Friday, May 1, 2009

Why May Day is geotarded out of the United States

While the majority of readers of my blogs are from the United States, I do get readers from other parts of the world. And most of those international readers are celebrating May Day today.

But in the United States, most of us aren't.

Well, a few are. There are seven groups that are rallying in Los Angeles, and a group that will rally in Riverside, California. Here's part of the group's announcement:

4/30/2009 - May 1st Rally in Riverside for Immigrant and Worker Rights




What: March and Rally to Support Immigrant and Worker Rights

When: Friday, May 1, 2009 at 4 p.m.

Where: Starting from the Cesar Chavez Community Center, 2060 University Avenue, and ending at Riverside City Hall, 3900 Main Street

Who: Inland Empire May Day Coalition/Speakers: – Interview OPP

• José Calderón, associate professor of sociology and Chicano studies, Pitzer College
• María Harte, a mother whose family was broken apart by the raids
• An undocumented student from Rubidoux High, speaking about the DREAM Act

In these cases, the exception proves the rule, since all eight of the May Day rallies that I cited are connected to people who, for the most part, were not born in the United States.

But there's something else going on here, which is part of the story regarding why people from the United States celebrate a workers' day in September, rather than in May.

But let's move back a bit. I am a child of the '60's - no, not a burned-out hippie from the Haight, but literally a child of the '60's. And when I was growing up, the predominant image of May Day in my mind was a big parade. Yup, the big parade in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, in which Leonid Brezhnev would stiffly stand as tons of Soviet military equipment passed the reviewing stand, ready to wipe out America as we know it.

See why Americans aren't all that keen on May Day? But there were other forces at work, as David Montgomery notes:

The first of May was not only well established in European traditions as a day of hope, but it was also in every 19th century industrial country the day on which workers were most likely to go on strike. Workers were usually paid at the end of the month, which made the beginning of the next month a time when they both had a little money to sustain them and could see just how ittle money they had for all their recent work....

Labor Day is a more complicated affair. Among other things, its New York origins are intimately related to power struggles within the Knights of Labor. The first New York day was largely a demonstration to Powderly of the strength of DA 49. But your correspondents are right. First state governments and then the federal government adopted the day in response to workers' demands. The government did not create the holiday. What New York state did do was in response to employers' demands, to make the holiday fall on a Monday every year, rather than on the first of September (which could disrupt the middle of the week).

The late George Pearlman, a retired machinist from Paterson, devoted much of his life to researching the origins of Labor Day. His mission was to prove that Matthew Maguire the machinist was the "father" of the holiday, not Peter McGuire the Carpenter. Frankly, I think that particular dispute meant little: both were members of the same Socialist Labor Party club....

Here's another account regarding the September celebration:

A day to praise the efforts of the everyday people was first suggested around 1880 by Peter J. McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. However, the first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City by the Knights of Labor. It celebrated the working man on that date. The idea of celebrating the everyday working man began to spread with the growth of labor organizations. By 1885 Labor Day was celebrated in many industrial centers of the country....

In the l880's labor organizations began to lobby various state legislatures for recognition of Labor Day as an official state holiday. The first states to declare it a state holiday in, 1887, were Oregon, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey. In 1894, Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day as an official national holiday.

Of course, there is an opposing history, which refers to the history above as "sanitized":

[I]n 1889, the First (Paris) Congress of the Second Socialist International selected May First as a day for international celebration of the working man, no matter what day of the week it fell on. May first was chosen in commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre which occured in Chicago in 1886. In 1894, the first Monday in September was established as a federal holiday in the United States.

Why should the American working man celebrate Labor Day in September when the workers of the world are celebrating it on May first in commemoration of American Martyrs to the labor movement? This question is clarified by the fact that May first is observed unilaterally by workers (not by management), while the September holiday is enjoyed by all, perpetuating the myth that Labor and Management are both working together. The proclamation of Labor Day in September in the United States can only be interpreted as an effort to isolate the working American from his colleagues around the world, and obscure the history of what Management did to Labor in Chicago in 1886. Labor Day in the United States is better described as mocking than celebrating the working man in America.

Baby seal clubbers will note that the item quoted above is from the web site of a university professor. Figures.

But I'll give David Montgomery the last word:

Little is gained by calling one holiday real and the other phony. We need to know what both have meant to workers.

P.S. It turns out that there is one other country that celebrates Labour Day in September, and the spelling should give you a hint as to which country it is. For more information about the history of Labour Day in Canada, visit As Normal As I Can Be.
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