While some of us—excluding, of course, the unfortunate one-fourth of the Filipino workforce for whom “labor” is another way to say “wishful thinking”—might be enjoying the extra day off today’s Labor Day holiday provides, it is not without a certain appreciation of irony: An official holiday declared by a government which is guilty of abetting most of the exact same sort of excesses that led to the date’s being adopted as “Labor Day” in the first place.
The traditional “May Day,” which is still commemorated in some places, has its roots in ancient pagan rites to mark the beginning of spring; the association of the May 1 date with the working class has nothing at all to do with that, but originated with the first general strike on May 1, 1886 of workers in the United States calling for adoption of the eight-hour work day.
The movement to reduce the length of the work day from the “however long the boss says it is” standard prevailing at the time had been building up steam since the end of the Civil War, and by 1868 the US Congress and several states had actually passed laws mandating the new eight-hour standard. Those laws, however, were widely ignored, so in 1884 the National Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Assemblies called for a general strike to take place on May 1, 1886.
The actual strike on May 1 is estimated to have drawn between 300,000 and 500,000 workers in different cities across the US; in Chicago, considered the center of the American labor movement, something between 30,000 and 80,000 workers took to the streets.
Even so, the occasion probably would not have been any more noteworthy than any of the other many labor demonstrations that were occurring with alarming frequency during that era if it were not for what happened in the days that followed.
On May 3, a large crowd of workers gathered outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago in support of striking workers from that factory, who had been locked out of their jobs for about three months.
At the end of the workday, the strikers attacked replacement workers as they left the factory, provoking the Chicago police to fire on the crowd, killing at least two strikers.
The following evening, another meeting hastily called by labor organizers was held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.
The intent of the labor leaders, or so it appears in historical documents, was to calm the mood of their followers in the wake of the violence at the McCormick factory. After allowing the crowd to listen to several speakers for a couple hours, the police moved in and ordered the rally to disperse.
At that point someone—it was never determined who—tossed a dynamite bomb at the assembled policemen, and in the explosion and ensuing gun battle, seven policemen and at least four workers were killed, with 70 or more people wounded. Eight labor organizers were put on trial for what became known as the Haymarket Affair, and in what is generally agreed to be an example of some of the worst prejudice the US justice system is capable of, seven of the accused were sentenced to death by hanging while the eighth was given a 15-year prison sentence.
Four of the men were eventually executed; two of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison by the governor of Illinois, and one of the other condemned men committed suicide rather than face the hangman.
Declaring a holiday commemorating the martyrdom of those who struggled against the unchecked and sometimes violent excesses of capitalism is something that ought to embarrass the government of this country—that is, if the present government was actually capable of embarrassment, which is doubtful.
The US at least had the right idea; once the theme became popular with the far left, the “Labor Day” holiday was moved to the first weekend in September and treated more as an occasion to mark the end of summer more than anything else.
But of course, the irony will be once again lost on the leader of the Aquino Administration, who will undoubtedly use the occasion to deliver an empty and completely detached from reality campaign speech somewhere before hastening off to engage in a well-earned session on the Game Cube.
Labor Day would be a most auspicious time for President Aquino to address any number of chronic issues affecting the country’s workers instead of subjecting us to more tiresome self-praise. He could, for example, explain why prices of basic market commodities (meat, fish, rice) have shot up by 8 to 10 percent in the past two weeks. Or why utilities such as Maynilad and Meralco—if it is even absolutely necessary that the country’s basic utilities be in private, foreign hands in the first place—are entitled to net profit margins two or three times in excess of what would be considered a fair and attractive return for an investment in public service infrastructure.
Or why he hasn’t asked for the resignation of Metro Rail Transit general manager Al Vitangcol, who, quite apart from being under a cloud of suspicion from the Czech affair, has presided over a near-collapse of the system under his charge, resulting in untold losses for businesses and workers alike.
And of course, it would be a very good time to announce what one (or more) in four employable people in the Philippines really wants to hear, a realistic, sustainable plan to encourage the actual creation of jobs. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though.