|Issue No. 133
|26 April 2002
The Struggle Continues
Interview: If The Commission Pleases
History: Protest and Celebrate
Unions: A Novel Approach
Industrial: Hare Tony, Hare Tony
International: Never Forget Jenin
Politics: Left Right Out In France
Health: Delivering A Public Health Revolution
Review: The Secret Life of U(nion)s
Poetry: May Day, May Day
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Gold Star Student
Time for a General Strike?
Protest and Celebrate
In many countries we have separate eight hour day holidays but for many workers around the world the major focus for workers celebration victories is May Day. In German speaking countries the 1st of May is a public holiday. What did May Day begin as and what do workers and activists do today to maintain the May Day tradition?
Origins in 19th century USA
In the industrialized world May Day was born out of the struggle for the 8 hour day. In the USA the struggle crystallized after the Civil War. According toAndy McInerney in "May Day, The Workers' Day, born in the struggle for the eight-hour day", in Liberation & Marxism, issue no. 27, Spring 1996, Karl Marx used the Civil War connection in his journalism and noted in 1867 that "the creation of a normal [fixed] working day is the product of a protracted civil war, more or less dissembled, between the capitalist class and the working class."
Following the Civil War, Reconstruction lifted the aspirations of thousands of former slaves.
This was accompanied by the widespread growth of the eight- hour movement. Marx noted "out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first real fruit of the Civil War was the eight-hours' agitation, that ran with the seven- leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California."
As evidence, Marx quotes a declaration from the 1866 General Congress of Labor in Baltimore: "The first and great necessity of the present, to free this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union."
Six years later, in 1872, a hundred thousand workers in New York City struck and won the eight-hour day, mostly for building trades workers. It was in this rising ferment for the eight-hour day that May Day was born.
The movement for the eight-hour day was wedded to the date of May 1 at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada - the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor. George Edmonston, founder of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, introduced a resolution designed to crystallize labor's support for the eight-hour day:
"Resolved ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws so as to conform to this resolution by the time named."
In recent years May Day has become an organizing focus for progressive groups protesting about the way capital is organizing the global economy. M1 is now a term well known to the media, corporations and protestors.
Modern Internationalism and the Celebration of Disobedience
Last year saw other forms of protest suggested and acted on. In Quebec, a protest against the Summit of the Americas last year saw the "anti-globalisation" or more accurately the people's international movement, respond to the mass police presence, aimed at preventing protestors taking action, by advocating a Phone In Sick Day. Phone In Sick Days have been held responsible for the "sick-outs" of two thousand British Airways employees in 1997, and of thousands of Irish policemen in 1998.. This was after their Phone In Sick Day was officially moved from 6 April to May Day.
In the UK last year London was turned into a real life Monopoly game. The idea was to subvert the whole notion of Monopoly. As the organisers saw it, it was an organizing focus for all sorts of activists groups and a way to encourage others to organize to subvert.. See their terrific guide to Monopoly Board and the history of those sites and what is happening at Old Kent Road or those railway stations now.
As they say in their guide, there are no rules, just as capitalism has no rules for the rich.
Mayday is the day above all others when we celebrate struggles against class society and demonstrate our internationalism. From its origins as a pagan festival, Mayday was a time to eat, drink, reject the control of our rulers and have fun. Our rulers responded by first trying to control and then banning the may fairs (see MAYFAIR). Later, May Day was adopted by the workers movement as the day to celebrate the general strike led by the anarchist Haymarket martyrs, who were executed in Chicago in 1886. Last Mayday saw huge demonstrations and strikes in many countries, including India and Iraq.
Labour bosses responded in the way of all would be rulers and turned Mayday into a safe bank holiday for speechifying. In the last few years there have been attempts to reclaim Mayday as a day to celebrate our struggles. We hope that Mayday Monopoly will continue this process. As we celebrate this year, we should remember that by acting collectively we have the power to bring the whole game to an end!"
In London this year the carnival aspects again the main focus: "This Mayday we are celebrating and commemorating our collective struggles and resistance, past and present, with a huge and vibrant carnivalesque action which will be in sync with those happening worldwide: from the Argentinian barrios creating a State-less future to posties in this country striking for better lives, from Afghani refugees hungerstriking in Woomera, Australia and Yarl's Wood, UK, to Turkish prisoners surviving daily torture in solitary confinement, from peasant farmers resisting enclosures, patenting and dam-propelled land evictions in Spain, India, Mozambique and China, to those fighting against health cuts, privatisation, ever-increasing state repression and xenaphobia. In every town, city, nation, workplace, classroom and field, our struggle continues, as it has done for centuries. On Wednesday May 1st we will accelerate our resistance, openly and defiantly, in ways small and large, quiet and loud, visible and invisible, our goal is a new world.
They urge people to take a sickie or nick off from school to celebrate the disobeyance of orders.
Jay Griffith, writing in Red Pepper in 2000, says that May Day was an opportunity for workers and others to rebel against the 24 hour society that is being imposed on us all. To go to Marx (once again he was on the ball) "To appropriate labour during 24 hours of the day is the inherent tendency of capitalist production.". Reclaim the Streets sought to subvert this ethic by doing just that, and Guerilla Gardening, armed with nothing more than trowels and seeds, will be reclaiming the earth too. This makes the crucial link between the festival of May Day, the Beltane festival of fertility. The Maypole of "dirty dancing" is the symbol of disorder so disliked by the capitalist advocates of the 24 hour society that wants us to work not play for all that time.
In Toronto the day is part of MayWorks a festival of working people and the arts: music dance film & video spoken word visual art from April 26 - May 6 2002.
Festival organisers are very aware of the change in focus of authorities since September 11 with it being the catalyst for increased police oppression and "criminalisation" of legitimate activities such as picketing and strikes. The provincial government has taken action to make it easier to get rid of unions from workplaces, and at the same time easing laws on occupational health and safety leaving unions to ensure basic protections which are shirked by government and employers. This has had the effect of re-radicalising many unions and activists and the festival celebrates this.
In the USA in New Haven, Connecticut the international significance of the day is a crucial aspect of the celebrations for what they call International Workers Day. The range of organizations involved illustrates the awareness of international solidarity with Forty area organizations, including Greater New Haven Labor History Association, CT Peace Coalition, Middle East Crisis Committee, Christian Community Action, MALIK and Food Not Bombs just a few of the groups involved.
The Soviet Union, as it then was, of course gave special significance to May Day, as it was the first Workers State (so-called). The All-Union Central Council of Unions published a handy little booklet in 1989 (and perhaps earlier but the one I have is a 1989 version). As they saw it, the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia (1917) and the fierce class battles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in the capitalist countries have vested May Day celebrations with a new content. May Day has become an expression and symbol of consistent struggle against imperialism, fascism and war, and for peace, democracy and socialism." Certainly take a sickie, monopoly and international workers day are in tune with this theme.
The Soviet comrades also point out that the potency of the symbol of May Day still resonates with the ruling class. In the USA in April 1984 the White House announced May 1st as a Loyalty Day in an attempt to twist its meaning. This was in the country where the Day as a workers day originated with the Haymarket massacre.
In Australia the focus on peace, anti-imperialism and socialism is reflected in the 100 year commemoration pamphlet published in 1986. Australians were in the lead in the struggle for reduced hours but other aspects such as opposition to the Boer War, the fight against conscription, the victory over fascism, opposition to US action in Vietnam and Central and South America and the first installment of the Star wars program by Reagan are examples of how the symbolism of the day is used to highlight struggles by working people the world over.
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