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  Issue No 51 Official Organ of LaborNet 28 April 2000  




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May Day Connections

By Neale Towart

May Day as a modern working class celebration and commemoration began from the 1886 events in Chicago where workers were demonstrating for an eight hour day. But the day already had special significance for working people before then.


PreIndustrial May Day and Working People

As a working peoples celebration its origins go back much further, with connections to Ancient Roman rituals. In pagan Europe it was a festive holy day celebrating the first spring planting. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane or the day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun.

In the 1700s the Churches banned the pagan rituals, just as bosses today want workers to forget any traditions of solidarity and celebration of workers rights, but many peasants continued the tradition. Church and state were the butt of many jokes at May Day celebrations, and this certainly did not endear the craft guilds and others, who organised celebrations, to the authorities.

The Goddess of the Hunt, Diana, and the God Herne led parades. Later, with a move to a more agrarian society, Diana became a fertility goddess, and Herne became Robin Goodfellow, a predecessor to Robin Hood. This also indicated a shift in the division of labour and perhaps to a shift in power relations, with Robin remaining a symbol of the hunter from the woods, while Diana changed from being a hunter to a symbol of the fertility of the fields.

May Day was popular through to the nineteenth century, with the form of the celebration changing. The two most popular feast days for Medieval craft guilds were the Feast of St. John, or the Summer Solstice and Mayday.

The Diana myth was transformed into the Queen of May, who was elected from the eligible young women of the village to rule the crops until harvest. Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising of the phallic Maypole, around which the young single men and women of the village would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their ( hoped for) new love.

Robin Goodfellow, or the Green Man who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday was a celebration of the common people, and Robin would be the King/Priest/Fool for a day. Priests and Lords were the butt of many jokes, and the Green Man and his supporters; mummers would make jokes and poke fun of the local authorities.

Industrial era May Day

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday developed from the US workers struggle for the eight hour day in 1886. The working class movement in the USA began campaigning for an eight hour day in the 1860s, following the Civil War. The historic strike of May 1st, 1886 was a culmination of a concerted struggle. Chicago was the major industrial centre of the USA. Police attacked striking workers from the McCormack Harvester Co., killing six.

On May 4th at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police's own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in the 19th century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of Illinois.

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's Association (the First International) declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag became the symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers rights.

May Day in Australia

In Australia workers in some industries had claimed the eight hour day in the 1850s. The new international Eight Hour day was welcomed by Australian workers.

On May 1st 1890, the Brisbane Workers editorial said "May Day, this is our May Day, the by-gone jubilation of our forefathers for the reconquering of by the bright sunshine of the bitter northern winter, the new-born celebration of the passing of the workers' winter of discontent. In Germany, in Austria, in Belgium, in France, all through Europe, in the United Kingdom and in the great English speaking republic across the Pacific, millions of workers are gathering at this hour to voice the demands of Labor for fair conditions of laboring. Never in all history was there such a meeting..."

A large May Day meeting was held in Melbourne in 1890, chaired by Dr Maloney,a highly respected person who later became a federal Labor MP. The group of radicals who called this metting had an inaugural meeting on May Day 1886, to coincide with the US movement protests. Anarchist activists were prominent then, including J Andrews, Chummy Fleming, David Andrade and Monty Miller.

The spirit of the activists and early workers organisers is summed up in Bernard O'Dowd's poem, May Day:

Come Jack, our place is with the ruck
On the open road today,
Not with the tepid "footpath sneak"
Or with the wise who stop away.

A straggling, tame procession, perhaps,
A butt for burgess scorn;
Its flags are ragged sentiments,
And its music's still unborn.

Though none respectable are here,
And trim officials ban,
Our duty, Jack, is not with them,
But here with hope and Man.

The first May Day march was held in Barcaldine in 1891 by striking shearers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 1340 took part. Henry Lawson's well known poem Freedom on the Wallaby

...So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
O'those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle

was composed in Brisbane at the time the striking shearers were facing the troopers guns at Barcaldine.

The following sites are invaluable resources concerning the history and tradition of May Day. I am grateful to the authors of these sites for providing the information from which this brief history was compiled.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 51 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Wrestling With Reith
CPSU national secretary Wendy Caird has faced the full force of Peter Reith's attack on the federal public sector. The good news is she's still fighting.
*  Unions: The Organiser
As the nature of working life changes fundamentally, union organisers like Sally are taking up the challenge and changing too.
*  Safety: Remembering the Fallen
NSW Industrial Relations Minister Jeff Shaw's keynote address to mark the International Day of Mourning for Deaths in the Workplace.
*  History: May Day Connections
May Day as a modern working class celebration and commemoration began from the 1886 events in Chicago where workers were demonstrating for an eight hour day. But the day already had special significance for working people before then.
*  Women: Swelling the Ranks
Jenny Wright wears the honour of being the nation's first pregnant wharfie modestly. But it's not all clear sailing for this trailblazer.
*  International: Dawn Raid to Arrest Korean Union Leaders
Riot police have broken into the office of the Daewoo Motors Workers Union in Pupyung, near Seoul, and taken union leaders into custody for the "crime" of leading a militant struggle to save the jobs of Korean auto workers.
*  Satire: Angry Star City Staff Strike it Unlucky
Gamblers panicked when they discovered they were locked out of the Casino when 1800 workers walked out.
*  Review: The World of Wobbly Window Cleaners
A new book 'Reshaping the Labour Market' shines the spotlight on the impact of labour market deregulation.

»  Government to Outsource Staff Relations
»  Dial-A-Contract Hits Call Centres
»  Reith Loses Plot Over 'Bad Bargaining' Bible
»  Prayer for the Fallen Marks International Day
»  Entitlement Time-Bomb Still Ticking
»  No Joy for Southern Picket
»  Union Fighter Shapes Up For Casino Workers
»  Stopped Clock Starts Ticking at Sydney Water
»  Telstra Tangle Over 'Honest Rob'
»  A Week of May Days
»  Big Drum Up for East Timor!
»  Pick a Pollie - the Truth Revealed

»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  SOCOG Makes Another Meal Of It
»  Seeking Unionists With Blues
»  Is Red Ken So Clean?

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