Let’s celebrate the real labor day: May Day

May Day is a time to celebrate the passing from winter to spring. It is also a time for working people to relax, express themselves and have fun. May Day has been a celebration of the natural rhythms of work in the absence of factory speed-ups, increased workloads and corporate downsizing. And this May, workers representing three on-campus labor unions and GradSOC, a group of graduate students in the process of building a union, will take an hour-and-a-half away from their work day to celebrate spring, life and leisure. The event, which takes place May 1 from noon to 1:30 p.m. on Northrop Mall, will include speakers, live music and a book display from Mayday Bookstore.
May Day has existed throughout human history. It has traditionally been a celebration bringing together all people within a community, including those who have been most marginalized. But the singing and dancing that took place around a maypole threatened political rulers and capitalists who sought to control every action of workers and peasants. What would stop all those who went “a-Maying” from dismissing social authority every day? As industrial capitalism developed throughout the world, May Day came under attack.
But workers continued to celebrate May Day despite the fact that doing so often meant challenging the authority of political rulers and bosses. May Day became a social space in which labor protest could take place. As workers organized to reduce the length of the work day, May Day became a means by which to resist their bosses. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada declared that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” May Day — the holiday of leisure and new beginnings — was the natural day to demand shorter hours. When May 1, 1886, rolled around, demonstrations and strikes overwhelmed the nation. Behind the banner “Eight Hours Work for Ten Hour’s Pay,” American workers organized for the right to their own day and for the product of their own toil.
Few bosses kindly granted workers more pay or a reduced working day on May Day, 1886, and nationwide strikes marked the day. Two days later, on May 3, the Chicago police shot down a striking worker. The following day, workers held demonstrations in Haymarket Square to protest the murder. At the rally, a bomb was thrown and one police officer was killed. In the shooting that followed, seven more cops died. Although the bomber was never found, the courts sentenced four of the more radical speakers at Haymarket to death. They were executed and another five received long jail terms — one committed suicide before his release.
The tragedy in Chicago forever changed May Day, making it first and foremost a workers’ holiday. In 1890, Haymarket and repeated May 1 strikes in the United States led some to declare May Day International Workers’ Day. Today in Mexico, May Day is still known as “The Day of the Chicago Martyrs.”
The University needs May Day more than ever. Professional workers, service employees and graduate assistants are working longer and longer for less and less. The shift in the University from a public school to a school financed by corporations has consequences for workers ranging from issues of job security to access to health benefits. And as workers at the University struggle to make ends meet, the quality of life for undergraduate students is similarly affected by larger class sizes and decreased services on campus. Luckily, May Day teaches us not to buckle under but to band together. And this May, workers and students from all over the University will meet to discuss work, listen to music and have a good time.

Alex Lubin is a Graduate Student in American Studies.