Interview: Fortress NSW
Unions: Fashions Afield
Industrial: Pay Dirt
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Big Day Out
International: Making History
Economics: The Fear Factor
Review: The Robots Revolt
Poetry: The Corporation's Power
The Locker Room
Rights and Wrongs
Big Day Out
1st May 1890 is claimed as the birth of an international labour movement 1890. It was the first internationally planned day of action by industrial workers seeking an eight-hour work day, equal rights and social justice.
The history of May Day is one of great celebration and events of significance for those committed to a vision of a fairer, just and more sustainable world.
Labour Day in the Australian colonies was well and truly established by the time May Day became an international day of celebration for the working classes. In Sydney 3rd October 1855 was regarded as Labour Day as some stonemasons at the Garrison Church in the Rocks had walked off for an eight-hour day. Other sites in Sydney did the same. In Melbourne 1856 was seen as the start of the eight-hour working day, beginning with the stonemasons again.
New Zealand pushed it back to the 1840s. The skilled trades led the way as the shortages of labour worked in their favour.
As a more general right of workers, the eight-hour working day really began to expand in the 1870s and 1880s. This was the international movement for the eight-hour day that culminated in the Haymarket tragedy of 1886 and the establishment of the May Day remembrance and celebration in the USA and Europe from that time.
Some US unions already celebrated a Labor Day. In 1884, for example, the Central Labor Union of New York City announced that it "will observe the first Monday of September in each year as Labor Day". Also in that year the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (the predecessor of the American Federation of Labor) adopted a resolution urging that "the first Monday in September of each year be set aside as laborers' national holiday, and that we recommend its observance, irrespective of sex, calling or nationality."
1885 saw the first national Labor Day in the USA, and by 1899 there were celebrations in over 400 cities.
Amos Cummings, anew York congressman and a member of Typographical Union no. 6, introduced a bill to congress to establish the first Monday in September as Labor Day, and President Grover Cleveland signed it into law on 28th June, 1894.
By this time, however, 1st May had become THE working class holiday.
WHY MAY DAY
May has long been a spring fertility festival in the northern hemisphere, and the pagan rejection of Christianity's' takeover and the peoples rejection of power has been celebrated as May Day for centuries. For more information on these aspects of May Day see http://workers.labor.net.au/51/c_historicalfeature_may.html and in particular Peter Linebaugh's brilliant piece at http://www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/author.html
Its emergence as a modern working class celebration began in Chicago and the history of these tumultuous days is well explained at http://www.chicagohistory.org/dramas/
Philip S. Foner takes us through the Haymarket events and how May Day has come to be celebrated around the world..
Certainly US unions were not united in their campaigns for the eight-hour day but the bombings and judicial murders around the Haymarket events were a great catalyst suppression of union rights, but also for solidarity and campaigning.
The American Federation of Labour (AFL) initiated some militant and aggressive campaigning for the eight-hour day from 1889.
In Europe, labour organisations hailed the efforts of US workers and began their own campaigns. Internationalism was in the air.
1890 - the start of worldwide agitation and celebration
The Second International was founded at the time as a direct result of the increased activity of working class movements, following the founding of the first International Workingmen's Association in London in 1864 and its demise in Philadelphia in 1876. The Second International congress proclaimed the first international May Day as 1st May 1890. Not all were happy and the AFL did not even send a delegate, an indication of the split in ideology between the radicals and those like Gompers from the AFL, who were keen to focus on the achievement of the eight-hour day.
Certainly labour movement across the world did take action on 1st May 1890. Many European groups participated, but also workers in Cuba, Australia (see http://www.takver.com/history/mayday.htm ), Peru and Chile.
In Vienna a march f over 100,000 workers took place. In Similarly in Hungary, 80,000 took to the streets carrying flags calling for eight hours work, eight hours rest, eight hours sleep. Strikes broke out and many achieved reductions in the working day from 12-13 hours down to 8-10, without loss of wages.
The Hyde Park demonstrations in London were on 4th May, following a march on the 1st May. Karl Marx's daughter was active in the Legal Eight Hours and International Labour League that mobilised eight-hour agitation in the UK. She was a symbol for many British workers in the May Day campaigns.
John Burns, a trade union leader was a key speaker at the Hyde Park meeting. He expressed his concern and anger at the thousands who were out of work while thousands of other were prematurely ageing because of the excessive hours that they were forced to work.
Burns also read from a telegram he had received from the Melbourne Trade Council. The message said that "the eight-hour system prevailed to a great extent in Australia, and wish[ed] European workers success in their eight-hour campaign." Probably half of Melbourne's workers were on the eight-hour day by then. The eight-hour day was celebrated at another time, as noted, but a public meeting was held at Melbourne Trades Hall in 1890 (anarchists such as Chummy Fleming had been honouring May Day and the memory of the Haymarket martyrs since 1887, with the Social Democratic club being the focal organising group, according to Foner (see also Len ox: Early Australian May Days, Labour History, 1962).
In Havana the Circulo de Trabajodores (Workers' Club) issued a May Day Manifesto, calling on all Cuban workers to support the May 1 international demonstration for an eight-hour day. Worker defied police and conducted peaceful demonstrations calling for the eight-hour work day, equal rights for blacks and whites and urged unity and solidarity.
Although the day passed peacefully, authorities struck back and arrested the leaders of Circulo de Trabajodores for having issued the May Day Manifesto and for having violated the Penal Code of 1879. They were acquitted and a great demonstration greeted their release.
The Viennese Socialist newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung summed up the May Day events of 1890:
The workers allowed nothing to hinder them from celebrating the 1st of May - not the outburts of fury from the entire bourgeois press of all countries, nor the decrees of governments, nor the threats of dismissal, nor huge military levels. They celebrated everywhere; such an international celebration as the world has not yet experienced; the whole civilized world was on one great May-field where millions and millions of proletarians assembled in order to draw up together the demands they find essential for the further development of society.
See Philip S. Foner. May Day: a short history of the International Workers' Holiday 1886-1986 (New York; International Publishers, 1986)
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online