What is May Day?
by Rev. Doug Mork
If you’re like me and most Americans, you grew up celebrating Labor Day weekend as a time to barbecue with family and friends. For most of us, it’s a date synonymous with going back to school, sales on consumer goods, and the unofficial start of Autumn.
Labor Day was enshrined by the late 1800s as a day to commemorate American labor.
But the truth is, May Day is the time that most of the rest of the world honors workers and the labor movement. And it all started where I write this, here in Chicago.
On May 4, 1886, a confrontation between workers and organizers fighting for the eight-hour workday and police turned violent, with a number of deaths on both sides. In the aftermath of the Haymarket incident, the international labor movement chose May 1 as a day to remember the dead and to honor those workers fighting and organizing to improve working conditions for all.
So, as the rest of the world continues to celebrate May Day, why doesn’t the United States?
As the labor movement continued to gain momentum in the years following Haymarket, calls for a national holiday honoring labor grew, as well. After the deaths of Pullman strikers in 1894, the United States Congress voted unanimously to create a national holiday honoring labor.
But there was a catch. President Grover Cleveland was afraid that if the nation celebrated labor on May 1, as did much of the rest of the world, the day might be a little too inspirational to workers who would use the Haymarket incident as a rallying point. Instead, early September was chosen.
It’s remarkable to compare the United States’ creation of Labor Day (and quiet dismissal of May Day) to the dynamics at work in the labor movement today.
Just as President Cleveland and Congress were all but forced to honor labor through the tireless organizing and the blood, sweat, and tears of so many workers, today we see our leaders hesitate and equivocate as long as they possibly can before acceding even in part to the demands of labor.
Whether it’s stopping deportations, ending wage theft, winning a living wage, improving safety on the job, or even protecting the right of working people to organize a union, today labor faces the same challenges in organizing and agitating our elected leaders to do the right thing and treat workers with dignity and respect.
At Interfaith Worker Justice, our commitment is to remind those leaders that improving the lives and livelihood of working people is a moral act and to inspire workers to continue their fight in knowing that their faith will always quench their thirst for justice and provide a light in the darkest hour. Thank you for sharing in that commitment with us.
Reverend Doug Mork is the interim Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice.