What May Day Means

May 13, 2013 10:44 am

In America, the biggest beast of capitalism, they call May 1st ‘Labor Day’. In South Africa, it’s ‘Workers Day’. The Germans call it ‘Arbeiterstag’. While here in Britain it’s known, blandly, as ‘May Day Bank Holiday’. It wasn’t that long ago that an earlier Tory government – it could have been Margaret Thatcher’s or John Major’s – they were touting to switch the Bank Holiday from May 1st because of its ‘labour’ connotations and substitute October 21st as a national holiday instead – ‘Trafalgar Day’, deemed to be more ‘patriotic’ –  but there were no takers.

Small wonder the Tories, the traditional political party of the bosses’ class in Britain, wanted to eradicate from public memory as to why May 1st is historically linked to the labour movement. ‘May Day’ is the day of celebration of the international working class and the many benefits their struggles gained for ordinary working families, particularly since the late 19th century.

may dayOne of the primary aims of the labour movement, the organised trade unions, had been to improve the lives of workers who toiled to enrich the capitalist class. Capitalists made their wealth based on the low wages and long hours of their employees, men, women and, yes, children. So, at the heart of the struggle, was the campaign for the shorter working day. Often, it was only as a result of militant industrial action that the bosses were forced to make any concessions.

It was an indirect result of the mass campaigns of the Chartists (the first workers’ party) in the 1840s that forced the introduction of the 1847 Factory Act. One of the Chartists’ main demands had been the ‘Ten Hour Day’ and this was pushed through Parliament by Liberal and Tory politicians alike. It wasn’t out of the goodness of their hearts. They really feared revolution from below if there was no reform from above. The memory of the 1789 French Revolution was still very fresh in their minds and the Chartist movement had rattled them.

In France itself, in the Revolution of February, 1848, workers gained the 12 hour day concession. But these were only piecemeal reforms and, often, they were ignored. But even so, a 12 hour or even ten hour working day in the harsh conditions of industry in those days could hardly be deemed seriously as satisfactory.

‘Knights of Labor’

In America, in 1868, Congress passed an eight hour law but that was only enforced twice. One railway owner was fined a mere $25 for forcing his employees to work an 18 hour day! Thus, the movement for the establishment of the shorter working days was to gain massive support among workers. In 1872,  100,000 building workers in New York went on strike and won their eight hours.

The ‘Eight Hour Movement’ was up and running.

It gained a new lease of life when the newly-formed Federation of Labor Unions of the USA and Canada gave notice: ‘Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1st, 1886.’ They added: ‘Unless employers institute eight hour days, the union will stop work at those plants, across the country if necessary.’

One leading union organisation, the ‘Knights of Labor’, planned rallies and demonstrations to reinforce the ‘Eight Hour Law’ that the bosses viewed with disdain. Their slogan summed up their case: ‘Eight hours for work. Eight hours for sleep. Eight hours for what we will.’

The union movement in the US grew swiftly when their demands connected with ordinary people. The ‘Knights of Labor’ expanded seven times over to 700,000 members.

‘Hungry workers? Feed them lead’

The capitalist press expressed the fears of the ruling class: ‘Two hours taken off the working day, across the United States, would cause the loss of millions of dollars in the stock markets.’

By May 1st, 1886, half a million workers took part in demonstrations across the country. Thousands of workers began to see their working day reduced down to eight hours with no loss of pay.

But it was a situation the capitalist class would not tolerate. Donations for guns were being gathered. One group of businesses – the Commercial Club – ran up a bill of $2,000 to pay for a Gatling gun for the Illinois National Guard.

The capitalist-owned press helped turn up the temperature. The Chicago Mail identified workers’ leaders:  ‘Mark them well,’ one editorial raged. ‘Keep them in mind. Hold them responsible. Make them responsible if trouble occurs.’

The New York Times went further in calling for conspiracy charges to be made for those who dared strike. ‘Strike terror into the hearts of the working classes. Make examples to scare the mob into submission.’

Another New York paper simply said: ‘If workers are hungry, feed them lead.’

Labour DayThe already beefed up police force didn’t need much encouragement. On May 3, a large contingent of officers forced through 300 strikebreakers through a picket line at the International Harvesters plant in Chicago. The pickets resisted and the police opened fire, killing  a group of workers.

The next day, at Haymarket Square, a large protest meeting took place condemning the shootings. At the end of the rally, as workers drifted away, the police arrived in force to ‘restore order’ despite the fact it had been wholly peaceful. Even the mayor of Chicago, who had been present, stated: ‘Nothing had happened to warrant police intervention.’ He advised the police commander to stand his men down.

Suddenly, a bomb was thrown. It was never established if the culprit was an anarchist or a police ‘agent provocateur’. Seven police were killed and 66 wounded. The policemen opened fire and killed several workers and wounded up to 200. Hundreds of labour activists were hunted down and taken into custody. The union leaders were rounded up and put on trial. The State Attorney, Julius Grinnell, gave the lawmen carte blanche. ‘Make the raids first and look up the law later.’

Of the eight union leaders on trial, seven of them weren’t even present at the rally. The eighth union official that had been at the rally was a speaker on the platform, clearly not the bomber.

The bosses’ press had a field day. The Chicago Tribune screamed: ‘Hang an organiser from every lamp post.’

The trial’s jury consisted of relatives of the dead policemen such were the absurdities of the time. One commentator said: ‘I don’t consider these people to be guilty of any offence, but they must be hanged. The labour movement must be crushed.’

Under one flag

News of the sham trial made an impact across the Atlantic. Mass rallies were held in London and Paris, condemning the guilty verdicts. After the execution of four of the union leaders, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of Chicago at their funeral cortege.

On May 1st, 1889 400 delegates rallied in Paris on the centenary of the French Revolution with the Marxist International Socialist Congress and the Second International was founded. A great international demonstration was called for May 1st, 1890 for the eight hour day. On the day, the following year, May Day demonstrations took place in the US and most major European cities. Work came to a halt in 138 French cities and towns. 100,000 workers marched in Barcelona, 120,000 in Stockholm. Even across Latin American countries, workers were on the streets.

None other than Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s co-worker, wrote after attending a mass rally in Hyde Park: ‘The workers of America and Europe are reviewing their forces. They are mobilised as an army of labour, under one flag. They fight for one immediate aim: the eight hour working day.’

Ever since that time, despite attempts to ignore it, May Day is there to remind our ruling classes that, despite the historical ebbs and flows of the labour movement, workers’ trade unions are here to stay.

They are one of the last lines of defence against the slash and burn of austerity being handed down to us by the representatives of the failed capitalist system – and we won’t go away.


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