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Why International Workers’ Day? And why labour relations still matter!

By: Dr. Jason Foster, Associate Professor, Human Resource and Labour Relations

Everyone in North America knows Labour Day, but what about International Workers’ Day?

The first Monday in September marks the official end of summer and a national holiday nominally celebrating the contributions of working people. International Workers’ Day, more commonly known as May Day, lands on May 1 and is much less known in this part of the world. In Europe, Asia, and South America it is widely celebrated as the day to celebrate the working class.

Similar stories

As it turns out, both were born in North America with similar birth stories. The late 1880s were a tumultuous time. A nascent labour movement was pushing for better working conditions, including the eight-hour workday (something we take for granted today), and employers and the government were having none of it. Protests and strikes, often violent, marked the period. Working people demanded their rights be recognized, including a day off (a rare thing then) to celebrate workers.

In response to growing worker militancy both U.S. and Canadian governments proclaimed Labour Day as a national holiday in 1894. The first May Day was proclaimed in 1890 by the international labour movement and celebrated internationally to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre, a Chicago protest for the eight-hour day turned bloody by police reaction and a bomb explosion, and to revitalize the movement for workers’ rights.

The two days have diverged in the past century: one has become a prime long weekend for one last trip to the cabin; the other a day for the labour movement to celebrate workers and worker rights. They share a similar history and both have something to teach us about work.

Not just something in the past

Unions and the fight for workers’ rights may seem like an historical artifact. Except the back and forth between workers and employers about wages, working conditions, and the place of workers in society continues today. Think about the recent graduate who juggles three part-time retail jobs to pay the bills. The single mother saving every penny she can from her minimum wage job to put something aside for her kid’s education. Or the couple in the suburbs worried about whether one of them will lose their job in the economic downturn and they won’t be able to pay the mortgage.

The specifics of workers’ stories change but the dynamics of the employment relationship are constant. Workers and employers have different interests and each will act to advance those interests. The study of labour relations seeks to understand the employment relationship. How do employers and workers engage each other? Why do they have differing interests? How is work changing in the 21st century?

Study human resources and labour relations today!

If these questions interest you then Athabasca University’s Human Resources and Labour Relations Program or Bachelor of Arts in Labour Studies might be for you. Both examine the nature of work in the modern world and help you understand how the employment relationship affects each of us.

In the meantime, happy May Day.

  • April 30, 2020
Guest Blog from:
Dr. Jason Foster, Associate Professor, Human Resource and Labour Relations