Another National Labour Day has come to an end. All the paint jobs and clean up work done among the 400 nationally registered National Labour Day projects, including the clean-up of National Heroes Park in Kingston and St. Andrew, around the country are possibly complete and the labourers can feel good that they have done something to contribute to the Honourable Prime Minister’s call to action on this 51st National Labour Day: to: “Step Forward … Make Jamaica Beautiful.”
So how many of us National Labour Dayers are aware of the historical significance of Labour Day, especially in the context of Jamaica’s Golden Jubilee? The Honourable Prime Minister spoke to aspects of the history behind May 23 in her National Labour Day message:
It is no accident of history that we mark Labour Day on the 23rd of May each year. That was the day, in 1832, on which Right Excellent Samuel Sharpe, grand conceptualizer and leader of the final emancipation battle in Jamaica, was hanged at the age of 31. He was executed for daring to contemplate a better day for enslaved labourers who had insisted that liberty was a natural right.
The Honourable Prime Minister’s National Day message continues as follows:
On the 23rd of May 1938, as on the same day in 1838, political Independence was just a dream, a light shining in the eyes of our visionaries; but a light envisioned!
Those of us who have the privilege of living today in Independent Jamaica, can look back at the way in which the weeks of militant action in May 1938 changed the course of history.
The following is the front page of the Daily Gleaner of May 25, 1938, focusing on the labour riots that began on Monday, May 23, 1938:
So when did Jamaica start celebrating National Labour Day?
As I mentioned above, National Labour Day 2012 is actually the 51st such day in our history. The first National Labour Day was celebrated on Tuesday, May 23, 1961, which was “celebrated … by three of the island’s politico-trade union organisations by marches in the city and celebrating in Clarendon” (The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, May 24, 1961, p. 1). May 23 is the actual anniversary of the start of the modern labour movement in Jamaica: Alexander Bustamante founded the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU) on May 23, 1938. So Labour Day was initially a day to celebrate the birth of the trade union movement in Jamaica.
Previously the country celebrated Empire Day or Commonwealth Day on May 24; but, in 1960 “the Government proposed to change Commonwealth Day to Labour Day” (The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, May 24, 1961, p. 1) due to the upcoming political independence in 1962. However, “before the bill to do this was passed, the Legislature accepted a suggestion … and changed the holiday from May 24 to May 23, the actual anniversary date” of the start of the modern labour movement (The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, May 24, 1961, p. 1).
National Labour Day Activities, 1961 – 1971 and Onwards
It is now customary for National Labour Day activities to focus on citizens volunteering their time and labour towards projects and initiatives that benefit the country. However, this wasn’t always the case. Between 1961 and 1971, the first 10 years of celebrating Labour Day, the national events focused on marches by trade unions that ended “with speeches given by the political leaders of the parties to which the trade unions were affiliated” (Burke 2011).
This changed in 1972.
In 1972, Prime Minister Michael Manley introduced a new concept to National Labour Day: “Let’s Put Work into Labour Day” (Sunday Gleaner, May 21, 1972, pg. 23). All citizens were encouraged to give some form of voluntary labour on that day for the benefit of the country.
Since that day on Tuesday, May 23, Jamaicans have been putting work into Labour Day, lending a hand to many civic projects for the benefit of communities, schools and the nation on a whole.
So what did you do on Labour Day this year? Do you have any pictures of your Labour Day activities to share with Jamaican Echoes’ readers?
Until next time…
Burke, Michael (2011) Worker’s Golden Anniversary Month. Jamaica Observer, Thursday, May 5, 2011.
JIS (2011) PM Simpson Miller Labour Day Message
National Library of Jamaica. The Hon. Samuel (Sam) Sharpe – National hero. Print
Sunday Gleaner, May 21, 1972, pg. 23
The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, May 25, 1938, pg. 1
The Daily Gleaner, Wednesday, May 24, 1961, p. 1