Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival 2012 - Red Beastie Drummers
During the first world war, protest was punishable by imprisonment and hard labour, May Day demonstrations were often flashpoints of anti-war struggle. It was at such a rally that Karl Liebnecht denounced the war before 10,000 striking workers at the Potsdamer Platz on 1st May 1916. In Britain, following the arrest of the Scottish socialist John MacLean for sedition in 1918, Glasgow workers embarked on a mass May Day strike and protest.
|Miners & supporters on the march in 1984|
May Day returned as a militant, if convivial, protest in the UK in 2000, due to the convergence of a broad coalition of activists under the rubric of anticapitalism. The Tories are planning to scrap May Day. It's worth remembering that on the international calendar workers without the blessing of governments, decided how to celebrate 'Our Day - May Day'.
If you do not know where you come from, then you don't know where you are, and if you don't know where you are, then you don't know where you're going. - learn from history!
In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places and inspired such books in America as Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and Jack London's The Iron Heel. As early as the 1860's, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn't until the late 1880's that organised labour was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. This proclamation was without consent of employers, yet demanded by many of the working class.
At this time, socialism was a new and attractive idea to working people, many of whom were drawn to its ideology of working class control over the production and distribution of all goods and services. Workers had seen first-hand that Capitalism benefited only their bosses, trading workers' lives for profit. Thousands of men, women and children were dying needlessly every year in the workplace, with life expectancy as low as their early twenties in some industries, and little hope but death of rising out of their destitution. Socialism offered another option.
Meanwhile the labour movement was brutally repressed by the Pinkerton security agents and the police. When the day arrived, 1st May 1886, around 300,000 workers in 13,000 firms started to strike. Chicago was the epicentre of the labour movement and names such as Louis Lingg, Johann Most, Albert Parsons and August Spies will forever be linked with May 1st. The strikes and the revolutionary atmosphere created by the various factions linked to the labour movement continued during May 2 and 3, but always in a climate of peace. However, everything would change the following day.
American Federation of Labour - now called AFL/CIO organised a mass protest / celebration on the 1st of May 1889 in line with the socialist Second International calling for an international day of protest to be held. In the UK a mass protest actually took place on a Sunday, and in London alone attracted 300,000 protesters to Hyde Park.
Over one hundred years have passed since the first May Day. In the earlier part of the 20th century, the British & US government have tried to curb the celebration and further wipe it from the public's memory .... In Britain the Conservatives under David Cameron are seeking to erase our May Day. Mayday for May Day: bank holiday may move to 'best of British' October slot.
Fascist Italy abolished May Day, expunging the radical working class traditions it embodied, but it also introduced a labour holiday on 21 April. Franco, who arguably waged the most vicious military struggle against the left in Spain, and who wiped out 200,000 in executions and concentration camps in the five years after his victory, simply outlawed May Day. It was not celebrated again until his downfall in 1975.
History has a lot to teach us about the roots of our radicalism. When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day; if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend; when we recall 8-year old victims of industrial accidents who marched in the streets protesting working conditions and child labor only to be beat down by the police and company thugs, we understand that our current condition cannot be taken for granted - people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for. The sacrifices of so many people can not be forgotten or we'll end up fighting for those same gains all over again.
This is why we celebrate May Day.
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