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May 1st is International Workers Day, also known as May Day. Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer and Jeremy Hobson take a look at this holiday — and why it’s not celebrated in the U.S. — with Tom Juravich of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, Sacha, today is May 1, and many people around the world mark it as International Workers Day or May Day. Today workers in Hong Kong and Turkey and Indonesia march to commemorate it, but what about U.S. workers?
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Professor Tom Juravich is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and he's an expert in the history of the labor movement. He joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio. Hi, Tom.
TOM JURAVICH: Hi, Sacha.
PFEIFFER: And would you first tell us how May Day came to be, what its history is?
JURAVICH: Well, you're absolutely right, Jeremy, it's celebrated all around the world except in the U.S., and the events that led to it started here in the U.S., particularly in Chicago. Back in 1886, tens of thousands of trade unionists, anarchists and socialists had gathered in Chicago, late April 1886, to begin a series of protests demanding, protesting for the eight-hour day.
Thirty-five thousand people walked off the job on May 1 in Chicago, and there was a rally several days later supporting a local strike where policemen actually shot two workers, and they called for a massive rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square in Chicago.
And in the middle of that rally, a bomb went off. A policeman was killed, and quickly eight anarchists were arrested and tried in what later a governor of Illinois would call the worst travesty of justice in the U.S. And several were hung right away. And soon after that, a call went out in the U.S. and across the European continent, that next year May 1 would be - we would celebrate International Workers Day to commemorate that fight in Chicago and a fight for the international eight-hour day.
PFEIFFER: And Tom, first of all, your references to the eight-hour day are reminding me of one of my favorite bumper stickers. It says the labor movement, the folks that brought you the weekend.
PFEIFFER: So today, to this day, is this still a day dedicated to pushing for more workers rights or to express worker grievances?
JURAVICH: Absolutely. You know, the issue is that even though we got legally the eight-hour day in the U.S., it's not true that workers here or around the world are working eight hours. In the U.S., you know, right now we have an economy where I'm afraid people either are not working, or we're all working too much. So there we've seen the increase of mandatory overtime and long shifts, eight, 10, 12 hours that sometimes nurses and call-center workers have to suffer under.
So this is still a real battle today about the very issue that was the lightning rod for the Haymarket Massacre in 1886.
PFEIFFER: So Jeremy mentioned a few of the countries where there are marches happening today: Hong Kong, Turkey, Indonesia. Where else is this typically marked, and does it tend to be countries where there are real inequities among workers and real sort of working conditions that we wouldn't accept here in the U.S. for the most part?
JURAVICH: Absolutely. I think there's a lot of activity around the state. The other thing we need to remember, of course, was after the Russian Revolution in 1917, this became a Soviet holiday, and that's one of the reasons why in the U.S. we don't celebrate this day. It was part of, you know, anti-communism. And in fact in 1958 President Eisenhower tried to proclaim the day, May Day, as Loyalty Day. Well, it kind of never stuck.
But, you know, actually early on it was Grover Cleveland after another bitter strike at Pullman who declared Labor Day to be the day that we now celebrate, in September. But this was not with the support of progressive trade unionists. The more conservative AFL at this point supported that. So it's ironic that this holiday in the U.S., that was started in the U.S., that's celebrated everywhere else, is not celebrated right here.
HOBSON: And Tom, if you look at the labor movement in this country, it is much smaller than it was even several decades ago. We just had this vote in Tennessee, where Volkswagen has a plant there, and the workers decided not to form a union there. Do you see a day when the U.S. moves in the other direction and goes more toward what the labor movement would like?
JURAVICH: Oh, actually, I'm very optimistic, and the reason I'm optimistic is that things have grown to a - have dropped to a very terrible level if we look at the fights against Wal-Mart and the fast food industry, where people are making just minimum wage, nowhere near a living wage. And so while the official labor numbers are small, I am very heartened by the kind of level of activism that we've seen really unprecedented in the last several decades.
So while it may be a while before that's reflected in union membership numbers, I think these issues are forefront in so many people's minds right now.
PFEIFFER: That's Professor Tom Juravich of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He's also author of "At the Altar of the Bottom Line: The Degradation of Work in the 21st Century." Tom, thanks very much.
JURAVICH: Thank you so much, Sacha.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
PFEIFFER: And we're listening to "The Internationale" performed by the USSR Radio Choir and Orchestra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.