What is ‘May Day’ and why should I care?

By Bob Velez

“On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter for the 8-hour day agitators, 40,000 went out on strike”


Those damn commies . . .

It is easy for us to forget that not too long ago working 16 hour days was the standard for many or even most American wage earners (or stipend earners, as it were).  The workplace for many used to be a dingy, dirty and dangerous factory with little to no attention paid to workplace safety.  No fire escapes; no sprinkler systems; heavy machinery operated by 12 year old children; exit doors that were locked to keep workers in place for their entire shift making them particularly vulnerable should any fire break out (a common occurrence in factories).  One particularly horrific example would be the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City that resulted in the deaths of 146 workers – 123 women and 23 men[1] – who were locked into the building while they worked.

You might say that since it was over one hundred years ago that such issues have been resolved and that few, if any, workers must endure such conditions in the modern world.  While that may be true in the United States, there are myriad examples of factory workers – particularly in developing countries – that remain working in such conditions for less-then-subsistence wages.  I encourage you to visit http://www.globallabourrights.org to get a glimpse at what many in the world still endure.

May Day is celebrated around the world to connote “the grand achievements of the workers of the world in making our world a far, far better place to live in.”  Thankfully, there WAS a labor movement that hit its stride during the Great Depression, organizing thousands of workers into unions that called for higher wages and benefits in exchange for their long hours.  Thankfully, that same labor movement involved itself in the quest for civil rights for African Americans (though organized labor has, admittedly, had a few black eyes in that regard).  The organized labor movement has recently been at the forefront of efforts to get large corporations to pay their employees a living wage, to stop school closures, and to prevent right-to-work laws (more properly named “right to work for less) from reducing the only collective clout that folks who work for a living have when interacting with their employers.

While the United States has its own ‘Labor Day’, May Day – which actually had its origins in the United States as noted in the above quote – is the internationally recognized day for commemorating workers who took action to demand improvements in working conditions and remuneration.  Perhaps those of us working in the university believe that those dark days are way behind us, but just one glance at the agenda of the current Governor of Illinois and his proposals to cut higher education funding and you can easily see that there remains much work to be done.  Get involved!

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire

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