A Labor Day Reflection

The fruits of farm labor at a street market in India

When I and my family lived in the Philippines we celebrated Labor Day on May 1st instead of on September 1st. Filipinos called it Mayo Uno in the same way that we call our American Independence Day July 4th. The celebration has a more militant edge in the Philippines than it does here in the United States. Labor unions use it as an opportunity to organize events and to fill the streets with marches.

I later found out that most of the world celebrates Labor Day on May 1st and many just call it May Day. I thought there had to be a story behind that so I did a little historical research and discovered that we celebrate Labor Day when we do because of an incident that took place in Chicago in 1886 known as the Haymarket massacre. There was a huge labor strike in support of an 8 hour work day on May 1st when police killed several strikers at the McCormick Deering plant.

Strike organizers then held a protest rally on the evening of May 4th. The police moved in to forcibly break up the rally even though the pro-union mayor had given them a permit to gather. Then someone threw a bomb. Seven policemen and four others were killed in the ensuing chaos. It was a dark, rainy night and it appears that the police shot each other in the confusion. The next day martial law was declared–not just in Chicago, but throughout the whole country.

Seven labor activists were arrested for inciting the riot, convicted on trumped-up charges, and sentenced to death by hanging. The international labor movement then chose May 1 as Labor Day in memory of what had happened. President Grover Cleveland, however, decided to instead proclaim Labor Day in the United States on September 1 because he didn’t want it to be associated with the Haymarket massacre.

It’s fitting that our Christian lectionary reading on this Labor Day weekend is taken from the book of Exodus and the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God had heard the cries of the Hebrew slave laborers in Egypt and told Moses to send Pharaoh the message, “Let my people go.” The words of the old African-American slave song “Go Down Moses” are especially inspiring:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let My people go;
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My people go;
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: Let My people go.

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