Tomorrow is May 1st. And it’s also International Workers’ Day (sometimes called May Day), a day which commemorates the struggles and victories of workers worldwide. Although the U.S. already has the nationally recognized Labor Day in September, the focus of that holiday always seems to be more about getting in one last weekend of good grilling, or going away for the last three day weekend before (some) schools begin. International Workers’ Day is a day where people come together and march for workers’ rights and remember our history of fighting for improved working conditions.
If you’ve ever read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, you have some idea of what it was like for factory workers in the late 1800’s. People often worked 10-16 hour days, for little pay, in incredibly unsafe conditions. In came the labor unions and during a Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions convention it was decided that May 1st, 1886 would be the start of the eight hour work day. Because many bosses did not acknowledge the shortening of the work day, workers prepared themselves to strike.
On May 1st, rallies were held across the U.S. and reports estimate the number of participants ranged anywhere from 300,000 to half a million (remember that the popular in 1886 was probably somewhere around 60 million compared to over 300 million today). Over the next few days the protest remained largely non-violent, until striking workers went to confront strikebreakers who were leaving the factories. Police opened fire into the crowd and at least two workers were killed, although some reports claim a higher number.
On May 4th a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest the police brutality of the previous day. The rally began peacefully enough, but as police began to disperse the participants, someone threw a pipe bomb into the police ranks. Angered, the officers began to fire into the crowd. It is unclear how many people were hurt or killed as a result of the attack, “but an estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded. One officer died immediately and another seven died in the following weeks.”
The Haymarket Massacre was a bloody end to the strike, but it did not end the fight for workers’ rights. Two years later the American Federation of Labor pushed again for an eight-hour work day and received support from workers around the world, and thus began the international celebration of May Day. But it wasn’t until 1938, and the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act, that many working Americans were granted an eight hour work day, a minimum wage was enacted, and oppressive child labor was banned.
Members of the Providence, Rhode Island I.W.W., May Day 2007
Why it’s Still Important
Workers rights have come far in this country since the 1800s, but we still have a ways to go. All you have to do is watch the news to see the problems we’re still facing: Eleven workers are still missing and presumed dead from last week’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier this month 29 coal miners were killed in the West Virginia mine explosion. Not to mention the numerous immigrant workers in this country who are exploited and denied rights daily.
Takepart.com has some disturbing statistics about workplace safety in the U.S.:
- In the U.S., a total of 5,214 fatal workplace accidents occurred in 2008.
- Due to underreporting for fear of retribution, the 4.6 million incidents of workplace injury and illness reported each year are estimated to be just one-third of the real total.
- While the U.S. workforce numbers 130 million, there are only 2,218 Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors. At this rate, OSHA overseers can inspect each workplace just once every 137 years.
With numbers like these it is plain to see that a lot needs to be done to better working conditions in this country. This International Workers’ Day we need to be mindful of what needs to change. We need to make sure to hold politicians accountable when they say they’ll enforce safety laws. We need to fight for immigrant rights. And though we may not always agree with them, we need to support our unions.
If you get a chance to, check out an International Workers’ Day/May Day rally in your neck of the woods tomorrow, and support a labor day that is more than just BBQ.
Image via zeul