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Date: Sun, 2 May 1999 17:37:13 -0700 (PDT)
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.org>
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Subject: [BRC-NEWS] May Day: 'The movement is worth more'
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The movement is worth more

By Jonathan Singer, Green Left Weekly,
2 May 1999

For more than 100 years, workers and socialists around the world have seen May Day -- May 1 -- as the international day of working-class demonstration and action. It symbolises the working class's fighting spirit and tradition of struggle. It has survived as an important date because of that spirit and struggle, a fact that should be remembered when considering the state of May Day in Australia today.

The first May Day was in 1886, when 350,000 US workers, under the leadership of the then militant American Federation of Labour (AFL), struck and demonstrated for an eight-hour workday. The movement was strongest in Chicago, where 80,000 people took part.

Chicago employers fought back with lockouts, police harassment and the employment of strike-breakers. On May 4, a peaceful protest meeting was called. As it came to a close, the cops ordered the meeting to disperse. A bomb was thrown at the police, probably by an agent provocateur, and police fired into the crowd, killing many.

Eight anarchist-influenced revolutionaries were found guilty and seven were sentenced to death, ostensibly for the bombing (although no evidence was produced to show their involvement), but in fact for their ideas. Four were hanged on November 11, 1887, one supposedly committed suicide in jail, and the other three were eventually pardoned by the state governor.

In December 1888, the AFL called another mass demonstration on May 1, 1890. The first congress of the Second International, which united workers' parties and trade unions in the countries where industry had started to develop, met in Paris in July 1889, and also called for simultaneous actions on May 1, 1890, to demand legislation for an eight-hour day and other measures.

The AFL abandoned its proposal as it became more conservative, but hundreds of thousands demonstrated across Europe, including 300,000 in London on the first Sunday after May 1. In the following years, May Day activities spread: in Russia, May Day was first marked by an illegal meeting in 1891; in Australia, early May Day actions were at Barcaldine and Ipswich in Queensland in 1891 and in Sydney and Melbourne in 1892.

Shorter working day

The movement for an eight-hour workday that inspired the May Day actions had begun in the US with demands in the labour press from as early as 1836. Though not unionised, Boston ship carpenters achieved it in 1842.

The first organised workers to win the eight-hour day without loss in pay were skilled workers in Victoria. The campaign, begun in 1855, culminated in mass stop-work meetings on April 21, 1856. The eight-hour day was won.

The new working day also became the standard for many unskilled workers, but others lost it during economic recessions. In 1891, only a third of workers in Victoria had benefited from it.

The eight-hour day movement became one of the bases of labour organisation. In Australia, many unions and union federations were born out of the movement.

In the US, the founding conference of the country's first genuine labour federation, the National Labour Union, in Baltimore in 1866, adopted a resolution for a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day.

The Geneva Congress of the First International in the same year adopted a proposal by Karl Marx for the same legal limit, with the further provision of strict designation of the legal hours of work.

Even today the eight-hour day has not been won fully. Full-time workers in Australia, for example, work an average of 44 hours a week over a five-day work week (compared with the six-day work week in Marx's time), i.e. 8-hours a day.

May Day did not =93celebrate=94 the gains of the eight-hour movement. It expressed the international unity of the working class and the basic antagonism between working people and the capitalist class through this common demand. The revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg said:

The first of May proclaims this slogan of the eight-hour day. But even after the attainment of this aim, the May Day celebration will not be abolished. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeois and against the government will last, as long as all demands are not fulfilled, the May Day holiday will be the annual expression of these demands.

Under reformist influence, the German Social Democrats, the dominant party of the Second International, in 1892 marked May Day with gatherings on the first Sunday after May 1 rather than with a strike on the day.

It remained the occasion for important demonstrations in other countries, especially in Russia, where it was used to advance the revolutionary working-class movement. Lenin wrote, in a preface to a pamphlet on the 1900 May Day in Kharkov, that May Day was a chance to learn what the revolutionary movement had achieved and attack its shortcomings, to present a demand of the whole proletariat ... not to individual employers, but to the state authorities as the representative of the entire present-day social and political system, to the capitalist class as a whole, and to pursue the eight-hour day as a demand of special significance ... a declaration of solidarity with the international socialist movement.

In the February revolution of 1917, Russian workers quickly won the eight-hour day -- before the German workers. The millions who then marched, now freely, on May Day, helped demonstrate the changing balance of class forces resulting from the revolution and precipitated the first crisis of the capitalist Provisional Government.

With the rise of the Communist movement, May Day was reintroduced to a number of countries, such as Australia, where it had not been marked by demonstrations after 1900.

Because the new movement's perspective did not confine socialist politics to the industrially advanced countries, May Day also spread to new parts of the world: for example, the first May Day marches in India were in 1927. Internationalism was again an important part of May Day.


Advances in the significance of May Day have been related to advances in the struggle of the workers. In countries where there have been revolutions, like Cuba, May Day serves as an important demonstration of workers' solidarity. May Day has also been an important day of mobilisation for emerging workers' movements, such as in South Korea and Indonesia.=20

In Australia, May Day in recent years has reflected the general stagnation and decline of the labour movement. Even where organised labour is more militant, a lack of political class consciousness has generally left the organisation of May Day in the hands of narrow organising groups. In Melbourne, for example, marchers have continued to be greeted by the smirking portraits of Stalin from the banner of a tiny Stalinist-Maoist group that dominates the march's organisation.

Last year's May Day demonstrations were larger than usual as people turned out to support the Maritime Union of Australia in its fight against the federal government and Patrick Stevedores. They showed that May Day can be a major action for the workers' movement, if it becomes an opportunity to show its strength around demands that show the way forward.

The relative success of Perth's May Day marches, held in Fremantle, stem from the unions and the local community seeing the march as an opportunity to mobilise for democratic and social rights, and international solidarity.

May Day cannot, of course, become a bright, shiny day for a movement whose lustre is dulled. The ACTU recently highlighted the socially destructive nature of long working hours, but workers have not been organised to campaign to against them.

May Day's history can remind us that active campaigns, which build workers' solidarity through mobilising their collective power to win economic, political and social demands, helped to build the labour movement, and could help to rebuild it.

The words of the NSW Labour Council 1924 Annual Report still ring true: The whole character and purpose of the demonstration should be changed. Dinners, sports, picnics -- these are not good enough. The movement is worth more than this. Let our May Day certainly be a day of rejoicing, but let it also be a day in which all active elements of the movement take stock of the work of the last year, of the prospects ahead, and the program required. Let it also be a day of demonstrations which express a growing class-consciousness of the working class and a declaration of war upon capitalist society ... a chance [for the movement] to unite for a real move forward on the basis of all the more pressing interests of the workers. Forward to new battle. Forward to world revolution.