Student Voice


June 20, 2024


Mother’s, May Day result from conflicts

May 7, 2009

May is probably the best month of the year. It’s finally spring. School is getting out. And May Day and Mother’s Day are within a couple weeks of each other.

Generally when people think of these two holidays, we think of appreciating our mothers and May Day baskets and parades. I rarely hear of the original intention of Mother’s Day, or roots of the labor movement of May Day.

May Day became recognized as International Workers Day in the late 19th century. Labor rights activists were then in a struggle to get the eight-hour work day. The union, American Federation of Labor, adopted a historic resolution which asserted that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”

Eight-hour strikes occurred on this day in Chicago, which was at the heart of the labor movement, New York, Detroit, Milwaukee and other cities in the U.S. Three days later, a protest meeting was held in the Chicago park Haymarket Square.

A large crowd turned out to listen to key anarchist organizers: August Spies, Albert Parsons and Samuel Fielden. The rally was very peaceful, until the last speaker was closing his speech and an “unknown” assailant threw a bomb into a crowd of police officers (there were about 200 officers monitoring the meeting).

This “unknown” assailant has long been blamed as one of the anarchist protestors, though I think it’s pretty obvious that the perpetrator was actually an officer or someone else associated to the powerful who were trying to keep workers’ from gaining the rights that we take for granted today in the U.S. Eight labor rights activists were arrested (all anarchists) and sentenced to death for supposedly throwing the bomb.

Of the eight, four were hung, one committed suicide and two were eventually pardoned by the mayor of Chicago. The mayor pardoned them because he felt they had been charged for a crime they did not commit.

May Day became an international workers day in recognition of these men who died for the eight-hour work day. Mother’s Day also has its origins in the latter half of the 19th century.

Anti-slavery and anti-war activist Julia Ward-Howe organized the first Mother’s Day in reaction to the Civil War, and the violence that followed the end of the War.

Many soldiers were still engaging in violence against civilians and several other veterans were homeless.

Ward-Howe wrote a poem about the ravages of war, and called for all mothers to be citizen activists. She began Mother’s Day to end the atrocities that a senseless war causes. Over a century has passed and we still face the same struggles that these holidays were intended to address. 

Labor relations may have gotten better in the U.S. (which can be debated because of the excessive use of prison labor) but not in other countries like China, India, Mexico and essentially any country in Central and South America.

The majority of consumer goods that we have in this country are coming from these countries, whose factories have conditions that parallel the conditions that used to be in the U.S. and are often referred to as slave labor. 

Just because this isn’t happening in our backyard, doesn’t mean that we don’t have an ethical obligation to recognize that millions of people are being treated poorly and living in poverty, in a capitalist system that benefits relatively few people (in context of the world’s population). We are in a senseless war right now. Numbers of casualties and injuries of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians and soldiers well exceeds 1 million. 

We are in the worst recession since the Great Depression, but the military budget keeps growing to fight this unjust war, as well as funding other military escapades. In 2008, the defense budget was 21 percent of the overall U.S. federal spending, according to the Congressional Budget office.

This is over $500 billion that could have been broken up to help our healthcare crisis, declining education system or a number of other social problems in the U.S. I think it is important to recognize that the problems of war and labor/human rights violations still impact us today, much as they affected people when nearly 150 years ago the anti-war and labor rights movements gave us the holidays May Day and Mother’s Day. 

Tracey Pollock is an alumna of UW-River Falls.