On Friday we celebrated Freedom Day and on Tuesday we mark Workers Day, or otherwise known as May Day. There is something significant about these two days being so close together. The first reminds us that even the most oppressive systems can be overcome. The second reminds us that freedom without work and the means to provide for one’s family and future is no freedom at all. Both remind us that our lives today are a precious result of what others have done before — leaving us in debt to those who come after us.

Take for example the eight-hour working day that many of us take for granted, but this was hard won. First a 12-hour working day had to be demanded — then a 10-hour day. Utopian socialist, Robert Owen of England, had raised the demand for a 10-hour day as early as 1810. French workers demand for a 12-hour day was granted after the February revolution of 1848.

In the United States, where May Day was born, Philadelphia carpenters campaigned for a 10-hour day in 1791. By the 1830s, this had become a general demand. In 1835, workers in Philadelphia organised a general strike, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” From 1830 to 1860, the average work day had dropped from 12 hours to 11 hours.

Already in this period, the demand for an eight-hour day was being raised. In 1836, after succeeding in attaining the 10-hour day in Philadelphia, the National Laborer declared: “We have no desire to perpetuate the 10-hour system, for we believe that eight hours daily labor is more than enough for any man to perform.”

At the 1863 convention of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union, the eight-hour day was declared a top priority. The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organised mainly by the International Working Peoples Association.

Business and the state reacted by increasing its support for the police and the militia. Local business in Chicago purchased a $2 000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to use against strikers. On 3 May 1886 police fired into a crowd of striking workers, killing four and wounding many.

We think of Andries Tatane who was killed by the Police on 13 April 2011 during a service delivery protest in Ficksburg. There is much WORK for FREEDOM left to do.


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