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The Story behind Workers’ Day

credit: myjetonline.co.za

credit: myjetonline.co.za

Two dollars total. Mary bent over the coins again, wiping her slim hands on her worn apron before she started. She had to make sure. This was the third time she was counting today, so she already knew how much it was. She had been saving for months now, and she counted last night too, after John had gone to bed. When he woke up she had given him an elaborate breakfast with a birthday kiss, and let him think that that was all. Oh, she was so cunning. When he gets back he would be very surprised by the gift she planned on getting him.

The smell of something burning immediately roused her from her reverie and she half ran, half wobbled, to the kitchen, and pulled out the cake just in time. She set it on the counter to cool, and drew open the flowery curtains. The smell of freshly baked cake filled the air, and a deep sense of excitement filled her. This was the third year of their marriage. They had bought their new house, a little condo by the creek, and now she was pregnant. John worked at the cotton factory not far from here, and he earned enough for their keep, even though his work was keeping him long from her arms. But that would soon be over. He had gone with Clyde and Dwight to the Haymarket near downtown Chicago to protest for an eight hour workday. Mary hoped that all would go well.

Mary would soon learn that all, indeed, did not go well. As she bent over the bleeding body of her husband, Clyde rattled on. He was sorry, he said. It had happened so fast. The protest was going well, until someone had thrown a bomb at the policemen. Before anyone could blink, people were dropping dead like autumn leaves. The police kept shooting, even after the workers had dropped their weapons and fled the scene. Not one of them had fired back. Mary registered it all, with a calm that scared Clyde. He wondered what she would do.

She didn’t have to do much. The next year, 1889, the first congress of the Second International met in Paris and, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, called lustily for international demonstrations against the inhuman treatment of the Chicago protesters. This set off a chain of events. It roused the May Day riots in 1894, and in 1904 the International Socialist Conference  in Amsterdam called for all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to rally and protest for a legal establishment of the 8-hour day. They made it mandatory for all countries to stop work on May 1st, wherever it was possible, to avoid causing injury to the workers. Luckily for you and me, and all workers worldwide (with the exception of the United States and Canada), they succeeded largely with this endeavour, and May Day was born. Not only was the 9-5 work hour established, but the 1st day of the month of May was set aside to commemorate the likes of John, who initially fought for the movement.

In 1955, the day that the great Catholic Church endorsed the Workers’ day by dedicating it after Saint Joseph, the worker, Mary sat with her son. He was excitedly watching the bonfires and wanted to go off and play by them too, but Mary wouldn’t let him. It was too dangerous. She had already lost one precious member of her family to the May Day cause, but at least she could smile now.

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