During my tenure in Canada, Labour Day meant one of two things. As a youngster, it meant that the beginning of the school year would soon rear its ugly head. As a grown up, it became what it is today, a much-appreciated long weekend, similar to the other few that are afforded to us throughout the year. As in the United States, labour unions parade through the streets in celebration of their strength and their members, with the general public welcomed to join in the festivities.
As for most of the rest of the industrialized world, Labour, or May Day, is used more as an awareness campaign than a parade. May 1rst is celebrated in reference to American workers, in the late 19th century, that united in protest against common working conditions. If you wanted work, you were subjected to minimum 12-hour shifts, seven days a week without any benefits or sick days afforded to you. Safety conditions were also ignored by most employers. From this, labour unions formed and organized strikes which often led to unrest, rioting and violence. May first was chosen to honour the May, 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago. On that day a general strike was called in order to press for an 8-hour work day. On May 4th, police were sent in to disperse the crowd assembled in support of the strike. A bomb thrown by an unknown individual caused the police to begin firing on the people gathered there and, in the end, 7 policemen were dead, along with several civilians, (the exact number was never disclosed). Dozens of police officers and onlookers were injured. The very next day, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, local militia fired on striking workers, killing seven people, some of which were not strikers.
Consequently, hundreds of labour leaders and followers were arrested. A few were even executed, following trials that were largely seen as miscarriages of justice. In Amsterdam, 1904, during the International Socialist Congress, it was declared that all social democratic parties and unions demonstrate on the first day of May “for the legal establishment of an eight-hour workday, for the class demands of the proletariat, (the working class), and for universal peace”, making it mandatory for all of its organizations to stop working on May 1rst, “wherever possible without injury to workers”. All the unrest led the US Congress to extend an olive branch to American workers in the form of an act making Labour Day an official holiday. US President Grover Cleveland signed it in to law in June of 1894, but to be on the first Monday of September, in order to disassociate the American Labour Day from the one celebrated on 1 May and its ties to Marxist-socialism, along with the ties to the social upheaval in his own country.
So, although the North American Labour Day has become more of a celebration ending the Summer, the real Labour Day is rooted in very important advancements for the rights of everyday people, as is demonstrated throughout most of the world on the first of May. Both celebrations are worthy, but only one, in my view, is truly representative of its origins. We should definitely celebrate how far we´ve come, but not by setting aside the struggle that it took to get here. It’s like the norm, these days, of calling employees “associates”, or like here, where empregados, (employees), are now “colaboradores”, “collaborators”. Most people don’t take employment to help a company, they work because there is no alternative in our society. Sugarcoating is like “alternative truth”, tell it enough times and people will believe it.