The Tories want to get rid of the May Day bank holiday—and replace it with a day later in the year when we can “celebrate Britain”.
They can’t stand the idea of people celebrating the history of workers’ struggle and a challenge to an oppressive system.
As their austerity measures kick in, it is more important than ever that the day’s true tradition is defended.
The spark was lit in 1886, when workers across the US struck and marched for an eight-hour working day on 1 May.
In the days that followed, police broke up a workers’ rally in Chicago’s Haymarket.
A group of anarchists were accused of throwing a bomb at police. They were arrested and four were later executed, though even the prosecution conceded that they hadn’t thrown the bomb.
In the second week of May, some 340,000 workers struck. Many won shorter hours because of their action, despite a wave of repression.
The call for a worldwide May Day came in 1889 from the Second International—the main global organisation of socialist and labour parties.
On 1 May 1890 workers across the world responded to that call.
In Germany, hundreds of thousands downed tools and took to the streets. In Italy there were mass strikes and marches.
Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator and co‑author of the Communist Manifesto, addressed the 300,000 who gathered at Hyde Park that day.
He described the demonstration as “nothing short of overwhelming”, adding that he had heard again, for the first time in decades, the “unmistakeable voice of the English working class”.
In the years that followed, May Day was a time for workers to unite across the globe against injustice and oppression—including the horrors of the First and Second World Wars.
Socialist Karl Liebknecht spoke at a May Day rally in Germany in 1916. He declared, “Down with the government! Down with the war!”
He was arrested for treason, and 50,000 metal workers struck in response.
In Glasgow, following the arrest of Scottish socialist leader John Maclean in 1918, workers called a one-day strike and protest on May Day 1919.
Over 100,000 marched through Glasgow and thousands lined the streets.
Maclean’s daughter Nan Milton described the day: “Glasgow was on fire with red banners, red ribbons and red rosettes.
“The air was alive with the sound of revolutionary songs. Orators spoke from 22 different platforms.
“The common struggle united all in bonds of real solidarity.”
During the Second World War, socialists marked May Day in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, where the Nazis herded over 300,000 Jews before deporting them to the death camps.
Marek Edelman, a leader of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, described this:
“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.”
The granting of May Day as a public holiday was the ruling class’s recognition of the power of workers.
In many places people fighting oppressive states used May Day protests, which were often illegal, as a chance to mobilise against their regimes.
In South Africa in the 1980s, tens of thousands of workers and black people took part in political strikes against the apartheid state on May Day.
In other countries May Day protests were part of revolutionary upheavals.
In Portugal in 1974, protests on the day were a crucial part of the revolution that had seen the overthrow of a fascist dictatorship days before.
In recent decades some May Day protests have become more routine and smaller.
But they have still expressed people’s opposition to capitalism— especially at times when there has been an increase in struggle.
The anti-capitalist movement that emerged at the beginning of this century saw students, campaigners and workers take part in high profile May Day protests in Britain.
In France in 2002, over 1.5 million marched on May Day against fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen after he finished second in the presidential elections.
This is the tradition of resistance that David Cameron wants to destroy.
We need to invoke the true spirit of May Day—and rebuild the fighting tradition that can bring the ruling class to its knees.