W

e celebrate International Workers’ Day on May 1 in honour of all working people around the world. May Day was first celebrated in 1889, as it was one of the outcomes of the foundation of the Second International in Paris, who were inspired by striking American workers in May 1886. 

The Second International was a group of workers’ organizations, social democratic (socialist at the time) parties, and trade unions around the world fighting for labour rights and the creation of socialism around the world. Their outlook was internationalist, and though the Second International dissolved in 1916, May 1 still carries the spirit of international solidarity in its celebrations throughout the world. 

“In 1884, a law was passed in the US declaring that as of May 1, 1886, an eight-hour workday would be the full and legal workday for all US workers. The owners and employers refused to recognize this law and on May 1 workers across the country took to the streets in a general strike. Hundreds of thousands participated.” - CUPE Ontario: May 1st: International Workers Day

That month, the Chicago police infamously attacked demonstrators with the 8-hour-workday movement, a large grassroots movement of workers pushing for standardized workdays and better conditions. On May 3 one person was killed while police were protecting strikebreakers, also known as scabs, at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company.

On May 4, 1886 labour leaders called a mass demonstration in Haymarket Square, Chicago, to protest police brutality. An unknown person threw a bomb into the peaceful demonstration.  The assailant was never positively identified. The police responded with “random gunfire.” Seven police officers were killed, as well as between four and eight civilians, and approximately 100 people injured.

Protesters rallied in support of striking academic workers with CUPE 3903 at York University on March 20, 2018. Photo by Kevin Taghabon

Unlike in the majority of the industrialized world, Canada followed the American model in not officially recognizing May 1 as a working peoples’ holiday. Instead, the Canadian federal government declared the first Monday of each September a statutory holiday: Labour Day. The origins of this holiday carry their own organizing and specific history, including massive strikes by print shop workers in Toronto in the 1870s. To this day, May 1 is celebrated in Toronto by labour activists, both organized and unorganized, alongside a host of supportive civil society and social justice based organizations. It’s also celebrated in cities across the country like Winnipeg, Vancouver and especially Montreal.

Ironically, the most explicit recognition of International Workers’ day from the government of Canada comes from Lisa Raitt in 2010, who was the Minister of Labour in Stephen Harper’s cabinet. 

“...International Workers’ Day is celebrated in many countries around the world with commemorative events such as marches and festivals. It marks the struggles and successes of the labour movement in improving working conditions.” - Lisa Raitt, Minister of Labour under Stephen Harper’s government, May 1, 2010

During Raitt’s tenure as Minister of Labour she used strike breaking legislation multiple times, including against the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Air Canada’s unionized flight attendants, and a threat against Teamsters with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Thousands of Ontarians marched for the Decent to Work rally on June 16, 2018. Photo by Kevin Taghabon

Among many celebrations and actions in the Greater Toronto Area surrounding this event is Mayworks: A Festival of Working People and the Arts. This celebration has been going on for 36 years and consists of  “works by a diverse and broad range of artists, who are both workers and activists.” A schedule of the rich programming available throughout the month of May is available here https://mayworks.ca/

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Posted 
May 1, 2021
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