Editorial: What about Labour Day?

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Labour Day. The first Monday in May and it’s a long weekend holiday. Yippee!! Unfortunately, that is about all the younger generation knows of Labour Day. In fact, a quick, informal poll of young people indicates that they see labour day as more of a political rally than anything else, and that is sad.
Labour Day is holiday that is meant to observe and celebrate the strength of workers and the value of their labour toward the development of nations. It is a day to reflect on the struggles of the labour movement and those who fought for what we take for granted. Of course, that is our definition, and we freely admit it may not be the best but we are trying to be as broad as possible. Looking toward the ‘all-knowing’ Internet, we will find all sorts of definitions but, in general, there is a common thread along those lines. 
Now, for a quick history lesson (because this is so very important). The tradition around a day of observation began in the late 19th century and came about because of the rise of the trade unions. It is called the International Workers’ Day, but it is also known as Labour Day or Workers’ Day in various part of the world. You often hear it also referred to as May Day and that is because May 1st was the day chosen by an organisation of socialist and communist political parties to commemorate the Haymarket Affair which occurred in Chicago on May 4th, 1886.
We know, we promised you brief history lessons but, stick with us because it is very important to know (we can’t say it enough). The Haymarket Affair refers to a bombing that took place at a labour demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago. The peaceful rally was in support of workers who were striking for an eight-hour workday, as well as in reaction to the killing of several workers by police the previous day. The protest was disrupted by a bomber who threw dynamite at the police which resulted in a melee that left seven police officers dead along with at least four civilians and a significant number of people wounded (from the blast and gunfire).
This actually all started in October 1884, at a convention held by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions where, by unanimous vote, May 1, 1886, was set as the date by which the eight-hour workday would become standard. As the date approached, labour unions prepared for a general strike. Tens of thousand of workers participated in rallies beginning on Saturday, May 1, chanting, “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” Tensions rose, and on May 3, a clash occurred at McCormick Harvesting Machine Company which saw the police open fire on the striking workers, killing two (or more based on varying reports). Incensed by the killings, the union and workers rallied at Haymarket Square the next day; and the rest is history.
The incident gained international attention and in the aftermath, eight ‘anarchists’ were convicted of conspiracy. No evidence was presented at the trial that any of the men threw the bomb but seven were sentenced to death and one to a term of 15 years in prison.
It is difficult to imagine having to fight for such basic rights but that is the reason for the International Workers’ Day. It was established at the 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International where the participants called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
Today, we take an eight-hour day for granted but we should not. There are many in the world who do not have these type of rights and even in our bit of paradise, there are many who are taken advantage of and have their rights trampled. It is for these reasons we should not lose track of the reason for Labour Day. It is not a fete! It is not a jump up! It is a sombre reflection of the rights of workers and the struggles that workers have faced and continue to face.
It is beyond unfortunate that the struggles of the labour movement have taken a back seat to politics on labour day and the younger generation is deprived of the history of the movement and the reason for a Labour Day. Political parties have hijacked the day and evolved the original message and purpose, while perpetrating the myth that the parties are the strength behind the unions, when the reality is exactly the opposite.
Instead of gaining an appreciation on this very important day, the youth are feted by the politicians. The political machinery has turned the day into a giant jouvert and people have reached a stage where they can’t wait for the speeches to end and the party to begin. No one comes out to support the union. They come out to support their party, decked out in party colours and waving party paraphernalia. It is a big holiday party that delivers an atmosphere that is contrary to what we presume was envisaged by those who proposed an International Workers’ Day way back in 1904.
We wonder aloud if we can ever recover from the evolution over the years or whether the meaning of Labour Day has shifted forever? Will the next generation even care about Labour Day beyond the fact that it is a holiday? We doubt that it will change for the better, but we live in hope.

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