Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Thanks to a good friend of this blog, Patrick S. O'Donnell, for reminding us that today is May Day, a day when workers around the world are honored. We, of course, have our own Labor Day, but May Day is truly international.
Here are some reading suggestions and background on the workers' holiday from Patrick:
The historian Eric Hobsbawm has a nice discussion of May Day in his book, Workers: Worlds of Labor (New York: Pantheon, 1985), specifically, chapter 5, 'The Transformation of Labor Rituals,' pp. 66-82.
As Jeremy Brecher writes in Strike! (San Francisco, CA: Straight Arrow Books, 1972), ‘In 1884, a dying organization, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s work from and after May 1, 1886.”’ Opposed by organized labor’s leadership (e.g. the Knights of Labor), ‘the idea of a general strike for the eighth-hour day had caught the imagination of tens of thousands of workers.’ Demonstrations up to the date were followed by strikes that began on May 1, 1886 and continued for several days afterward. The hysteria in the wake of the Haymarket bombing (see Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy, 1984) ‘gave the signal for law and order forces throughout the country to act.’ Brecher concludes that, although a ‘pattern of demoralization and compromise’ reverberated throughout the country, it is worth recalling that ‘the mass strike of 1886 was an attempt by the new class of industrial workers to use their power to gain some control over the conditions of their life and work. [….] The eight-hour strike was both an assertion that the worker was a human being whose life should not be consumed in toil, and an attack on the deliberate policy of keeping hours long and unemployment high in order to get the most work for the least wages.’
Thanks to Patrick for the reminder and for providing us with a wonderful dose
of our labor heritage.