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U.S. Protesters Mark May Day
International holiday has roots in struggle for shorter hours and improved working conditions
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-05-01 12:33 (KST)   
May Day -- an American Holiday

19th century engraving of the Haymarket riot.
©2006 wikipedia
May Day as the holiday celebrating the fight for shorter hours for workers began in the U.S. as part of the struggle for the eight-hour working day. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor of the U.S. and Canada proposed that an eight-hour workday come into effect on May 1, 1886. When that day came without the proposal being implemented, over 400,000 U.S. workers went on strike. Two days later on May 3, the strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago were attacked by police. The next day, on May 4 a rally was held in Haymarket Square in Chicago in protest. Suddenly a bomb exploded. Workers were rounded up and several anarchists were framed for the bomb. (1)

Then in 1889, the Second International established May Day as the day to fight for shorter hours of work. In 1890, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) sent delegates to the Paris meeting of the International Labor Congress. The AFL delegates had proposed that May 1 be proclaimed an international labor holiday. The proposal was accepted.

The Fight in Great Britain for the 10-Hour Day

Actually the tradition of May 1 as the day honoring shorter hours of labor goes back even further.(2) It was in May 1848 that the working class in Great Britain won the 10-hour working day, after almost 50 years of struggle. On May 1, 1848, the first 10-hour bill became law in England. The factories had become places of great exploitation. Factory owners commonly hired children at low wages and put adult workers, especially men, out on the streets. The means to mechanize labor had created a hell for workers, rather than bringing a better life for the people of Great Britain.

Faced with this factory hell, workers began to organize to improve their conditions. Robert Owen, a factory owner in New Lanark, Scotland, also recognized the problem with long hours and dangerous working conditions and supported the workers' efforts.

By the early 1830s there was pressure on the British to conduct an inquiry into the conditions of work in the factories. Three years later, in 1833, a report was published documenting the abuses that the brave factory inspectors had discovered during their inquiry.

A bill to limit the hours of labor to 10 hours a day was introduced into the British Parliament. Some factory owners set out to vigorously campaign against the bill, claiming that if it were passed, it would force them to shut their factories.

The struggle of workers and factory owners like Robert Owen, who supported restrictions on the hours of labor and the ages of laborers in the factories, gained momentum. Their efforts were opposed by a segment of the factory owners who insisted that there should be no restriction on their activities.

The 10 hours law finally passed on May 1, 1848, but opposition to it continued. It wasn't until May 1850 that the principle of government intervention into the conditions of workers in factories was established with the passage of a 10-1/2 hour law. This law, at last, included some enforcement provisions.

May Day 2006 in the U.S.

To honor May Day 2006, a number of demonstrations were planned in the U.S. by different groups. On the weekend before May 1, which in 2006 falls on a Monday, there were demonstrations against the War in Iraq in various cities and towns in the U.S. A major demonstration was held in New York City. There were reports that 350,000 people were part of the protest. Among the signs carried by the demonstrators were:

  • "Bush Lies, People Die"
  • "Drop Bush, Not Bombs"
  • "Halliburton thanks you for your taxes" (carried by Billionaires for Bush)
  • "Justice for Gulf Coast Victims"
  • "Make Levees, Not War"
  • "Let Liars Lead No More"
  • "Iraq is Arabic for Vietnam"
  • "Shut Down Guantanamo"
  • "The World Can't Wait! Drive Out the Bush Regime"
  • "War kills, Try Peace"
  • "One Nation Under Surveillance"
  • "Where is your Truth to Power CBS, NBC" (and long list of media outlets)
  • "We the People say No to the Bush Agenda."

    On Monday, May 1, demonstrations have been called in many cities around the U.S. to protest the efforts by the U.S. Congress to pass a bill that would criminalize aid to undocumented workers. In place of such a bill, there is the demand that undocumented workers have the right to become U.S. citizens and that there be full protection for them to have labor rights so that employers will no longer be able to exploit their undocumented status.

    Related Articles
    Immigrants in US plan May Day strike


    This year in the U.S., May 1 is being celebrated. The tradition of May Day, as a day to fight for the rights of labor continues.
  • Notes:

    (1) Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, "May 1st: The Sun of Tomorrow."

    (2) "The Tradition of May 1, 1848: Sir France Bacon and the Shorter Hours Bill", The Amateur Computerist, Winter/Spring, 1993, p. 1, 11-13

    (3) Thanks to Cordie Fuller for a list of some of the signs from the demonstration.
    ©2006 OhmyNews
    Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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