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May Day: a history of resistance

May 1, 2009

For more than 120 years, workers of the world have united to celebrate May Day. The size and scope of events has been a barometer of the constant struggle for a better world. With a new economic crisis and new movements of resistance, May Day is re-emerging as an important day for solidarity and action. Here we trace the history of May Day, which reflects the history of resistance to capitalism in which workers play a central role.
Eight-hour work day
May Day emerged in the US in the campaign to shorten the workday. At its annual convention in Chicago in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the future American Federation of Labour) declared that the eight-hour workday would begin May 1, 1886, and that it would be enforced with strikes and demonstrations.
As a pamphlet proclaimed at the time: “Lay down your tools on May 1, 1886. Cease your labor, close the factories, mills, and mines—for one day in the year…one day of revolt—not of rest…a day on which labor makes its own laws and has the power to execute them! All without the consent or approval of those who oppress and rule…A day of protest against oppression and tyranny, against ignorance and war of any kind.” This outlined the May Day tradition that continues today: workers using their labour power, regardless of state sanction, to fight for economic and political demands.
On May Day 1886, half a million workers went on strike across the US. In Chicago, the strikes brought renewed energy to workers at McCormick Harvesting Machine company, who had been locked out for months. A garrison of police was sent to protect strike-breakers, and when the workers confronted them police opened fire, killing two. At a rally the next day in Haymarket Square, a bomb went off and police again opened fire, killing more. Then police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists, who were sentenced to death at a rigged trial.
This severe repression sent a chill through the nascent labour movement, but it reasserted itself a few years later. The Second International, an organization of workers around the world, adopted the motion for “a great international demonstration”, and in 1890 May Day went global. In London, Friedrich Engels addressed a rally of 300,000. Originally intended as a one-time event to demand an eight-hour workday, May Day has continued beyond this victory, adapting to specific campaigns and reaffirming international solidarity and workers power.
Peace and revolution
In 1916, May Day in Germany became the focus of anti-war opposition. When the socialist Karl Liebnecht was arrested for his speech, “Down with the government, down with the war”, 50,000 metal workers struck for his release. At the same time, May Day celebrations in Russia served to gauge the militancy of the working class in the lead up to the revolution that won peace and democracy. In the brief years of socialism in Russia, May Day became a rallying point for workers around the world to try to break its isolation by spreading the revolution.
In response, states across Europe that sent armies abroad to crush the Russian Revolution also undermined May Day at home. The French government called for May Day to celebrate national unity rather than international workers solidarity, while fascist Italy banned May Day and substituted a day to celebrate the Roman Empire. May Day suppression continued through the years. Nazi Germany declared May Day a day of work, and the next day banned unions and arrested their leaders. At the height of McCarthyism in the US, the state called May Day “Loyalty Day” and then “Law Day” in an attempt to purge its radical nature. On the other side of the Cold War divide, state capitalist regimes turned May Day into a bureaucratized media stunt for Russia and China to parade their nuclear arsenals.
Defeating the tories
But workers have defiantly continued to assert May Day and use it as a focal point for organizing. During the Depression, Canadian Tory Prime Minsiter RB Bennett’s response to unemployment was to create militarized work camps that paid 20 cents a day. In April 1935 in BC, 1500 unemployed workers in government relief camps walked off the job and made their way to Vancouver. There they staged marches, protests, and occupations to protest the government’s unemployment policies, and to demand aid. Workers formed a Relief Camp Workers’ Union, and demanded better wages, unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation, an end to police repression, and democratically-elected committees. Labour organizer and socialist Arthur Evans also argued for the broader labour movement to call for solidarity strikes and demonstrations for May 1.
May Day 1935 featured strikes by miners and longshore workers across the province, while restaurant workers and students walked out to join a march of 20,000 in downtown Vancouver. This mobilized support for the On to Ottawa Trek the following month, when a thousand relief camp workers boarded freight trains to take their demands directly to Ottawa. Though they were violently stopped at Regina, workers resistance helped bring down Bennett in elections a few months later, and close the camps.
Workers power
During the upsurge of struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, May Day coincided with a number of important events. Through March and April, 1968, French students protested against codes of conduct and the Vietnam War. In early May, university administrator and police repression radicalized a much wider layer of students, who erected barricades in Paris. A student occupation of the elite Sorbonne university led to an intellectual, cultural and political explosion critiquing all aspects of society. The student spark ignited the worker flame. When trade unions called for a general strike, political demands against police violence spilled over to economic demands over wages, retirement age, and labour rights. Then workers began occupying their factories and briefly running society, while their president hid in Germany fearing another French revolution.
In Portugal in 1974, May Day occurred a week after the fall of the nearly half-century dictatorship. That day, 100,000 people marched in Lisbon, many on their first May Day celebration, waving red flags and hearing from leftwing leaders returned from exile. This became a launching pad for strike waves, which involved 200,000 workers in more than 150 workplaces that month, and a progressive movement in the armed forces.
Ending Apartheid
In 1985 South African workers formed the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which became the backbone of the fight against Apartheid. Because the regime depended on exploiting the black working class, workers collectively withdrawing their labour power became a powerful weapon for struggle. On May Day 1986, COSATU called a strike that involved one and a half million workers, the first of many major strikes that ultimately ended Apartheid. On April 27, 1994 South Africans voted in their first multiracial democratic elections, and a few days later May Day was declared a national holiday to honour the role workers played in defeating Apartheid.
May Day remains a rallying point to celebrate this victory, and to continue to connect economic and political issues—from demands for a living wage to the fight against HIV/AIDS. As COSATU declared on May Day 2007: “In the dark days of Apartheid, South African workers proudly adopted 1 May as their day, and staged some of their biggest stayaways and demonstrations to support the demand for it to be a public holiday. These played a major part in bringing down the old regime and winning the democratic rights we enjoy today. That is why it is a day to be treasured and must never be lost.”
Challenging neo-liberalism
In recent years May Day has resurfaced across Canada and Quebec as a rallying point against neo-liberalism. In 2004 an illegal strike by hospital workers in BC galvanized years of opposition to neo-liberalism. On May Day hospital workers led a march of 15,000 in Vancouver, the air filled with calls for a general strike. Had the trade union bureaucracy not sold out the strike the following day, the province would have ground to a halt and dealt a blow to Premier Gordon Campbell.
In 2003 Quebec trade unions were central to mobilizing 250,000 people in Montreal against the Iraq War, a key event in stopping the Liberals from joining the war. This political radicalization fed into economic battles: the following year 100,000 marched in Montreal for May Day, targeting the neo-liberal policies of Jean Charest. In 2007 a right-wing backlash spear-headed by the racist ADQ party saw May Day attendance drop to 3,000. But since 2008, May Day participation has surged back up to 50,000 or more, accompanying the collapse of the ADQ and the growth of left-wing party Quebec solidaire.
Fighting racism and war
May Day is now returning to its origin. In the US the re-emergence of workers confidence is reflected by May Day events that have used strikes as collective weapons against racism and war.
In 2005 the US government began passing a bill that would further criminalize undocumented workers, in order to increase their exploitation and create racist hysteria. But immigrant workers and their allies fought back. In March 2006 a coalition of Catholic groups, immigrant advocacy groups and labour unions organized a series of massive rallies, including half a million in Los Angeles. Reviving the labour drives and boycott campaigns of Cesar Chevez, the protest wave became a launching pad for strikes on May Day 2006, dubbed “The Great American Boycott” and “A Day Without an Immigrant”.
To show how much the US economy depends on migrant workers, organizers called on their supporters to not buy, sell, work, or attend school. Millions of people took part in strikes, demonstrations, and walk-outs, which called for amnesty and legalization of undocumented workers and their families. Marches featured national flags from across the Americas mingling with red flags and portraits of Che Guevara. In a show of solidarity, trade Unions in Mexico and Central America called for a boycott of American products on May Day. These mobilizations succeeded in defeating the racist bill.
On May Day in 2008, 25,000 longshore workers in the US shut down 29 ports on the west coast to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to demand the withdrawal of troops. The International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) has a history of shutting down the ports in solidarity actions against the Pinochet dictatorship, Apartheid South Africa, and the incarceration of Mumia Abu Jamal. This was the first time an American union has taken job action against an ongoing US war.
ILWU Vietnam veterans led the drive to declare May Day a “No Peace, No Work Holiday”, to recognize that working-class families bear the brunt of US militarism. As ILWU Local 34 President Richard Cavalli told a rally: “George Bush’s daughters get married in the White House, and our sons and daughters get buried in Iraq.”
Because of their strategic role in the economy, the longshore workers were able to paralyze the ports that process $1 billion of cargo daily, fighting back against the corporate war mongers. At a forum in Toronto the following month organized by the Canadian Peace Alliance and the Canadian Labour Congress, strike organizer Clarence Thomas explained: “The working class can speak for itself and that is why it is so critical for us to take action at the point of production: at the workplace. This is where we have our muscle, this is where we have our leverage and we need to use it”.
In response, the General Union of Port Workers in Iraq issued a statement of solidarity: “The courageous decision you made to carry out a strike on May Day to protest against the war and occupation of Iraq advances our struggle against occupation to bring a better future for us and for the rest of the world as well.”
Celebrating May Day past, present, and future
This year’s May Day takes place in the context of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, which is increasing attacks on workers at home and abroad. But it is also in the context of growing radicalization and confidence to fight back, from the left-wing governments sweeping Latin America to the strike waves across Europe raising the hopes of a new May 1968. Gaining inspiration and insight from previous May Days, we can see how workers activity has been central to struggles for a better world: winning the eight-hour workday, ending Apartheid in South Africa and Tory rule in Canada, fighting racism and war, and raising the possibility of socialism.
As the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg wrote a century ago: “The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance, then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.”

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