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Revolutionary greetings on the First of May! It is International Workers’ Day, for recalling of the struggles of working people down the centuries past and of resolution to carry the struggle forward until we succeed in building and defending a socialist society.
On that Mayday too we are aware that in some parts of the world, those wishing to mark the date in public will be subject to intimidation or worse: arrest, baton charge or being fired upon. Possibly even trial and death sentence.
HISTORY OF MAYDAY
The day dates from an incident in Chicago 1886, USA, when trade unions and socialist groups of various kinds organised a campaign in many cities of the USA to exchange the common 10-hour1 working day for the 8-hour day. May 1st was set for the start of the campaign
On May 3rd in Chicago, a city central to the campaign for an eight-hour working day, a demonstration as part of the campaign took place outside the McCormick Harvesting Machine company. The police opened fire on striking workers, killing one of them and injuring many.
The anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists organised a demonstration for May 4th to protest the killing of workers. When the police advanced on the peaceful crowd ordering dispersal, a bomb was thrown at them and police opened fire on the crowd, some of whom returned fire.
Some of the police are believed to have shot some of their colleagues by mistake.
Sixty police were injured and one killed; the police chief gave his opinion that more than that number of demonstrators were injured. The media was mostly hostile and many demonstrators wounded would have feared to attend hospital for fear of arrest or worse by police.
Subsequently, amidst a wave of police repression, including raids on union halls and people’s homes, eight Anarchists were framed, charged with conspiracy to murder and convicted. One of them was sentenced to 15 years in jail.
The sentences of Schwab and Fielden were commuted to life imprisonment. Linng took his own life in jail but August Spies, Albert R. Parsons, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were hanged by the Chicago State authorities.
In 1889 the (Second) International Workingmen’s Association, a federation of trade unions and socialist organisations, agreed that in memory of that struggle and its martyrs, the First of May should be marked by all socialists around the world as International Workers’ Day.2
The site of the incident was designated a Chicago landmark in 1992 and a sculpture made in 1893 was dedicated there in 2004. In addition, the Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997 at the defendants’ burial site in Forest Park.
THE FIRST OF MAY BEFORE THAT
In European agricultural society the First of May was celebrated firstly as a pagan festival and later as an allegedly secular one or named for a Christian saint. It celebrated the coming of summer, of growing of crops and of livestock.
Industrial workers originated in agricultural societies or, in the case of early miners, were located near to such. It was natural that they should participate in such festivals and also even generations later create their own around a similar calendar.
European settlers in the USA, many of them from agricultural societies3, brought those traditions with them. That was probably one of the reasons for the date of the Chicago demonstration, although certainly there had been others on other dates.
MAYDAY IN IRELAND
My father took me as a child on my first Mayday march in Dublin. He was an active member of the NUJ and some members of his union and of others participated in a small march through the city centre led by a brass band.
Returning to Ireland in 2003 after decades working in England and marching there on May 1st, I was disappointed by the very small size of Mayday demonstrations in Dublin, though I participated in some and on at least one occasion as part of a Basque contingent.
The oppositional movement to the status quo in Ireland, because of our history of anti-colonial struggle, is dominated by Irish Republicanism. And though all of that movement’s parts would claim to be socialist too, the First of May is not of great importance in their annual calendar.
This is unfortunate because the mass of Irish workers who are not members of the Republican movement need leadership for their class and also, as it happens, most Irish Republicans are workers. And practically all immigrants are workers too.
While fighting for an independent Ireland, do we as workers want to exchange one group of exploiters for another? And is a struggle for an independent Ireland even remotely winnable without enlisting the working class fighting as a class in its own class interests?
James Connolly thought not and our history since his day has certainly attested to the correctness of his view.
On 1st of May for years I took the day off work – unpaid, of course and went into the centre of London, the city in which I was living and working. My destination was usually Hyde Park Corner and if I was then in an organisation I met up others and if not, just joined in as an individual.
Thousands of people met there to rally and perhaps to march and I was aware that around the world not just thousands, or hundreds of thousands but millions were marking that day also. As a day to recall struggles in their own particular countries and in solidarity with others around the world.
Generally the various organisations and tendencies marched with those of their own affiliation but in the same demonstration, with the exception of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which on at least one occasion marched in as everyone was leaving.
The WRP was an extremely internally dictatorial and externally politically sectarian trotskyist organisation that at one time up to the mid 1980s was probably the largest socialist organisation,4 certainly outside the ranks of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The latter organisation, with the support of some other socialists, many of them left social-democrats, began to push for Mayday to become a national holiday, an objective they achieved in 19785 (followed by the Irish State 15 years later)6.
So now I could go to the demonstrations and not lose pay. Great, right?
No, not really. For a start, the holiday was no longer on May 1st but instead on the nearest Monday to the date. More importantly, people tended to treat it as a holiday rather than a day of international workers’ solidarity. Of course people are entitled to holidays but the essence of the day was gone.
And rather than being larger, the demonstrations grew smaller.
A DAY TO RECALL AND AVOW WORKERS’ STRUGGLE
This is not a day for class collaborationists, politicians or union leaders who try to undermine the struggles, water down demands and act as the ruling class’ police on union activists. It is a date for those at minimum in support of militant resistance.
The essence of the day is what we need to keep. A day upholding our struggle, that of the working class against its exploiters, native and foreign. A day remembering our long history of struggle, of victories and defeats, of sacrifices and why the colour of the workers’ flag is red.
It is a day to remember our internationalist duty of solidarity, not as charity or altruism but as partners in struggle across the world, as on a picket line or demonstration we would shield the person beside us and strike out at the company goon, fascist or policeman attacking us.
And rightfully expect the same from those next to us as we ourselves are the subject of assault.
1That was for a six-day week and 14-hour days were not unknown and in rural areas, even a seven-day week.
2Five years later, U.S. Pres. Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labor Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official U.S. holiday in honour of workers. Canada followed suit not long afterward.
3That would certainly have included most Irish, Italians, Sicilians and East Europeans in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
4The WRP was the result of a split in socialist organisations and by the mid-1980s was disintegrating in many smaller organisations. It exists still in name but as shade or sliver of its earlier form.
5May Day became an official public holiday all across the UK in 1978 with provisions for it being made in the Banking and Financial Dealings Act. Prior to that time it had been a holiday only in Scotland. The May Day Bank Holiday was instituted by Michael Foot, then the Labour Employment Secretary to coincide with International Labour Day.
6In the Irish State, the first Monday of May became a public holiday following the Public Holiday Regulations 1993 Act. The holiday was first observed in 1994.
One of the songs of the time for an 8-hour day, recorded by Pete Seeger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KVWigCuq83w