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International workers' day - explainer

What is May Day?

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-05-01 Latest update 2009-05-01 10:57 TU

Demonstrators in Manila, 1 May 2009(Photo: Reuters)

Demonstrators in Manila, 1 May 2009
(Photo: Reuters)

Millions of people demonstrate around the world on 1 May, although few will be marching in the US. Seeing thousands on the streets of Paris and other French cities, many English-speakers assume that this is the French version of the American Labor Day. But they are labouring under a misapprehension. May Day is international workers' day and it was inspired by events in the USA.

May Day demonstrators in Seoul, 1 May 2009(Photo: Reuters)

May Day demonstrators in Seoul, 1 May 2009
(Photo: Reuters)

May Day was a festival to celebrate the end of winter in many European pre-Christian cultures, including ancient Roman, early Germanic and Celtic ones.

The idea of a workers' holiday first surfaced in Australia in 1856 but it was not until 1898 that the Socialist International, founded by Karl Marx along with other socialists and anarchists, declared 1 May international workers' day.

The day was picked to commemorate events that followed the Haymarket massacre in Chicago, Illinois, in 1886.

During the course of a three-day general strike throughout the United States starting 1 May of that year, in support of the eight-hour day, police killed three employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. At a subsequent protest rally on 4 May, a bomb exploded and police attacked the crowd. By the end of the day at least 12 people, including seven police officers, were dead.

Seven anarchists were later hanged for the bombing and another committed suicide before the execution. There were international protests about the trial, with criticism that the jury was made up of business leaders and that five of the accused were not present when the explosion took place.

The eight-hour day became one of the key demands of May Day demonstrations. They were held with or without the authorities' permission and spread around the world as the socialist movement grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The end of World War I and the Russian revolution saw a split in the socialist international, with the formation of the Communist International, which accused its predecessor of reformism and turning its back on internationalism.

May Day continued to be celebrated by member parties of both internationals, along with trade unionists and what remained of the anarchist movement, but with more enthusiasm on the left of the labour movement than on its right.

In the Soviet Union the day became a holiday, with parades which became increasing dominated by official declarations and displays of military strength. This example was copied in post-World War II eastern Europe and China.

In 1958, at the height of the Cold War, the US Congress, which had previously banned political parties from having international affiliations, declared 1 May Loyalty Day.

In 1977, suspected right-wing snipers fired on May Day demonstrators in Istanbul, Turkey, killing 34 people. Following a military coup in 1980 a public holiday on the day was abolished and was only reinstated on 29 April 2009.

In 2009, the left, on the ideological retreat since the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, is hoping that the world economic crisis will put a question mark over free-market capitalism and lead to massive turnouts on May Day demonstrations.