May 1st, 2012
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Thoughts on May Day 2012

 

MAY DAY THE CELEBRATION OF WORKERS

 

Cedric Beidatsch

 

As an Australian worker I am lucky; I do not work Tuesdays, so I can enjoy the worker’s holiday. My fellow workers are not so lucky; May Day is most emphatically not a holiday in Australia. Instead we get fobbed off with a “Labour Day” public holiday in March (in this state at least, it differs across the country). The closest we get to an acknowledgement of the significance of May Day is trade union organised “family fun day” on the nearest Sunday, which includes a march through the streets. But what a watered down event this is, compared to the real holiday elsewhere on which workers remember how they had to organise and fight – and yes in some cases die – to win the eight hour day and a day off!

My seven year old twins – Andre and Marie (in this proud fathers’ heart the most beautiful little people in the world) ask me what May Day is about.  And that is a wonderful opportunity not only to educate them in a long heritage but also to share some thought on the significance of May Day.

So let us take a quick tour through history and remember that the struggle for the dignity of labour and for a more democratic, more egalitarian, more sustainable and more fraternal world is also a struggle of heritage and memory, for without those there is no culture of resistance and struggle. And one of the main triumphs of the neo liberal counter revolution of the last 30 years has been precisely to destroy that memory. As Walter Benjamin tells us, the enemy does not cease to be victorious in good part because the dead are not safe; for the enemy retells their stories in order to appropriate their heritage.

May Day in the European tradition combines not only the memory of modern industrial struggle to shorten the working day, but also an older memory of a pre-industrial folk festival to celebrate the beginning of the summer; the sudden appearance of fresh green foliage and warm days. It reminds of the customs of field festivities, of Maypole dancing, and outdoor feast. Of rest and enjoyment in the pleasures of nature. Workers in the feudal era had many holidays – one assessment suggests as many as 120 per year, allowing for all the saints’ days and religious holidays. And by tradition Monday also was a no work day – Saint Monday it was still called in the eighteenth century. But in the ruthless struggle waged by early capitalist employers to increase the extraction of absolute surplus value, not only was the working day lengthened and lengthened to 12 hours or more, but the holidays were abolished. This was one of the especial purposes of the early bourgeois revolution known as the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; the elimination of saints’ days, church holidays, folk days and their movement to a sanctioned church policed rest day, Sunday. And the war waged on Saint Monday was fierce. Indeed prosecutions under the Masters and Servants Acts of “merrie olde England” of workers keeping the Monday holiday were not uncommon, and some of those prosecuted would well have ended up shipped of as slave (i.e.. Convict) labour to the West Indies, Virginia or even Australia. Indeed Dickens’s classic story A Christmas Carol is an example of this struggle over time, where Scrooge, the archetypal endless accumulator deprives his clerk of the holiest day in the Christian calendar, Christmas. Bah humbug to all time off is Scrooge’s and his ilk’s creed.

And so we come to the nineteenth century fight for free time for workers. Let us not forget that Marx ascribed a great deal of significance to the struggle for the eight hour day. At the end of one of his most “utopian” passages when he speculates on the kind of fully developed all round human beings that can develop under the conditions of  a society of freely associating producers he ends with the very prosaic comment that the start – and the most important current task – is to win the eight hour day! It is to the eternal glory of the Australian working class – and one of its main contributions to world history – that it started the campaign for the eight hour day. In 1856, on the 21st April, stone masons working on the site of Melbourne University downed tools and marched on parliament to demand an eight hour day. From here the movement grew and grew and expressed itself in the slogan (which even my twins recite) “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for self improvement and recreation”. Australian workers were very successful, within a year the eight hour day was the norm for the building industry and by 1860 for workers generally.

It was a much longer struggle elsewhere, and that has been recounted many times. How did the struggle for the eight hour day become associated with the glorious celebration of May? The answer to this question brings us to the USA, and the Haymarket tragedy. What happened there was that as the movement built, the Chicago Federation of Labor Unions moved at its 1884 convention that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.”

So on May 1 1886, 70,000 workers downed tools and paraded down Michigan Avenue in Chicago to demand the eight hour day – the first ever May Day march. A strike in support spread over the next few days, and on the 3 May of police opened fire on a meeting of workers outside the McCormick plant ( a food corporation that STILL exists, building on the accumulated capital – i.e. expropriated surplus value – of over  a century of workers) killing four. At a protest meeting the next day at the Haymarket a bomb exploded. This was used, in the same way as the September 11 World Trade Centre attack – as an excuse to attack civil rights – and mass arrests of labour activists followed, with eight labour leaders (many of them immigrants) charged and tried for sedition. Seven were sentenced to death, one of these committed suicides in prison and four were hanged. Indeed the comparison to 2001 is apt – controversy still reigns over the bomb blast and there is a strong opinion that it was planted by agents provocateurs. Indeed it is accepted that the hanged men were entirely innocent of any wrong doing, they were martyrs to the cause of labour and railroaded in the courts, Their surviving comrades, pardoned in 1883, they were described officially by the state governor as victims of “hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge”. Sound familiar dear reader?

May Day thereafter in the USA became the date of not only the struggle for the eight hour day, but an act of memory to the victims of persecution and state sanctioned murder, to the labour martyrs. And it was in memory of these men and in support of the international struggle for the eight hours day that the 1889 Paris Congress of the Second International adopted the First of May as the date for international campaigns, strikes and demonstration for the eight hour day, and over the following century for the cause of labour in general.

And herein lays the significance; that by striking and taking a day for activism – and yes, for celebration and holiday – the radical subjectivity of labour asserts itself. No waiting for the state and the bosses to grant a holiday, but taking one, on their own authority, and thus establishing  a glorious link between ancient rights to leisure and enjoyment of the commons, the cause of free time and the remembrance of martyrs. To me here is the true significance of May Day – workers saying, this is OUR DAY, no matter what and we will enjoy it and use it for our purposes.

And thus I return to the sad spectacle of the Australian May Day of 2012, when a spineless, subservient union movement can’t even call for the assertion of labours’ right to set its own limits to exploitation. Not even at a time when for decades now the working week has been increasing and the eight hour day is vanishing. Australian mining companies are pushing for a twelve hour day – already present in practice – to be the industry standard. When the descendants of the working class that started the world wide struggle to win free time for workers now meekly roll over and are prepared to sign it away and forget their international duty of solidarity to the global working class. When we have to revert to a cowardly and forelock tugging practice of having our workers celebration on a state sanctioned Sunday (except of course for the workers in the hospitality industry who work on that day, and are not allowed to strike to participate in the ‘family fun day’ and instead have to rely on bosses’ generosity in rostering them off).

Well nest year May Day will be a Wednesday and probably a work day for me. I will be on strike and I will take my children out of school to strike too. I long for the time when the Australian union movement rediscovers its heritage and I salute the Indian comrades who have won May Day as a holiday.

( The Writer, Cedric Beidatsch, is a left activist and had been taking part in the Anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear power demos in Germany in the early 1970s. He was an ex-member of the youth branch of the old West German Communist Party, and later of the South African Party and of the Communist Party of Australia before its’ self dissolution in 1987. Now he is a member of IWW and identify himself as being within the council communist tradition. He works as a school-cook and is currently completing a PhD thesis on “World Systems Analysis as Political Praxis” at the University of Western Australia. )



5 Responses to “ Thoughts on May Day 2012 ”

  1. reenaphilipm

    ‎8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest, :May 1st, International Worker’s Day, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world, and is recognized in every country except the United States and Canada. This is despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880’s in the United States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day led by immigrant workers.

  2. Shafeek

    And so we come to the nineteenth century fight for free time for workers. Let us not forget that Marx ascribed a great deal of significance to the struggle for the eight hour day. At the end of one of his most “utopian” passages when he speculates on the kind of fully developed all round human beings that can develop under the conditions of a society of freely associating producers he ends with the very prosaic comment that the start – and the most important current task – is to win the eight hour day! It is to the eternal glory of the Australian working class – and one of its main contributions to world history – that it started the campaign for the eight hour day. In 1856, on the 21st April, stone masons working on the site of Melbourne University downed tools and marched on parliament to demand an eight hour day. From here the movement grew and grew and expressed itself in the slogan (which even my twins recite) “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for self improvement and recreation”. Australian workers were very successful, within a year the eight hour day was the norm for the building industry and by 1860 for workers generally.

  3. Shafeek

    Now a day the international working class face severe challenges from the side of social democracy that submitted before imperialism cowardly. without uncovering them and fight against them we can’t bring again the thunder of world revolution… thanx Cedric Beidatsch for this article… :)

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