Celebrating Mayday

May 1 commemorates working-class self-organisation and its rich history that stretches back over a century.

CHARU PRAGYA

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May 1st marks the International Workers’ Day, popularly known as May-Day or Labour Day, a day that commemorates working-class self-organisation and its rich history that stretches back over a century.

 

It was originally inaugurated to mark the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago, when American labour activists intensified their campaign for the eight-hour workday, and seven American and immigrant anarchists were executed in the Haymarket Square show trial. The connection between May Day and labour rights began in the US during the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of men, women and children were dying every year from poor working conditions and long hours.

“When we remember that people were shot so we could have the 8-hour day, if we acknowledge that homes with families in them were burned to the ground so we could have Saturday as part of the weekend...  people fought for the rights and dignities we enjoy today, and there is still a lot more to fight for.

 

The sacrifices of so many people cannot be forgotten or we’ll end up fighting for those same gains all over again. This is why we celebrate May day.”

—Eric Chase,  The Brief Origins of May Day, 1933

A convention was held in Chicago starting on May 1st, 1884 to end these inhumane working conditions with tens of thousands of working-class men and women participated in a strike to demand the 8-workday. Despite the numbers, it was a peaceful march. But a few days later, on May 3rd, violence broke out between police, private guards and workers at a strike at a metalwork factory. The next day a labour protest rally was held near Chicago’s Haymarket Square to condemn the police brutality and turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police.

The organisers of the protest were arrested and condemned to death even though there was no conclusive proof against them. The Haymarket Riot kicked off a period of anti-labour hysteria and is viewed as a setback for the organised labour movement in America, which was fighting for rights like the eight-hour workday.

The origin of our present holiday lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, in which cause the leaders of the socialist Second International called for an international day of protest to be held at the beginning of May 1890. Today, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more.

“It was enough to celebrate the May Day simply one time in order that everyone understand and feel that May Day must be a yearly and continuing institution.

 

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.”

—Rosa Luxemburg,  What Are the Origins of May Day, 1913

 In India, May Day may or may not have been a holiday for you depending on where you live in India because State governments use their discretion in declaring a holiday on May Day. The first May Day celebration in India was organized in Chennai by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on 1 May 1923.  It was under Prime Minister V. P. Singh’s government that 1 May was declared a national holiday in the country in 1990, in celebration of International Labour Day, but has not been done after that.

The first May Day celebration in India was organized in Chennai by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on 1 May 1923.  It was under Prime Minister V. P. Singh’s government that 1 May was declared a national holiday in the country in 1990, in celebration of International Labour Day, but has not been done after that.

On April 15, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification that allowed for outlining the conditions under which economic activities could be restarted in non-containment zones. While the Centre hasn’t yet amended the Factories Act,  Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have issued notifications that amend the FA and extend hours of work from eight hours in a day and 48 hours in a week to 12 and 72, respectively.

While Mayday has been reduced to a holiday observed as an annual ritual as part of a process in which organised labour has been appropriated and made powerless, the COVID-19 crisis and the risks taken by essential workers across the globe have illustrated that now, more than ever, we need to unite for the cause of labour protection.

 

For all of us, this May Day  should be about the protection of lives and livelihoods: comprehensively conceived health security, sustainable incomes and a safe revival of economic activities which prioritises the workers’ well-being above and beyond everything else.

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