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May 1st is recognized and celebrated as International Workers’ Day, May Day, or Labour Day throughout most of the world. Though the United States celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, the international holiday has roots in the radical Labor Movement of the United States at the close of the nineteenth century. May Day is a time to honor the achievements of all the world’s workers, dwell on the work that sustains our own lives, and support the continuous work of labor activism.

How It All Started

International Labour Day remembers May 1, 1886, when more than 300,000 workers in the United States started the strike for the 8 hour workday. Many of today’s May Day celebrations commemorate the Haymarket Affair. Those lost to the bombing and ensuing violence at the police break-up of a workers’ rally in Haymarket Square, Chicago, only three days into the strike are remembered by many as the “Haymarket Martyrs.” Eight people were charged and four anarchists were hanged in connection to the blast. The strike dissipated soon after.

A few years after the Haymarket Affair, some labor parties in Europe took up the cause to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs and carry on the fight for the 8 hour workday. In 1889, the International Socialist Conference declared May Day as the commemorative celebration it’s known as in most of the world today. In the United States, Labor Day was poignantly slotted for celebration in September in 1894. In 1958, during the red scare, President Eisenhower even went so far as to declare May 1 “Loyalty Day,” avoiding any hint of federal recognition for a holiday dear to the world’s communists, socialists, and labor parties.

Understanding the radical roots of this day of international action is a chance both to give thanks for the groundbreaking work that has already been done for global workers’ rights and recognize the work still left to us.

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A Time for Modern Activism

Over the past century, International Workers’ Day has become a global celebration of union rights and a dedicated day for workers’ rights activism. Even though the United States doesn’t federally recognize May Day, May 1 has been chosen in recent years by immigrants’ rights activists for “A Day Without Immigrants” in 2006 and by the Occupy movement for national demonstrations in 2012. Last year, the Port of Oakland staged a shutdown on May 1 to call attention to the social injustices faced in the United States by minorities and the working class.

Last year’s global celebration saw mostly peaceful protests. In Jakarta, Indonesia, thousands of union members marched for improved working conditions. In Durban, South Africa, various trade unions marched together in a stand against xenophobic violence in the country. In Italy, a wreath was sent out to sea by labor leader Susanna Camusso in memory of migrants who died trying to reach European shores.

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Honor Workers Everywhere

This International Labour Day, make space to appreciate how our work connects us.

As you start your morning routine, cultivate a new mindful awareness of the labor invested in everything that sustains you. Give thanks to the worker who treated the water running from your tap and the worker who helped deliver it to your pipes. Give thanks to the natural systems working to make sure you have fresh water to bathe and drink and send lovingkindness to all the water molecules working around the clock to sustain your physical body.

Send gratitude to everyone along the chain of labor that made your morning cup of coffee possible.

A renewed appreciation for all of the work that connects us can help humanize the stuff in our lives. Start shopping ethically, with all of that work in mind. Considering both the human capital and natural capital put to work to make everything we have possible can help us move toward a more complete picture in which we can see and support both the people who grow what sustains us and the land working hard to produce it.

How is your work sustaining you and the greater global community? Work with us toward a world that works for everyone: an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling, socially just future for all.

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