Reflections on May 1
The struggle for the dig
nity 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 counterrevolution of the last 30 years has been precisely to destroy that memory. As Walter Benjamin says, 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 overtime, where Scrooge, the archetypal endless accumulator deprives his clerk of the holiest day in the Christian calendar, Christmas.
Then comes nineteenth century fight for free time for workers. 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 it's 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 "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 the Haymarket tragedy to the fore. 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 May 3 the 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 suicide 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 some police agents. 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".
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 lies 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.
Here is the sad spectacle of the Australian May Day of 2012, when a spineless, subservient union movement can't even call for the assertion of labour's 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 worldwide 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.
[Cedric Beidatsch is an Australian worker who made some reflections on May 1, 2012 in his communication to C K Vishwanath, a long-time associate of Frontier.]
Vol. 45, No. 14 - 17, Oct 14 - Nov 10 2012
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