May 1, International Workers’ Day: A brief history of resistance

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Eati Akter

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May Day’s origins as a festival marking the beginning of summer go back to pagan antiquity. In Ancient Rome, May 1 marked the midpoint of the Floralia, a week-long holiday honouring Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. Centuries after Christianity became hegemonic across Europe, May Day remained rooted in its pagan origins – a fact recognised by the Puritans who took over England after the end of the Civil War in 1649 and banned May Day festivities such as Morris dancing, garlanding a Maypole with ribbons and crowning a May queen.

May Day took on its current significance as a day for industrial action and union-backed protest starting in Paris in 1889, when a loose federation of socialist groups and trade unions from an array of countries founded the Second (or Socialist) International. The federation, which advocated for parliamentary democracy while affirming its belief in the Marxist idea of the inevitability of class struggle, decided to designate May 1 as International Workers’ Day.

The Second International chose the date, in part, to mark the start of the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago. On May 1 of that year, workers, unionists, socialists and anarchists gathered, making Chicago the epicentre of a movement calling for an eight-hour workday. An estimated 35,000 participants left work to attend meetings and parade through the streets.

On May 3, police fired on demonstrators, killing at least one. Another rally was called for May 4 that went on mostly peacefully until the end, when police attempted to disperse the demonstration. An unknown individual threw a bomb at police, who responded with random gunfire; seven police and at least four civilians were killed in the ensuing violence.

The US labour movement’s campaign for an eight-hour day burgeoned despite the violent end to the Haymarket movement. As labour historian William J. Adelman wrote: “No single event has influenced the history of labour in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair.” In the years that followed, rallies continued to be held on May 1 in many countries, adding to the pressure on governments to institute an eight-hour workday.  But it took the boost to workers’ bargaining power from World War I to prompt governments to introduce eight-hour days. In 1916, the US Adamson Act instituted an eight-hour day for railroad workers, the first US federal law limiting the number of hours private companies can make employees work. French labour unions won a comprehensive victory when then-prime minister Georges Clemenceau put in place a 40-hour week in 1919.

For French unions, May Day remained central to their struggles. But it was not until 1947, shortly after World War II, that May 1 became a public holiday in France.

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