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Thursday, 1 May 2014

Today is International Labour Day, But How Was It born - What Does It Mean?

How was International Labour Day born? Most people living in the UK know little about the International Workers' Day of May Day, many celebrate the first Monday in May as a public Bank Holiday it was made a public holiday by the Labour government in 1978. For many there is an assumption that it is a holiday celebrated in communist countries like Cuba or the former Soviet Union.

Edinburgh Beltane Fire Festival 2012 - Red Beastie Drummers

International Labour Day has its roots in the Pagan fertility festival - Beltane (Bealtaine or Cetsamhain) a name given to the Festival of Light celebrated by British Celts, welcoming the death of Winter and the birth of Spring, celebrated at the beginning of May. It is a fertility festival, symbolising the union between male and female forces and it was celebrated by lighting a new fire, meaning new life. Cattle passed through the fire or the smoke and young couples jumped over the flames so as to be protected with the new life.

May Day has its roots in the Pagan fertility festival: but more-so is about the history of International Workers' day.

May Day's roots are in the fight for workers' rights and it has long been a focus for protest. As such, it is – in the words of Eric Hobsbawm – "the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar". And its past is more rowdy than is suggested by the imagery of Morris dancers serenely waving hankies and bells around.

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 protests played a significant role in the Portuguese revolution of 1974, as well as in the uprisings against apartheid in the 1980s. And even in less dramatic circumstances, it assumed greater importance during periods of turbulence, such as during the miners' strike.

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.

Rosa Luxemburg tells us in her article "What are the origins of 1st May?" written in 1894, that it was in Australia where the workers' cause was joined to the old Spring celebration on this day, more precisely in 1856, when the workers of this British colony began a campaign for an eight-hour working day, making a stoppage. This was total and the action was repeated the following year. The cause of the international workers had been launched.

In the USA the labour movement would choose this day to focus its demands. The embryonic workers' associations and unions organised themselves during the 19th century and began to fight against deplorable working conditions - a working day of between 8 and 10 hours and in many cases in conditions of extreme discomfort and/or danger. In some industries, the life expectancy did not reach 25 years of age!

The unions/associations formed the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions - FOTLU (November 1881), later the American Labour Federation, which at its National Convention in Chicago in 1884, proclaimed that after 1 May 1886, the working day should be 8 hours. FOTLU announced a series of actions and strikes to apply pressure on the authorities to force them to implement the new working regime.

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.

Due to the increasing brutality by the authorities against the peaceful labour movement, the workers decided to organise a public conference in Haymarket Square, Chicago, on May 4th. The main speaker, August Spies, addressed the crowd of workers and their families, including many children. Eye witnesses, which included the Mayor of Chicago, declared that his speech did not incite violence.

However, the police force decided to charge and attack the crowd; someone (and it is not clear whether it was a worker of an agent provocateur connected to the authorities), threw a bomb at the police and these responded by firing into the crowd.

Eight anarchist leaders were arrested and accused of instigating violence and the jury (chosen from among the corporate elitists) found them guilty in one of the most blatant travesties of justice in history. Four were hanged, one committed suicide in his cell the night before the hanging in November 1887. The other three were pardoned six years later.

The day was never adopted as a public holiday in the USA but the workers' movement and its claims echoed far and wide, reaching the four corners of the world, where May 1st started to become the focal point for demonstrations in favour of workers' rights. International Socialist proclaimed the date International Labour Day in 1889.

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.

In Europe, 400 delegates attended the International Workers' Conference in 1889, in which the main demand was the eight-hour day and 1st May 1890 was declared an international day of stoppage around the world. In 1890, May Day demonstrations were generalised and worldwide, from the USA and Canada, to Brazil, Cuba, Peru, Chile, and across Europe from Ireland to Russia, where later the USSR was to institutionalize the day as one of national holiday and celebration of the workers' cause around the world.

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.

Under the proposals, the holiday would be moved to St George's Day in April in England and St David's Day in March in Wales, or a Trafalgar Day in October.

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.
Lets end with the words of Rosa Luxemburg for their vision and eternal quality:
"And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past".

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