For over 100 years 1 May has been international workers’ day – a day of working class solidarity and a celebration of internationalism.
May Day began in the US in 1886 – with workers’ fighting for the eight hour day. On 1 May workers across the US responded to the call for strikes.
Three days later a workers’ rally was broken up by police. Anarchists were fitted-up (and several later executed) after a bomb was thrown.
However, by the second week in May some 340,000 workers were on strike. Many won shorter hours, though the revolt was put down by a wave of repression.
In 1889 the Second international, an organisation of workers across the world, took up the call for an eight hour day. It called on all workers to stop work on 1 May.
The following year saw workers mark international workers day across the world for the first time.
In Germany hundreds of thousands stopped work and demonstrated. In Italy there were mass strikes and marches. London too saw its first May Day demonstration that year.
Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor played a key role in organising it.
Marx, who had ended the Communist Manifesto with the call, “workers of the world unite” had died seven years earlier. But his lifelong collaborator and co-author of the manifesto Frederick Engels addressed the 300,000 workers at a rally in Hyde Park that first May Day.
“The demonstration was nothing short of overwhelming, and even the entire bourgeois press had to admit it,” he said.
“I can assure you I looked a couple of inches taller when I got down from that old lumbering wagon that served as a platform after having heard again, for the first time since 40 years, the unmistakeable voice of the English working class.”
The scale of the protests in 1890 meant that most European governments – but not Britain’s – were forced to declare May Day an official holiday. Since then May Day has been a rallying point.
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.
Even faced with the most desperate circumstances workers have marked May Day.
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.”
May Day protests have occurred during massive upsurges of workers militancy. In Portugal on 25 April 1974 the 48 year old dictatorship was overthrown.
A week later the capital, Lisbon, saw demonstrations of 100,000 people.
In recent years May Day has become more of a bureaucratic day, where a small number of trade union leaders mark the day.
But this year sees 250,000 PCS public sector workers strike over pay and job cuts. It’s time for workers to reclaim the true spirit of May Day.