While the pandemic has prevented us from marching for May Day, the virus has thrown a spotlight on the importance of workers to the world we live in. Gavin Campbell looks at the history of International Workers’ Day and argues it is more relevant than ever before.
Ever since May 1st was established in 1889 as an international day of demonstration, ‘May Day’ has long been a vocal point for workers’ demands. While the radical nature of May Day has ebbed and flowed throughout its history, resistance from the establishment to the international workers day has been consistent. This year, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a tremendous spotlight on the role workers play in society. It is very clear today that without workers not a single wheel could turn. Under lockdown conditions May 1st can’t be marked as it traditionally is with mass protests, marches and rallies – but it continues to be a central date on the socialist, trade union and workers movement calendar.
Birth of May Day
The worldwide call by the socialist movement in 1889 to establish May Day was inspired by the tens of thousands of striking workers on the streets of cities across the US demanding the eight-hour day on May 1st 1886. The centre of this struggle in the US was Chicago, where workers laboured in crammed sweatshops regularly putting in 14 hour days.
Two days after the massive May 1st actions in 1886 the Chicago police killed four workers at protest. A demonstration was organised for the following day, May 4th, in Haymarket Square. The rally was peaceful but as it was nearing closure police waded into the crowd. A bomb was thrown into the ranks of police and this became the excuse for a deadly rampage by the authorities.
Eight anarchists, August Spies, Albert Parsons, Samuel Fielden, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Michael Schwab, Louis Lingg and Oscar Neebe, were arrested and charged with conspiring to commit the bombing. However, most of the charged men were not at Haymarket when the explosion occurred.
Chicago’s political establishment and big employers were terrified of the mass movement involving immigrant and native-born workers. Fearing its militancy and demands, elites determined the workers’ movement had to be stopped at all costs. They decided to make the radical leaders in Chicago an example to workers around the country. The trial was about the politics of capitalism versus socialism and not about whether there was proof those charged had played any role in the police bombing.
All eight defendants were convicted, with death sentences on all except Neebe, who was given 15 years in prison. Fielden’s and Schwab’s had their sentences commuted to life in prison. Lingg exploded a stick of dynamite inside his mouth the day before he was supposed to hang. Despite an inspiring international campaign opposing their execution, Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel were ultimately hanged on November 11, 1887. Hundreds of thousands attended their funerals in Chicago and they became known internationally as the Haymarket martyrs.
August Spies words at his trial remain an inspiration today:
“If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement–the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery–the wage slaves–expect salvation–if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”
May Day Spreads
Workers marked international workers day across the world for the first time in 1890. In Germany hundreds of thousands stopped work and demonstrated. In Italy there were mass strikes and marches. The scale of the protests in 1890 meant that most European governments were forced to declare May Day an official holiday. Since then May Day has been a rallying point for workers across the globe.
In 1916 in Germany May Day was the focus for all those who opposed the First World War. When the socialist Karl Liebknecht was arrested for his speech, “Down with the government! Down with the war!” 50,000 metal workers struck for his release.
Despite government repression, May Day demonstrations and strikes continued during the First World War. Following the arrest of the Scottish socialist leader John Maclean on 15 April 1918 on the charge of sedition, the Glasgow May Day Committee called a one-day strike for peace on 1 May 1919.
In the 1930s when the labour movement was moving in a radical direction there were attempts to ban May Day demonstrations, or to break them up by force – in 1941 and 1942 the Australian government banned May Day celebrations entirely.
During the Second World War, socialists in the Warsaw Ghetto – where the Nazis had herded over 300,000 Jews before transporting them to death camps – were determined to mark May Day. Mark Edelman was one of those involved. He later wrote:
“The entire world was celebrating May Day, and everywhere forceful, meaningful words were being spoken. But never yet had the Internationale been sung in conditions so different, so tragic, in a place where an entire nation had been and was still perishing.”
There have been many successful attempts by the state and employers to subvert May Day and dilute its politics, neutralising the potential threat it poses to the interests of the establishment or using the day to solidify the political status quo. However, the May 1st international workers day tradition is constantly renewed by the struggles of new generations. For example, immigrant workers in the US, with Chicago once again leading the way, organised massive strikes and demonstrations in 2006/7 demanding full legalisation and workers rights.
May Day, Today
Today workers are guiding us through the global pandemic in the face of incompetence and sheer disregard for human life from our so-called political leaders. We now brace ourselves for what financial experts say will be akin to the 1930s depression. History has taught us that employers and governments will be hell-bent on making workers pay for this economic depression that we had no part in creating. Now, more than ever, socialists the world over must make every effort to ensure the spirit of May Day endures.
This year, Derry Trades Union Council has put the call out across the globe for all workers to celebrate International workers day, by making ‘Five Minutes of Noise for Workers Rights’ at 6pm on Friday May 1st. They’re encouraging everyone to stand in solidarity with workers on the front line this May Day by hanging a red flag for workers rights from the window of their house or workplace for 24 hours or to make signs and posters with a message supporting our workers rights. The call has been taken up across Ireland. Socialists have successfully proposed the lighting up in red of government and Council buildings in Derry, Belfast, Dublin, Waterford, Wexford and beyond.
We need to strengthen links between trade unions North and South to challenge the disastrous consequences of diverging public health strategies on either side of the border and to tackle the climate emergency that renders the border meaningless. Trade unions can play a vital role in challenging divisions among divided working class communities in the North.
We must demand that workers have the unobstructed right to trade union organisation and encourage everyone to join a union. It’s crucial now that workers across Ireland draw on the best traditions of the workers movement here and internationally to prepare for the huge fights in front of us. To resist a renewed attempt by governments and employers North and South to impose another decade of austerity, the trade union movement will need to organise and fight like never before.
May Day embodies the militant strategies and the socialist vision of the working class movement at its best. More than anything, we need a vision of a different kind of society that ends the gross inequalities capitalism has generated. The trade union movement must lead the fight in defending workers health and safety today but also lead the fight for a new socialist order based on equality, solidarity and democracy.
Those in power would like us to forget May Day’s radical history. Instead, we need to make May Day once again a huge international celebration of working class power, culture and solidarity. This May 1st we are paying tribute to our frontline workers and highlighting their demands for PPE, testing and for living wages. On May 1st 2020 it’s urgent we renew our call across Ireland and across the globe that a better world is possible and needed.