Put in a historic perspective, May the 1st or the Labour Day today has acquired a different significance from the one that it had in the past. The day of all workers, or those who use their hands and/or brains to produce things to the majority of the Romanian youth stands for a good opportunity for a breakaway to go on a picnic or on trips in the mountains or at the seaside. Another option is a form of leisure that is specific for Romanians – a barbecue with highly seasoned forcemeat small sausages broiled on the gridiron or with pork chops.
In Romania, the relaxed atmosphere is in strong contrast with the manner of celebrating the event by the communist realities prior to 1989. Until the early 1980s, when the domestic political situation was acceptable, May the 1st was a parade before the tribunes where the officials would be sitting – either in Bucharest (attended by the communist ‘nobility’) or in the provincial towns where workers were chanting slogans in the presence of the local authorities.
After the marches, however, the people used to stroll down the street amidst kiosks selling soft drinks, beer and sometimes the forcemeat sausages described above or other foodstuffs. The celebrating atmosphere of a special spring day could be somehow sensed.
Beginning with the 1980s, when the population was told it would need to poke another hole in their belts in order to be able to pay up the entire foreign debt as Nicolae Ceausescu had decided, after losing (or waiving as claimed by the communist regime) the most favoured nation’s clause granted by the USA, the International Workers’ Day started being celebrated by… labour. Parades were phased out and preserved only for the National Day on August 23. Since there were no more food products, beer or juices on the shelves of most groceries, the ‘festive’ kiosks had nothing to offer either. On the other hand, it was a day with no queues before any store, as they were all closed.
After 1990, Romanians adopted a much more relaxed way of celebrating the holiday. No parades, no constraints and no working celebrations’ either. Twenty years after the Romanian Revolution, nothing reminds of the lifestyle of that time or of the forced holidays. On the contrary, the workers’ day that it once was has grown into a celebration of spring, and opportunity – as I was saying before – to go out with one’s family or friends for a stroll, on trips or simply for a picnic.
Parties on the current Romanian political stage have either reserved or populist attitudes on May 1. The National Liberal Party (PNL), a right-wing party, did not participate in any Labour Day events last year. On the other hand, the other parties more or less standing on the left side of the political stage, appear willing to make the most of any opportunity to turn it into electoral gain.
As expected, the spearhead is the Social-Democrat Party (PSD) that sees in the festivity a good time to parade its leftist legacy. PSD is expected to organise ‘pastoral’ celebrations with sausages and beer in the now well-established style of Bucharest District 5 Mayor Marian Venghelie. Party leader Mircea Geoana and other officials are already readying for the event. While not being affiliated with the classic Left, other parties such as PDL, PRM or PNG often become engaged to public festivities that have ceased having anything to do with the ‘labour’ spirit and have beginning to sound populist and electoral.
What was left of the original spirit of the labour movement that achieved rights such as the eight hour working day?
The reduction of the duration of the working day stands at the origin of the meaning of May the 1st as the International Workers’ Day. In 1872, about 100,000 New York workers most of them operating in constructions, protested demanding the reduction of the daily working hours to eight. On May the 1st 1886, hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets in the US. Ninety thousand people of whom approximately 40,000 were on strike marched in Chicago in what is regarded as the first modern May Day parade in support of the eight-hour work day. The result: about 35,000 workers gained the right to work only eight ours per day with no reduction in pay.
But May the 1st became between internationally known following violent incidents in the Heymarket Square of Chicago three days later. The number of strikers had risen to over 65,000. During a demonstration a group of workers moved down the street to join the protest of the workers at the McCormick wood-processing plant. The police arrived, opened fire, killed four people and wounded many more. A subsequent rally was held at the Heymarket Square in the evening of the same day – May the 4th – when a bomb was thrown towards the police headquarters. Sixty-six policemen were injured and seven of them eventually died. The police fired back and wounded 200 people some of whom also died. Eight prominent anarchist leaders affiliated with a labour movement upholding militant and violent tactics were arrested and tried. Workers in England, the Netherlands, Russia, Italy, France and Spain raised funds to pay for their legal counsel. They were all convicted. Five of them were executed by hanging and three were sentenced to life imprisonment. Seven years later, a new inquiry found the eight innocent of the crime for which they had been tried. Many years later, new evidence was to demonstrate that the bomb explosion had been a diversion organised by a policeman.
In 1889, the Congress of the Socialist International set May the 1st as the International Labour Day in memory of the victims of the general strike in Chicago. The date was endorsed for international workers’ demonstrations.
Over time, May the 1st became the Labour Day in a majority of countries around the world. The irony of the situation is that, although the meaning of the May 1 celebrations are sourced in the United States, Americans actually celebrate their Labor Day on the first Monday of September , the American federation of Labour having discarded May 1 at the end of the 19th century. In Romania, May 1 was first celebrated by the Socialist movement in 1890.
We therefore realise that, in 2009, in Romania, very few of the worker’s initial motivations are left. Tradition may be the only thing that has endured the passage of time. Lacking immediate challenges, having no demands that would generally apply to all those work earn their living day by day, the contemporary society thinks of May 1 as of short holidays. A day to relax in the middle of nature and a day to go on trips. But we should still remember every now and then that many had to expose themselves in street protests fighting for labour rights so that we can enjoy this holiday in the 21st century.