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May 2021

Grounded in History
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The Origins of May Day

For 137 years, May 1 has been celebrated around the world as International Workers' Day. It is a day for honoring the immeasurable contributions of union labor to society. And although the holiday is more popular in European countries, being often overshadowed by Labor Day in the U.S., the roots of May Day are distinctly American. And it all began with the fight for an 8-hour workday.

In October 1884, a convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later became the AFL, resolved to lead a nationwide protest in demand of an 8-hour workday on May 1, 1886. As the day arrived, labor unions across the U.S. went on strike and hundreds of thousands of workers held parades chanting the anthem, "Eight Hours for Work, Eight hours for Rest, Eight hours for What We Will." In Chicago, at the movement's center, an estimated 40,000 workers struck. On May 3, strikers met outside the McCormick Machine plant as strikebreakers were leaving for the day. The police were called in to disperse the strikers and eventually fired shots into the crowd. Outraged by the assault, local anarchists quickly called for a rally to be held the following day at Haymarket Square. On the evening of May 4, a crowd gathered to listen to speeches from labor leaders. At 10:30 p.m., as the police began dispersing the crowd, a dynamite bomb was thrown into their path, killing seven officers. The police began firing into the crowd, killing four strikers and injuring dozens more.

The event became known as the Haymarket Affair and it galvanized the labor movement across the country and the globe. At the AFL convention of 1888, delegates voted for another general strike to be held May 1, 1890. AFL President Samuel Gompers sent a proposal to the International Socialist Congress, which was meeting in Paris, asking if it could join America's efforts. The Europeans unanimously agreed and together, on May 1, 1890, Europe and America held demonstrations in demand of an 8-hour workday.

The first International Workers Day was a spectacular success. The front page of the New York World newspaper carried the headline, "Parade of Jubilant Workingmen in All Trade Centers of the Civilized World Demand a Normal Day." There was even a small demonstration in St. Louis. Perhaps IBEW founders Henry Miller and J.T. Kelly were marching with them? It was only a month later that the two men would meet at the St. Louis Expo before founding the IBEW the next year.

In 1894, the U.S. officially declared the first Monday of September as "Labor Day." This did not stop unions from holding May Day demonstrations, however, which now included the demand for a maximum 40-hour week. The efforts bore fruit in the early 1900's, marked by hundreds of Local Line articles in The Electrical Worker celebrating new collective bargaining agreements with the 8-hour day provision. It was only a matter of time before this became the federal standard, and the IBEW helped lead the way.

In February 1929, IBEW Local 3 of New York secured a 5-day work week with the Electrical Contractors Association. This monumental success was due to the efforts of Vice President H.H. Broach. With the contract announced, it set off a chain reaction of other trades securing similar contracts. By April, in an effort to stop the tide, the Building Trades Employers Association threatened to lock out all union members from construction work. The AFL Building Trades Council, of which the IBEW was a member, stuck to its demands and called the bluff. As a result, in May of 1929, the Building Association signed the contract setting a 5-day, 40-hour work week for all 150,000 members of New York's building trades, by far the largest bloc in America. Vice President Broach was elected IBEW president that fall.

The cover of the June 1929 issue of The Electrical Worker celebrated the achievement as "labor's effort to secure a partial share in the leisure, wealth and culture created under new conditions in industry." In the years that followed, the 40-hour work week swept across the country, eventually culminating in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and overtime for a 40-hour week for all public contracts. The 8-hour day, the original rallying cry of May Day, was now codified into law.

On this May Day, our support of labor unions and workers' rights here in North America and across the world honors the pioneers who blazed the trail for us to follow. As we take stock of their achievements, let it give us strength for the struggles that lie ahead. If history is to be any guide, it shows that the IBEW has and still leads the way.

Clarification to the March 2021 "Grounded in History" column: Brother Keith Edwards was the first elected African-American business manager of a construction local. Brother Dalton Hooks served as business manager prior to Edwards but was not elected.

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Vice President H.H. Broach