May Day: a proud history
First published here http://www.groundup.org.za/article/may-day-proud-history_2887
May Day was an old Northern hemisphere festival celebrating the beginning of Spring – with all its connotations of a new life and the end of the cold dark winter. Of course it was the poor, the labouring classes, the peasants who most felt the change from winter to spring as they didn’t have mansions and castles to keep them warm during winter. And the beginning of spring also meant the beginning of sowing new crops for their livelihoods later.
But May Day became a political struggle of the working class when in 1886 workers marched in Chicago in the USA to Haymarket Square demanding a reduction of working time to eight hours.
When a bomb was thrown at the police they began to shoot at the crowd of workers, killing many. And after the Haymarket massacre the police blamed anarchist agitators for the bomb and arrested them and then, subsequently, hanged them.
This will resonate with our experience at Marikana in 2012, when police gunned down workers, then arrested survivors and accused them of murder, and then the workers’ call for R12,500 became rallying slogan for other struggles.
The slogan of the May Day workers was “8 hour work, 8 hour rest and 8 hour play” – a vision that went way beyond the notion of “trade union demands” - and struck at the heart of the capitalist system of exploitation – across the spheres of production and reproduction – and the notion that the working class only exists to be exploited and not to have “play” – pleasure, love, and ultimately, political power.
It was in broader understanding of this that the First International – a forum of Left parties, trade unions, workers clubs and societies, grouped around the idea of socialism, decided to proclaim 1 May as International Workers’ Day.
In the US, the state followed the Haymarket massacre and the killing of the 4 activists, by refusing to grant an eight-hour working day. From the 1920s May 1 was declared America Day, then War Day (in celebration of the World War 1 victory) and even Patriots’ Day after World War 2.