The legacy and lessons in May Day, with Stephanie Ross

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In Canada, May Day has always been the rebel workers holiday. 

First celebrated in the 1880s, International Workers Day has its roots in the historic struggle for workers rights and collective action.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the era known as the Gilded Age, the rise of industrialism and unregulated capitalism led to unprecedented inequality in North America. At the same time, however, political radicalism and trade unionism were on the rise among working people.

These groups found common front in their demand for a shorter work week. And on May 1, 1886, workers took to the streets in the thousands to demand an eight-hour work day. 

In Chicago, where 80,000 workers protested in the streets, chaos ensued after a rally against police brutality attracted the attention of police. When an anonymous provocateur threw a bomb into the police ranks, the police started shooting wildly, killing eight or nine of their own, and at least 50 protesters.

For many, this event -- known as the Haymarket massacre (or riot, depending on who's telling the story) -- dramatizes the struggle for justice faced by workers the world over. That event galvanized the labour movement to continue celebrating May 1 as International Workers' Day, and thanks to their struggle, most of us now enjoy a 40-hour work week and other minimum labour standards.

In other parts of the world, International Workers' Day is a statutory holiday, but in Canada and the United States, we celebrate Labour Day in September.

According to Stephanie Ross, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Science and Co-Director of Global Labour Research Centre at York University, these two holidays represent the two poles of the labour movement.

"May Day is really about one face of the labour movement which is its more revolutionary potential, its more anti-capitalist face," explained Ross, citing the work of Political Scientist Leo Panitch, who has written more extensively on this topic, "As opposed to Labour Day, which is really more about the other side of the labour movement; the search to be respectable and to be included in capitalist society -- to have a better standard of living."

While both represent important facets of the movement, unions and labour activists have tended to pull one way or another depending on the times. Given that we are living in a sort of neo-Gilded Age, Ross thinks that today's movement could really benefit from the revolutionary spirit that May Day represents.

"The impetus that brought workers into the streets in the 1880s has really come back with a vengeance," said Ross, "In some ways we've gone full-circle, because even though through the last century workers were able to establish unions and were able to get legislation that vastly improves working conditions for lots and lots of people, since the 1970s and 1980s we've really been turning the clock back. In reality, many people today don't actually enjoy that right to an eight-hour day or a 40-hour work week, and the leisure that comes with putting limits on working time. Because they cannot actually make a decent living only working those hours."

While the nature of work has changed dramatically since the nineteenth century, the demands of workers have not. Some workers, such as farm labourers and domestic workers, continue to work 10- to 12-hour days without benefitting from basic labour standards.

However, for a growing number of Canadians working part-time and contract jobs, the demand for an eight-hour work week stems from underemployment. As a recent study by the Workers' Action Centre reveals, these precarious workers often cobbled together a living by working two or three part-time jobs. They are denied the benefits and securities afforded to full-time workers and often lose parts of their wages to temp agency fees.

However, Ross warns, while these conditions are hitting some workers more directly and deeply than others. We are all feeling the effects as more and more employers come to expect just-in-time labour at the lowest possible cost. With privatization and free trade eroding job security in both the manufacturing and public sectors, even union members are not immune to these clawbacks.

"I think we get used to talking about it as if some workers are precarious and others are not. But I think that the other thing that parallels the 1880s is that while its true that there are some workers who are relatively more protected, all workers are becoming more precarious," Ross explained

"There is a lot of work out there, there just aren't a lot of jobs. I think that's an important distinction. Employers want a lot of work done, but they don't want to pay for it, and they don't want to package that work in the form of jobs that will actually allow people to live a decent life."

A recent study, commissioned by Generation Squeeze, found that Canadians in their mid-40s and younger earn thousands less per year for full-time work compared to adult Canadian in the late 1970s, even though they devote years more to post secondary education.

The picture painted here may be grim, but there is hope. Another one of the lessons that can be gleamed from May Day, as Ross explains, is that the lives of all working people can be improved by broad-based movements. One good example of is the campaign for an eight-hour day.

Since 2006, May 1 has been taken up as a day of protest for migrant justice in the United States and Canada, and for Indigenous rights. This is precisely the sort of inclusivity that the workers' holiday has always stood for.

"In the 1880s, there was more of a fluid sense of who was in the labour movement," Ross said, "If you were working class and if you were engaged in struggle, you were part of the labour movement whether or not you held a union card." 

With major protests set for the U.S. and Canada, we might consider the fight for a $15 minimum wage as one modern-day iteration of the broad-based movements of the past. In the United States, worker organizations at Walmart and fast-food chains provide an example of labour organizing supported by unions although it takes place outside of traditional union structures.

"In the long-run, if you don't organize people who are outside of the labour movement and lift their conditions up, the unionized section of the working-class is always going to have that enormous amount of pressure on them to reduce their wages or their working conditions," said Ross, "We need to create organizations that are radically inclusive. Because the more that people are left out, not only are their lives and working conditions diminished, but they are part of the dynamic of divide and conquer."

On almost every other day of the year, pragmatism takes precedence over potential. Workers are concerned with making ends meet and unions are confronted with cutbacks, privatization, anti-union legislation. But on May Day, workers take the opportunity to dream big. 

"May Day represents the face of the labour movement that provides a deeper challenge to the power that capitalists have, not just over workers lives, but over the whole society," said Ross "It's about who has the power to decide how the majority of people in our society live, and what their life outcomes are going to be."

Click here for more information on May Day events happening near you!

Ella Bedard is's labour intern and an associate editor at GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. She has written about labour issues for and the Halifax Media Co-op and is the co-producer of the radio documentary The Amelie: Canadian Refugee Policy and the Story of the 1987 Boat People. 


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