Wanted to speak to the Argentine or French A17ers today? They’ll be quiet because its International Workers’ Day or Labour Day, or what we Brits call May Day. Although we’re not celebrating it this year. Or even mentioning it.
Welcome to another edition of Mike’s Historical ½ Truths!
For a brief introduction to this series, see Easter
Not to be confused with mayday, the emergency procedure word, used as a distress signal in international radio communications. The term is always given three times in a row to distinguish it from radio calls about May Day itself or background noise. It is the radiotelephone version of the radiotelegraph SOS call (… – – – …).
Mayday is a butchering of the French term <<venez m’aider>> which means “the start of spring”. The origins of the May Day come from the pre-Christian Roman goddess of flowers, Floralia and the festival of Flora and the Anglo-Saxon festival of Beltane. It was invented by Frederick Mockford as a method of alerting to emergency situations in a way that everyone would understand. Other urgent calls include “pan-pan” from the French <<panne>> – which means “dancing”. It is used to announce a non urgent situation such as breakdown or medical requirements that don’t need immediate assistance.
May 1st marks the start of the pastoral summer season when livestock was driven out to summer pastures. It was known as the “spring festival of optimism” and is making a small comeback with modern Wiccan folk. To celebrate and ward off evil spirits, fires where lit and people danced; the Romans naked and the Celts I’m going to assume fully clothed, because it is much colder in Britain than in Italy.
The Beltane Festival has made a big come back in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh where they hold the Beltane Fire Festival which is a festival of art, choreography and culture from around the world. Oh and naked fire dancing.
Other common procedure words include affirmative, negative, roger and wilco; which translate from French to English as “big fish”, “little fish” and “cardboard box” respectively.
International Workers’ Day
Also known as Labour day, which to the U.S. folks this might be confusing as they have Labour Day in September and not May. The exact reason for this isn’t clear but it might be because Labour Day is a big communist celebration and we know how much good ole Uncle Sam hates the reds.
Or, maybe it is because the U.S. Labour Day was proposed and begun before the events that constituted to International Labour Day. Honestly I’m not sure why. As I’ve often found when researching historical events, the exact story, even for really well documented events, is never all that straight forward with many different accounts from many different sources with many different biases. Remember, this is historical half truths and I just make some of this up.
And I’m not joking about communist. You know those famous images of huge military parades in Moscow? They’re on International Labour Day.
These parades are to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, which happened in Chicago on May 4th, 1886 when during demonstrations for the 8 hour working day, a bomb was thrown at police and they responded by opening fire on the demonstrators.
Before this time, the industrial revolution was spreading throughout America from MANCHESTER, ENGLAND, and people where working 60 hour/6 day weeks for very little wages. Several groups of people had started to organise to improve rights for workers, including the International Workingmens Association, known as the First International. This was a group of left wing, socialist, communist, anarchist, working class and trade union organisations. Women where allowed to join and lots of historically interesting names where involved like Karl Marx, Frederich Engels, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Otto von Bismarck.
Chicago was a hot spot of activity for workers rights and employers responded by firing people, singling out union members, employing spies, thugs and playing on ethnic tensions. In other words, they responded like total shits.
At a convention in 1884, held by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, they set May 1st 1886 as the date for the 8 hour working day to become a standard and the unions planned to strike to support this notion. And so they did. A few days later strikers met a group of union workers who had been locked out of their factories for 3 months, without pay, and who had been under attack from strike breakers. Tensions rose and it ended up with police firing upon the strikers.
This lead to a huge rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago. Exact numbers of people killed by the police and the bomb are unknown but it might be that more police died than injuries to protesters.
It is important to note that the press and public largely supported the businesses and police, not the strikers.
The Haymarket Affair itself is seen as both setting back the labour rights of American workers but also strengthening American and international workers resistance to their poor conditions. The First International had disbanded and sort of been replaced by the Second International in 1889 and they called for May 1st be an international day of protest in order to push for the 8 hour working day, with ever larger and more organised demonstrations around the world.
The idea of a 8 hour working day garnered popularity in 1817 after Robert Owen, a Welsh man, who worked in Manchester, coined the phrase “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”. Karl Marx saw 8 hour working days as vital for workers health; although possibly not because he cared much for workers, but because he saw that working longer hours caused worker exhaustion which was detrimental to their productivity.
The first country to adopt the 8 hour working day was Soviet Russia, a few days after the Bolshevik Uprising, which happened during World War 1. The International Labour Organisation discussed the Hours of Work Convention in 1919, which has since been ratified by 52 countries. Argentina in 1933, France in 1927, with Columbia and the Czech republic signing in 1993. New Zealand had signed in 1938 but denounced it in 1989. The UK and USA never signed up. The USA has the Fair Labor Standards act of 1937 which sort of covers the 8 hour working day (and I do mean “sort of” because it doesn’t) and here in the UK we have the Factory act of 1833 which limits 9-13 year olds to working 8 hours a day and 14-18 year olds to 12 hours a day.
How do you crazy Brits traditionally celebrate May Day?
Mostly by dancing, either around static poles (May Pole) or each other (Morris Dancing). We also crown May Queens, who have the equivalent power of the actual Queen, but only for the day.
Oxford University has “May Morning” which starts at 6am with hymn singing and ends with students jumping into a river while wearing formal attire. Students at St Andrews University do a “May Dip”, which will apparently bring them good luck for their upcoming exams. Both of these just seem likely to lead to hypothermia.
International Labour Day
However you choose to enjoy the day – please spare a moment for the people who fought to improve conditions for workers around the world.