Mayday! May Day!

by | May 1, 2024 | Curriculum, Deep-ish Dive | 0 comments

Is today supposed to be about a call for help, a callback to this N’Sync song, or a celebration of workers’ rights? (Why not all three?)

“Mayday” (without a space between the “y” and the “d”) began to be used as a distress call in the 1920s. Frederick Stanley Mockford was the officer-in-charge at Croydon Airport in England. He had been asked to think of a word that would not only express “HELP!” but be easily understood by pilots and ground staff. As Croydon Airport served only Le Bourget Airport in Paris exclusively, he pitched the word “mayday” which sounded like “m’aidez,” (lit. “Help me!”). “Mayday” caught on and quickly replaced the Morse code signal “SOS” as well as saying “SOS” because the letter ‘S’ can be hard to make out over telephone.

May Day marks an event that took place in my hometown Chicago in 1886. On May 1, labour unions in the city called for a general strike to demand what then seemed outrageous: an eight-hour workday. Workers across the United States heeded the call. In Chicago, the protest and accompanying parade were largely peaceful, but police ratcheted up the violence over subsequent days. When a rally began in Haymarket Square on May 4, police prepared to attack the strikers. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at the police and in the ensuing retaliatory gunfire, police killed seven of their own and at least four civilians. Dozens of others were wounded. This incident and the subsequent trial became known as the Haymarket Affair.

Both of these events galvanized labour organizers into action, and in 1889, they observed May 1 as a worker’s holiday in honour of the national strike and the workers who were injured and killed during the Haymarket Affair. May Day eventually came to be known as International Workers’ Day, and became a rallying point for labor activists for years to come.

It was at this time – the late 1880s – that countless thousands of Eastern European Jews who came to the US settled in many of America’s great cities. They went to work to earn a living and send money back to their families in the Old Country. It did not take long before they began to see trade unions as the path their economic and social progress. Jewish labour unions participated in the nation-wide general strike to achieve the eight hour work day.

Throughout the early-to-mid 20th century, Jews were active in labour organizing and unions, but as Jews grew more mobile, both geographically and socio-economically, their participation waned.

Though May Day as a workers’ holiday began in the United States, its commemoration took off in the Soviet Union, which consequently led to the day being marked and observed by Soviet Jews and Israelis during the 20th century. The day was popular even among mainstream Israeli labor unions that were not aligned with communism. However, as Israeli society moved to the right in the late 1970s, and tensions rose between Israel and the USSR, May Day lost its relevance.

Nonetheless, it is important to remember (regardless of your politics) how workers and activists fought for what we consider today to be a workplace norm – an eight hour work day. Imagine how our lives today might look if they hadn’t…

Now get back to work!

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