2 May 2008

May Day

May 1st is May Day. Only in England, the national holidays (commonly called 'bank' holidays - because the banks are closed)  fall only on a Monday. So Monday May 5th is the official May Day.

Here are a few facts on May Day.

But what exactly is May Day and how did it come about? I found this online.

Have you ever counted the hours you are at school?

Eight hours.

Have you ever counted the hours your parents or siblings spend at work?

Eight hours.

Have you ever asked yourself: Who set these hours?

The answer is: Samuel Duncan Parnell

The celebration of May Day has its origins in the eight-hour day movement. In those days, people worked for 10, 12, sometimes even 14 hours a day! Not out of their own will, of course, but rather because their bosses wanted them to.

Slowly, the workers' physical health started to suffer. They spent less and less time with their family and this affected their mental health too. But things changed soon, thanks to the arrival of a London carpenter, Samuel Parnell.

Parnell worked in London, where carpenters routinely worked 12-14 hours per day. Parnell strongly felt that it was unfair and unhealthy. Around the same time, a Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was being formed, and Parnell asked the union to support his idea of the working day. The union did not agree. Parnell, angry, did not join the union and set up his own business.

On 6 September 1839, Parnell, newly married, set off with his wife for New Zealand.

He came to New Zealand in 1840.

Parnell met and made friends with a shipping agent named George Hunter in the ship. This agent, George Hunter, asked Parnell to build him a store in New Zealand. Parnell agreed, on the condition that he would work only eight hours per day.

Hunter was plainly astonished by the request. But Parnell argued, now famously, that "we have twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all".

Hunter was indignant. "That's not how it is done in London!" he said.

"Ah, we're not in London now", replied Parnell, smugly.

Hunter, however, had to agree to Parnell's terms. There was a severe shortage of skilled workers in New Zealand, and he had no other choice.

Parnell began work on the store but did not complete the job, due to a quarrel with Hunter. But Parnell's eight-hour system became famous despite several attempts to stop it. Parnell greeted ships coming in, and told new migrants not to work more than eight hours a day. In a worker's meeting in October 1840, he passed the notion that people should work only between 8am and 5pm. The workers pledged "to maintain the eight-hour working day, and that anyone offending should be ducked into the harbour"!

Soon, the eight-hour day became a norm in New Zealand. Inspired by the events in New Zealand, their neighbour was not far behind. On 21 April 1856, building workers around Melbourne, Australia, stopped work and marched from the University of Melbourne to the Parliament House. Their protest was a success, making them the first organized workers in the world to achieve an eight-hour day with no loss of pay.

The movement soon spread to other countries. In USA, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886. To commemorate this event, May Day is universally celebrated on the 1st of May every year.