Fred LaSor: Parades of spring: International Workers’ Day

We in the United States celebrate Labor Day on the first weekend of September, long considered the official end of summer vacation.

But in much of the world, Labor Day is frequently celebrated on the first of May and has deep roots in the International Workers’ Movement, or the Communist Party. The more “revolutionary” a government is, the more likely they’re to celebrate International Workers’ Day with a parade of workers and farmers. That merges nicely with Europeans’ traditional celebration of May Day, already a holiday.

As an American diplomat working in several Marxist-Leninist countries, I had the dubious honor of being invited to a number of May Day parades. Now, as May arrives, it feels to me as if parade season is fully upon the world, and I remember with mixed emotions some I’ve attended.

The international labor movement, headquartered at the end of the 19th century in France, actually chose May 1 in commemoration of the Haymarket Affair, a Chicago demonstration that resulted in the death of several workers and police and took place about 130 years ago during the struggle for worker solidarity and an eight-hour work day. (I suspect the eight-hour work day was more of an attraction than workers’ solidarity). May 1 was eventually adopted by the Socialist International as their day.

Most of my diplomatic experience predated the fall of the Soviet Union, when it was possible to measure a country’s closeness to Soviet or Chinese Communism by the size of their parade on May Day. There were large parades in Pyongyang and Havana, for example, and smaller ones in Romania and Ghana. African countries that held May Day parades when I was stationed there included Tanzania and Dahomey, both of which counted themselves among the “purest” of Marxist-Leninist governments in the 1970s.

The resident diplomatic corps was usually invited to join the president and his cabinet in the reviewing stand. The specific location of our seats was determined by the seniority of our ambassador on the diplomatic list, based on the length of time he or she had been accredited. Since American ambassadors were customarily reassigned every two years, we were usually near the bottom of the list. An ambassador from the Vatican or some small African country might not be replaced for 10 years or more, so they were frequently at the top of the list.

Some embassies considered their place on the diplomatic list a badge of honor, as the most senior ambassador became the “dean” of the diplomatic corps. For us, being near the bottom of the list wasn’t a hardship: we could frequently escape the departure crush from parades more quickly than the rest of the diplomatic corps. And after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was gunned down by his own troops during a military parade in 1981, I remained conscious of the value of distance from the president on the reviewing stand. It could well be a good thing to be some distance away from ground zero!

Fred LaSor retired from the Foreign Service in 1997 and lives now in Minden.


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