New Delhi: May Day, which many countries recognise as the International Workers’ Day, surprisingly coincides with another event, which is traditionally celebrated in Europe to welcome the arrival of the spring. Europeans and Americans often celebrate the day with maypole dance.
Even though May Day was originally not about humans but about nature, events in the 1800s and early 1900s pushed many countries to observe the day as Workers’ Day or Labour Day.
In particular, the Haymarket Square episode in Chicago in 1886, which saw clashes between agitated workers and the police, sowed the seeds of labour agitations across the globe in support of better working conditions for workers.
The Industrial Revolution and an era of mass manufacturing saw the abundance of capital creation, and enrichment of business and professional classes while the working class worked long hours in inhumane conditions.
This triggered a worldwide movement in support of the working classes led by Leftists, socialists, communists. What is less well-known is that it had its beginnings in the US and then saw Russia and other countries in Europe take forward the movement.
ThePrint takes a look at the series of events originating from one country that sent shock waves across 90-odd countries, which observe 1 May as Labour Day.
How it all started
It all started off as a movement by workers in some parts of the US such as Boston and Philadelphia for a 10-hour working day schedule. Some reports say that workers were made to work for as long as 14 hours and even more. The period between late 1790s and till mid-1800s saw numerous sporadic protests, at times led by machinists and blacksmiths in various regions across the US.
The US, by the 1860s, witnessed a wave of demonstrations that ultimately paved the way for holding negotiations to bring in the 8-hour-day work system.
A new life rose out of the death of slavery: Karl Marx
Karl Marx, the famous German philosopher, economist and communist thinker, who gave the world, among other contributions, his seminary analysis of the effects of capitalism on the working class and its relations with the capitalists, said of this period in the US that “out of the death of slavery…a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California”.
He was referring to the phase when the US officially ended its highly condemned practice of slavery and also saw the end of its Civil War in 1865.
Marx, who was also one of the central figures of the International Working Men’s Association (IWA), set up in 1864, once pointed out how the US’ National Labour Union and the IWA in Europe were endorsing a similar position: “Thus the movement of the working class on both sides of the Atlantic had grown instinctively out of the conditions of production themselves”.
Historian and author Philip Sheldon Foner in his book May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday 1886-1986 wrote that Marx “endorsed the same movement of the limitation of hours of labour and concretised it in the demand for the eight-hour day”.
Haymarket Square episode
In 1886, strikes in Chicago, considered one of the most important workers’ demonstrations, took a bloody turn. The Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions (which later became American Federation of Labour) called for a country-wide movement for an 8-hour working day on 1 May. It is believed that more than 30,000 workers participated in the Chicago strikes, which encouraged workers and unions in other industrialised cities like New York and Cincinnati to take up similar endeavours.
In spite of peaceful protests, a police crackdown on 3 May at a workers’ plant killed two people and set off a protest rally the next day at Haymarket Square.
During the rally on 4 May, a bomb thrown at the police claimed the life of one officer. The clashes that followed between the police and the workers resulted in the deaths of four workers and seven policemen.
While Americans remember the events of that day as the one led by socialists, anarchists and radicalists, the International Socialist Conference in 1890 at a meeting in France chose to commemorate 1 May as the Workers’ Day. This was adopted by many European countries thereafter.
In the US, however, Labour Day was shifted to early September. Then US President Grover Cleveland declared the first week of September in 1884 as a federal holiday in an attempt to avoid endorsing violent protests.
In Russia (back then Soviet Union) too, May Day was considered a revolutionary occasion.
Vladimir Lenin, the towering figure of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the first head of the Soviet Union, took inspiration from Marx’s work and principles, and applied them to the socio-political situation in the Soviet Union.
He played an important role in advancing the movement surrounding May Day in the major power block. Lenin believed that the workers’ demand for an 8-hour working day should come from all the proletariats (working class), and be presented to not just the government, but also the capitalists, which employed the working class.
According to an Al Jazeera report, “Four days after the revolution that toppled the Tsarist rule in Russia, the eight-hour work day was introduced there by official decree”.
He reportedly wrote on the workers’ movement while he was still in prison in 1896 that “in France, England, Germany and other countries where workers have already been united in powerful unions and have won for themselves many rights, they organised on April 19 (May 1) [the Russian calendar was then 13 days behind the West-European] a general holiday of Labor…On this day the workers also remind the bosses of their main demand: 8 hours work, 8 hours rest, and 8 hours recreation. This is what the workers of other countries are demanding now”.
Well aware of the power of the movement that had spread so rapidly, Lenin made people and the workers realise why this needed to be adopted in their country too.
Labour Day in US
In the US, the efforts to observe May Day faced an obstacle in 1950s when then President Dwight Eisenhower announced that 1 May would instead be “Labour Day” to reaffirm “loyalty to the United States of America and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom”.
From 1919 onwards and through the 1920s, other countries inherited the Workers’ Day movement, differing slightly in demands or dates.
China, South Africa, Germany, Scandinavian and Baltic countries, were among a host of other countries that witnessed workers’ agitations.
In India, while some media reports suggest that the May Day was first observed in Madras (now Chennai) in 1923, organised by the Labour Kisan Party, it was in 1927 that for the first time it was officially observed as is mentioned in Foner’s book.
In the book, it is mentioned that an appeal by the All-India Trade Union Congress at its Delhi session in 1927 triggered demonstrations in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Madras and Bombay.
Interestingly, 1 May in India is also observed as Maharashtra Day as it was on this day in 1960 that Maharashtra was given the status of a state, which was previously with Gujarat under the Bombay Presidency.
Every year, May Day is also observed in countries like Turkey, Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Russia, France. It is said that more than 65 countries have official holiday on May Day and a few others unofficially observe this day.
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