Today, May 1st, is Dia do Trabalhador in Brazil. That means it’s Labor Day here, a day we celebrate on the first Monday of September back in the states. I started to wonder why the different days for the same holiday and decided to investigate. Here is what I learned:
The history of Labor Day begins in 1886 in the good ole Untied States. In the late 1800s America, the Industrail Revolution was on and conditions for workers were shocklingly bad ( for outside reading see the classic work of fiction The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It’s a novel about the lives of immigrants and the harsh conditions in the meatpacking industry during turn of the century America). Often, having to work upwards of twelve hours a day, six days a week in unsafe conditions for low wages, workers began to unionize in an effort to improve their working conditions. Enter the national labor union, The Knights of Labor or the K of L. Formed in 1869 in secret by members of a tailor’s union in Philadelphia, the union experienced rapid growth during the 1870s when Pennsylvania coal miners affected by the recession and railroad workers began to join. The K of L’s growth was also helped by the election of Terence V. Powderly, the son of Irish immigrants, to Grand Master Workman in 1879. By 1886, the group had an estimate of some 700,000 members. The rapid growth however, might have lead to disorganization which contributed to the disastrous events that took place in 1886.
Powderly, had strong beliefs about labor rights. He advocated for eight hour work days and Sunday’s off for the Sabbath. He railed against the uneven balance of power in his autobiography, “Five men in the country control the chief interests of five hundred thousand working men, and can at any moment take the means of livelihood from two and a half million souls.” However when it came to strikes as a means to affect change, Powderly believed they were too costly for long terms gains. He wrote, “Just think of it. Opposing strikes and always striking … battling with my pen in the leading journals and magazines of the day for the great things we are educating the people on and fighting with might and main for the little things.”
So what does this have to do with May 1st? In an 1884 convention the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions voted that on May 1,1886 the eight hour work day would become the standard for workers. Powderly’s worries were unheeded and striking began on that day two years later. By all accounts, most of the strikes began peacefully and were nonviolent. They did not stay that way. On May 3, 1886 striking workers outside of McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago rushed to confront strikebreakers as they were leaving at the end of the workday. This prompted gunfire into the crowd by police. Two workers were killed. The following day, as a protest against police violence from the day before, a mass meeting was held in Haymarket Square. When the police tried to break up the crowd a bomb was thrown. Four civilians and seven policeman were killed and a hundred injured.
1889 Illustration from book published by CPD Captain of Police
The K of L was blamed for the rioting and their image never really fully recovered. It was a major setback for labor unions and rights in America.
In 1894 the then US President Groover Cleveland in a move to appease workers on the eve of his possible reelection made Labor Day a national holiday but did not make it May 1st for fear that it would be associated with Communism, Anarchism and the Haymarket Riot. He also did not get reelected.
In Brazil, it was President Vargas, a labor supporter, who recognized May 1 as Dia do Trabalhador joining what is now more than 80 countries who celebrate International Worker’s Day today to commemorate the events at Haymarket and the struggles of the workers.
…and that is why the different days.
On a side note, I’d liked to add that May 1st has always been very important day for me. Someone I Ioved very much and miss very much would have celebrated a birthday today. If you get Internet in heaven I want you to know this wasn’t a Pro-Commie post, Mom…pro-worker perhaps…