Thursday, May 1, 2008

A one, two punch – May 1st and 2nd


May 1st is Labor Day in Spain and much of the world. May 2nd is the anniversary of the beginning of what Spaniards call the "Guerra de la Independencia española." (This translates as the "Spanish War of Independence" but in the English speaking world it is more commonly referred to as the Peninsular War.) While not an official national holiday, it is in certain communities (most significantly the Community of Madrid) and is an unofficial holiday everywhere else. While some people view these dates as simply another chance for a “puente(literally, “bridge”; figuratively, “long weekend”), others take one or both of these days very seriously.
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First things first : May 1st is a bank holiday in Spain known as el Día del Trabador/a, or Workers Day. Here it is usually translated into English as Labour Day. (This is Europe, so British spelling is more commonly used.) Globally it is also known as International Workers' Day.
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Several times during my time in Spain I have used the history of this holiday, and the fact that "Labor Day" is not celebrated on the same date in the USA, as a basis for English lessons. (Lessons based on historical events provide opportunities for past tense usage, vocabulary building and conversation skills practice.) Students are usually surprised to learn that one of their country's holidays actually has its roots in events that took place in Chicago, Illinois -- and that this connection is not well known in the USA either. Below is a brief history:
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In 1886 the American Federation of Labor (AFL) called for a strike on May 1st to demand a limit to hours employees had to work each day. The proposal was for an 8 hour workday. So, on that date hundreds of thousands of workers across the USA walked off their jobs. In Chicago, perhaps as many as 80,000 workers struck that day. The strike continued and grew over the next few days and eventually unrest broke out.
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On May 3rd Chicago police killed 4 strikers outside a factory. During a rally in Haymarket Square on May 4th to protest the killings, someone threw a homemade bomb at the police, who then fired into the crowd. One policeman and seven civilians were killed. Although the bomber was never identified, the authorities arrested several of the city's labor leaders. Seven individuals were tried and found guilty, four of these were executed and a fifth killed himself in jail while awaiting execution. The trial was widely viewed as rigged and six years later the Governor of Illinois pardoned the two who were still in prison and declared that those who had been executed had not been guilty. Today this series of events is known by various names: the Haymarket Affair, the Haymarket Riot, and the Haymarket Tragedy.
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At the request of the AFL in 1889, the world labor movement's congress, which was being held in Paris that year, adopted May Day as an international day of action to call for the 8 hour workday as a norm and to commemorate the events in Chicago. May 1st has been known as International Workers Day / Labor Day ever since.
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Under Franco this holiday was not observed. Indeed, it wasn't until 1978, 3 years after Franco's death, that Labor Day gatherings were legalized. Despite this, events did take place in '76 and '77.
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These days the holiday is marked by rallies around the country, most of which are organized by two of the major Spanish labor unions, The CCOO (Comisiones Obreras = Workers' Commissions) and UGT (Unión General de Trabajadores = Workers' General Union). This year some 60 events are planned nationwide. Of course, the biggest rallies are usually in Madrid and Barcelona. The slogan the unions have selected for this year's celebration is, "This is the moment for equality, a decent salary and productive investment." (“Es el momento de la igualdad, el salario digno y la inversión productiva.”) The unions hope that year parliament will raise the minimum monthly salary from 600 euros to 800 a month -- to take effect in 2012!
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Let me explain here that Spain has a minimum monthly salary for full time workers, rather than a minimum hourly wage. (I believe this is the same in other EU countries that have a legal minimum. Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy and Sweden do not set legal minimums.) For part time workers I suppose that amount is divided into fractions based on a 40 hour work week. Over the years I've asked may Spaniards about this, but no one I've ever asked has known.
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As a comparison, it's interesting to note that Spain's neighbors have wildly differing minimum monthly salaries: according to the Federation of European Employers, France's is currently 1,309 euros a month, while Portugal's is 426. Of course, in all three of these countries most residents earn more than the minimum.
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While lots of people will attend rallies today, many will be traveling, going to the beach, hiking in the mountains, eating out and such. Of course, in these uncertain economic times we live in, there may be many this year who will simply stay home.
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I'll write more about May 2nd, the unofficial holiday, in my next post.
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Chao amig@s,
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Carloz

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