Activism starts at an early age

2009-05-01 00:00

On May 1, 1886, in the United States, hundreds of thousands of labourers abandoned their factory posts in order to demand shorter working hours. A standard working day had previously been at least 10 hours, but sometimes 12 or 14. But now workers were striking for an eight-hour day. The protests proceeded peacefully until May 4. A meeting of labour activists in Chicago’s Haymarket Square was drawing to a close when someone threw a bomb into the crowd, killing a police officer. The police responded by shooting back into the crowd, killing and injuring an unknown number of civilians and fellow police officers.

The following day, eight labour activists were arrested for the Haymarket tragedy — four were sentenced to death, one committed suicide and three received prison terms.

But the eight-hour working day was finally ushered in. It is to mark this victory, for the rights of workers, that most countries around the world celebrate May 1 as Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day. It was a day on which workers fought for and eventually won their rights to better working conditions. And so around the world, labourers commemorate this day with marches, celebrations and sometimes protests.

The three workers in my home have been figuring out how to commemorate today for some weeks now. Two-year-old Anna has been practising how to fling herself to the floor, shrieking in the face of any unreasonable work request. Her protests have been highly charged but thoroughly ineffective.

Four-year-old Joah has been campaigning for sick leave on account of his achy arm condition: “I can’t put my cars away because my arms are very tired.”

And six-year-old Lael is unsure that her working conditions are favourable: “Do you know that other children don’t do school on Saturdays?” And: “Wow Mom, my friend gets money when she does well at sport. That’s nice hey?”

This called for a motivational speech on the part of their employer: “Listen here, we all have to work hard at our jobs. If my job is to clean the house then I must work hard without complaining.

“If your job, Lael, is to learn to read then you must strengthen yourself and push yourself.

“If your job, Joah, is to tidy your room then you need to do it thoroughly and fast.

“And if your job, Annie, is to stop shrieking, which it is, then you must do it without complaining. We all need to learn to work hard and fast and well. It’s a good thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.”

Lael tried a different tack: “What is a public holiday?” she asked casually as we sat around the dinner table. The fine print to her question was: “Why do we carry right on doing school and homework when the rest of the nation is marching, ululating or at the very least braaing?

It’s hard to squash an activist.

• Sarah Groves is unemployed, but has many interests, including her family, her flute, classical education, writing and courteous arguments around good meals.

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