Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Two Labor Days

September needed a holiday anyways.

In the United States and Canada, we all got Monday this week off- which will make for a nice, short work week - in order to celebrate a day for workers everywhere. Only there is one small problem with that theory, workers everywhere else celebrate International Workers' Day on May 1, also known as May Day. The other small problem with that theory is that the reason International Workers' Day is on May 1st is because of events that occurred inside the United States. So, how did that happen?

The United States experienced rapid industrialization right after the Civil War ended. As in every industrializing country, working conditions usually become a whole lot worse before they become a whole lot better; moving from the family farm to a dirty factory. Karl Marx wrote about the plight of the workers in Britain, but did not live long enough to see how much factory conditions later improved, public health measures were instituted, and free public education took hold. The economy also tends to to go through boom and bust phases, as the machines get turned off and on in response to the latest economic news. Frequent busts, but also V shaped economic recoveries.

In 1882, the United States celebrated its first labor day on the first monday of September in New York City. The holiday was organized by the Central Labor Union. By 1884, the Knights of Labor - the by far and away largest union in America at that time - brought the holiday to many other cities around the country and were already clamoring for it to be a national holiday.

Something else happened between those dates though. The first global economic depression took hold between 1883 to 1887. Started by banks in Austria folding caused by easy credit, the financial contagion started a chain reaction that lead to banks all over the world folding. At the time, the resulting crisis was coined "The Great Depression" - whose name was later deemed upon a much worse crisis in the 1930s. It is now known as "The Long Depression" instead.

What about unemployed bees? unworker bees? welfare bees?

The seeds of labor strife were strewn (try saying that 5 times fast). If people were lucky enough to find work, then they were going to live through terrible working conditions - where it was an everyday occurrence for someone to lost a limb - to be paid only $1.50 a day. Chicago in 1886 was a nasty place. Ask Upton Sinclair. Not surprisingly, all hell broke loose. In a labor demonstration on May 4, somebody (it is still a mystery to this day) threw a stick of dynamite at the police. The police opened fire at the workers. A handful died. Many were injured. Like the Boston Massacre almost a century earlier, the scene reverberated throughout the country. I know no reason why the Haymarket Riot should ever be forgot...

President Grover Cleveland knew that he had to do something to placate the country. Labor Day was created as a national holiday along the lines of the one first celebrated in NYC a few years earlier, as opposed to May Day when the rest of the world celebrates it, so that the Haymarket Riot would not be commemorated. Other labor movement objectives such as minimum wage laws, 40 hour workweeks, as well as health and safety issues were pushed to the forefront as well.


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