Labor Day will never be the same in my mind.
Having celebrated my share of three-day weekends as an expected September vacation, it was refreshing – and educational – to understand for the first time what the day is all about. In Ecuador, and throughout most of the world the recognition of workers falls on May 1. Only Canada and the United States celebrate Labor Day the first Monday in September.
Known as the International Day of the Worker, or May Day, millions of workers marched in parades worldwide. In some places, violence marred the message. But most countries, including Ecuador, celebrated the day in peace, amid passionate pleas for better working conditions, solidarity and equality in the workforce.
Interestingly, this worldwide recognition is rooted in U.S. history. Some accounts report that American union leaders were calling for a recognized “Labor Day” as early as 1882. In 1886, Chicago workers began a general strike on May 1, primarily calling for an eight-hour workday. Working conditions were deplorable at the time, with workers putting in as many as 16 hours of work a day for little pay. Three days into the strike, a bomb was thrown into the crowd and the police responded with gunfire. In the ensuing bedlam, at least eight officers and protesters were killed. Hundreds of individuals were injured. A police round-up netted hundreds of labor leaders and sympathizers, with four being executed by hanging. The bomber who instigated the riot was never identified. Known as the Haymarket Affair, the event was commemorated by leaders of The International Socialist Conference who, meeting in Paris in 1889, chose May 1 as the official Labor Day.
While that meeting kicked off the worldwide recognition of Labor Day, many states in the U.S. had already begun celebrations of their own. Oregon became the first state in the U.S. to recognize Labor Day as an official public holiday in 1887. Then U.S. President Grover Cleveland declared it an official national holiday in 1896, though many states had followed Oregon’s lead and scheduled festivities such as ticker-tape parades and carnivals.
In Cuenca, several thousand workers participated in parades in the historic city center. I was impressed with the variety of workers represented – construction workers, city employees, teachers, transportation providers, electrical workers and more. Each group was designated by their hardhats, caps or brightly colored shirts. Most carried signs or banners lambasting the country’s social security system and pointing to needed changes in Ecuador’s labor laws. After marching several blocks into Cuenca’s main square, Parque Calderon, the groups disbursed to listen to rousing speeches from a platform on the edge of the park.
As the leader of the teachers unions spoke, my thoughts were carried back into the United States where teachers are demanding the same rights. In states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, teachers are demanding higher pay, which has not kept up with inflation or comparable professional jobs. Just as important, teachers and unions are demanding a greater investment in the country’s education in general. It is appalling to see classrooms that are woefully under-equipped to prepare our students for competition in a worldwide economy. I am a bit passionate about that. In Ecuador, teacher unions are fighting for those key points as well as to protect and increase pensions for retired teachers.
While emotions ran high during the impassioned speeches to the crowd, there were no disturbances. To ensure a peaceful day, Ecuadorian authorities were out in full force on foot, on bicycles, in cars and on horseback.
By mid-day, most of the crowds had dissolved, undoubtedly returning to their homes to enjoy the rest of the enforced day of rest.
Except for the “blue people,” as they are known around town. They are the legions of men and women dressed from head to toe in turquoise blue. They work day – and night – to sweep away the day’s debris and to ensure that early morning brings washed sidewalks in a town where dogs run wild, the constant attention paid to sidewalks is much appreciated.
I stopped to talk to one of the “blue people” in the park. While it was a mandated holiday announced by Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno, the blue people were still hard at work.
I could see she was smiling by looking at the sparkle in her eyes. I could not see the rest of her face, covered by a bandanna to prevent inhaling dust and fumes.
“Yes, it is a holiday,” she acknowledged. “But if I don’t clean the park today, who will?”
Then she pointed to a young boy playing nearby. “And because the schools are closed, I am fortunate to have my son with me today. It is a good day.”
As I walked away to enjoy my own holiday plans, I looked back. She waved, and continued sweeping.
It was a good day.