organizations may be in freefall, the spirit and ideas that guided the first workers rights struggles have seen a resurgence since the economic downturn that began in 2008.

On May 1, 2012, tens of thousands marched across the U.S. to commemorate May Day as the worker’s holiday and to protest the state of the economy and the growing economic divide between rich and poor. On that same day, members of Occupy Wall Street and labor unions also held protests together in a number of cities in the U.S. and Canada.

In North Carolina, public workers’ unions in Charlotte recently scored a victory when the Charlotte City Council voted to allow city employees to have union dues voluntarily deducted from their paychecks, a key concession that provides unions with a reliable source of funds.

A true sea change in workers rights efforts in the U.S. will require a shift in our education system, which continues to devalue discussion of historical events that may not conform to the comfortable mantra of benevolent free enterprise. School children in this country should be taught that people died to secure their right to an eight hour hour work day, to come to a job each morning where they are not in imminent danger of losing their limbs or lives, and to be paid a wage commensurate to their labor.

And maybe our politicians need to be reminded what happens when people’s backs are pushed against the wall too hard and for too long, when words no longer suffice and, as happened on that day in Chicago in 1886,  bombs and bullets became the language of protest.


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