I had a vague idea about the origins of the "May Day"/ "Labour Day" (but not much) - besides of course that it coincided with some of the pre-Christian pagan festivals in Europe...
So, today when one of my senior colleague, who has spent more than four decades dealing with Industrial/Labour Relations, both as a practicing manager and then as an academic (besides being the author of "one of its kind" book on Industrial Jurisprudence, sent this mail, I thought that this forgotten history is worth sharing. I am reproducing his mail below:
Today is celebrated as a "Labour Day" all over the world. Quite a few of us may not be knowing "why May 1st only"; "why not some other day"; and "why at all should there be a special day of commemoration for working class"? Here is the story in a nutshell.
Explitation by US Industry - Long Working Hours
There was no law in US in the19th century (and until even as late as 1932), which conferred a right on the working class to form a union. Secondly, any attempt of workers to organise themselves was considered "criminal conspiracy" attracting prosecution under the criminal law of US. Thirdly, the US industry was guilty of forcing the workers, including women and children to work for long hours stretching to 15 to 18 hours a day.
Anarchist Movement - Strike by 400,000 Workers in Chicago on May 1, 1886
This was the state of affairs which prompted a few workers called as "anarchists" to secretly organise workers in Chicago in 1886 demanding "8-hour workday". The first strike in this regard was in McCormick Harvester Company, on 1st May 1886, in which workers of other industrial units numbering some 4 lakhs joined, sending shivers down the spine of business captains and the government. Police entered the fray leading to violence (including the throwing of a bomb by anarchists at the police party with the latter opening fire killing and wounding a few hundred protestors.
Trial and Execution of Seven Union Leaders
Finally, police picked up eight men stood trial for being "accessories to murder". They were: Spies, Fielden, Parsons, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe. The trial commenced on June 21st 1886 in the criminal court of Cooke County.
The trial was whimsical and wishy-washy in so far as no evidence was offered that any of the speakers had incited violence and indeed, in his evidence at the trial, Mayor Harrison described the speeches as "tame". No proof was offered that any violence had been contemplated. In fact, Parsons had brought his two small children to the meeting.
On August 19, 1887 the Court sentenced seven of the accused to death, and Oscar Neebe to 15 years imprisonment. After a massive international uproar, the state government relented and commuted the sentences of Michael Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment. Lingg cheated the hangman by committing suicide in his cell the day before the executions. On November 11th 1887 Parsons, Engel, Spies and Fischer were hanged.
It also occured to me that for many people this history would be seen as a thing of past - a mere blot in the march of history. After all, we live in a more enlightened age, with the constitutional rights in a democracy, and the "rule of law" governing the social arrangements...
...till one comes across items like these:
2010 Games: Labourers go empty handed?
Migrant Worker Munee in Rural Bihar
...and not just in India, but across the world - numerous labour camps in Dubai, sweatshops in Third World countries...
Third World Slaves Making OUR Bargains to Buy