Tuesday, April 30, 2013

May Day

Tomorrow, the first day of May, is often called May Day and it has been observed as a special day in widely diverse ways. In addition, Mayday is an international radio-telephone signal word used as a distress call.
In the Northern Hemisphere, May Day is an ancient spring festival and is observed as such in some countries. Although it was a long time ago, I remember hearing about giving “May baskets” and dancing around a “Maypole” on May Day. These practices have now largely fallen into disuse.
But in 1967, the first full year I lived in Japan, I learned about a different type of May Day. Especially back then, May Day was celebrated in Japan and in many other countries as International Workers’ Day. Mainly in that connection, May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries.
Actually, though, the observance of May 1 as Workers’ Day has a long history in this country. In October 1884, a convention held by the American Federation of Labor (under its previous name) unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard.
As the chosen date approached, labor unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday. On Saturday, May 1, 1886, rallies were held throughout the nation. Estimates of the number of striking workers across the U.S. range from 300,000 to half a million.
But the eight-hour day did not become a reality until 1938, when the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act made eight hours the legal day’s work throughout the nation. Extra pay (time and a half at least) had to be given to those who worked more than eight hours in a day.
Five years earlier, though, a remarkable woman began a movement mostly to help those who were living in poverty because of lack of work or because of low wages. That woman was Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Although she had lived a bohemian life for several years, in 1927 she became a Catholic and then increasingly sought to follow the teachings of Jesus. (I have written about her previously.)
On May 1, 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, The Catholic Worker newspaper made its debut with a first issue of twenty-five hundred copies. Dorothy Day and a few others hawked the paper in Union Square for a penny a copy (still the price) to passersby.” (This is the opening paragraph on the Catholic Worker website.)
The Catholic Worker Movement (CWM) is rooted in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person. So in addition to the newspaper, the CWM has sought through the years to provide meals and lodging for needy people.
Today 213 Catholic Worker communities across the nation remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.
I have before me the March-April issue of “The Catholic Worker,” which is only published seven times a year now. It contains a review of the new (2012) book “Saved by Beauty: A Spiritual Journey with Dorothy Day,” which I look forward to reading.
And just last week June and I enjoyed watching “Entertaining Angels,” the 1996 movie about the life and work of Day.
Please join me in giving thanks for the inspiring life of Dorothy Day and the widespread influence of “The Catholic Worker,” first published 80 years ago tomorrow, on May Day, 1933.


  1. May Day in the a.m. is one of the very few days -- maybe the only day -- that even the streetcars don't run in Europe. A friend of mine visiting me in Austria arrived at the Vienna train station on the morning of May 1 and went out to the streetcar stop. After waiting for quite some time, he asked someone why no streetcar was coming and found out it was May Day. So he took a cab, I think.

    I know a lot of Catholics who stay in the Catholic Church -- so they say -- because of its progressive social witness. Dorothy Day is something of a patron saint for many of them. However, I'm not convinced that that's truly the reason they stay, because there are plenty of churches as well as secular organizations with a progressive witness and without some of the more lamentable stands the Catholic Church also takes--stands that exacerbate social problems and stand in the way of inter-denominational and inter-religious relations. But, of course, if Catholicism is in your soul, and you're socially progressive, it's nice that the RC Church has this prophetic tradition.

    1. I had the pleasure to see the 8-8-8 monument in Melbourne last August, and was glad today to read some of the background for this achievement of the labor movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-hour_day#Australia

      With unemployment exceeding 12% in Europe and the growing imperative to consume (and produce) less for the sake of environmental sustainability, we may need a new movement for 4-8-12: 4 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 12 hours voluntary community service . . .

      Any ideas where this movement will come from? The 213 Catholic Worker communities may be our best hope. And if Eric Garbison, founder of the Cherith Brook community in Kansas City, is at all typical, there are many Protestants in their ranks.

    2. Anton, thanks for your comments. That was interesting to learn about May Day in Europe.

      And, as you know, there is a movement to make Dorothy Day a saint in the Catholic Church. She certainly was not the typical saint in what is usually considered "piety," but she certainly exemplified the love of Jesus in an outstanding way.

      You may or may not remember that I included Dorothy on my "top ten Christians" in my blog posting of 9/15/10.

    3. Thanks, Phil, for linking to the labor movement in Australia. That is amazing that the advocacy for an eight-hour work day goes back to 1855.

      I'm afraid that 4-8-12 may be pushing it, though!

      In the 80th anniversary issue of "The Catholic Worker" which I received Saturday, Chreith Brook House in KCMO is listed as one of the CW's "Houses of Hospitality." But as you mention, those who live and work there are mostly Protestants.

  2. Leroy,
    Thanks for your diligent research and informative writing. I do remember vividly those May Day events in North Korea under Communist regime in Pyongyang where i lived five years 1945-1950. May Day celebration was largest fanfare of the country. All people in North Korea were forced celebrate. All the schools and all workers in Pyongyang were forced to participate in the parades to the central rally and listen to May Day speeches. April 30, 1950 was Sunday and the day of final rehearsal in my high school, we were forced to come to school for the rehearsal, but I had to go to the church and had to pay a heavy price. Such was the harsh reality in a Communist nation.

    1. Thanks much, Ed, for sharing your personal experience of "celebrating" May Day in North Korea. That was most interesting to hear about.

  3. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson, whose frequent comments are much appreciated (by me and most likely by many others), sent the following email about the above posting:

    "I do give thanks, Leroy. And I thank you for calling attention to her, a true saint.

    "My daughter, Elizabeth, is just about to complete a book about her in a series devoted to notable theologians. Day was not a theologian, but she lived good theology."