May Day! May Day!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the tradition, today, May 1, or May Day, is also known as International Workers Day. While the celebration of this day is much more significant in other countries than the U.S. (our September Labor Day embodies some of the May Day spirit and traditions), it is nonetheless noteworthy to observe what is happening around the world today. Some celebrations were more subdued than usual, but many still work to honor the May Day spirit and tradition.

A good introduction to May Day can be found at May Day, The Workers’ Day, which chronicles the history of May Day, as it first developed here in the United States. May Day was born out of the struggle for the eight-hour day. As noted in the article,

The movement for the eight-hour day was wedded to the date of May 1 at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada_the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor….Despite the bosses’ predictions of violence, the world’s first May Day [May 1, 1886] was a massive success, involving hundreds of thousands in peaceful strikes and demonstrations. The largest demonstration was in Chicago, where 90,000 marched_ as many as 40,000 of whom were strikers. Thirty-five thousand Chicago meatpackers won the eight-hour day with no loss of pay after that strike.

However, as the May Day movement grew around the world during the early 20th century, it continued to decline in the United States, its country of origin. The AFL in 1905 disavowed the celebration of May Day, promoting instead the observance of Labor Day, first established as a federal holiday in 1894. From that time onward, May Day in the United States was organized by the left wing of the labor movement, and continues even today to be tainted by the anti-communist brush.

In Berlin, even though workers have much to protest given the state of the German economy, the day is known for its annual riots, which have occurred every year since 1987. (See Bloomberg News article.) According to the German police, rioters ravaging Berlin last night injured 175 police officers and burnt 18 cars during the traditional May Day celebrations. About 1,300 young adults also threw stones at policemen, smashed shop windows and destroyed a motorcycle. Officers were forced to disperse the troublemakers with the help of water cannons and arrested 129 people. Incredibly, this year’s riotsin Berlin were less severe than in 2002 when three policemen were seriously injured and taken to hospital. There were more peaceful observances as well, however: one million Germans throughout the country used Labor Day to peacefully protest against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s plans to trim the welfare system. Twice as many people as last year attended the rallies and marches organized by the trade unions, the DGB federation of unions said. In a bid to reduce unemployment from a five-year high, Schroeder plans to cut jobless benefits, limit entitlement for unemployed pay, raise workers’ sick-pay outlays, reduce health care benefits and make it easier for companies to fire workers. For these efforts, Schroeder was booed by a crowed of 7,000 union members during a 15-minute speech defending his proposals at the DGB’s main rally in Neu-Anspach.

Tragedy marred the day in South Africa, where a busload of workers en route to a Workers’ Day rally crashed into a reservoir. Eighty people are feared dead, and the final death toll may be the highest ever for a single South African road crash. (See Reuters article.) A spokesman for the Confederation of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU), South Africa’s largest trade union federation, Patrick Craven, said the bus had been taking COSATU members from the diamond mining centre of Kimberley to a May Day rally in the Qwa Qwa area. South African President Thabo Mbeki interrupted the May Day rally in Johannesburg to observe a minute’s silence and said the country was in a state of shock. (See Daily News article.)

The May Day observance was also an unhappy one in China, as officials sought to quell all public observances of the day in an effort to limit the spread of SARS. (See New York Times article.) As noted in the article, “On this most hallowed of Communist holidays, one meant to honor workers and a time for exuberant shopping and family vacations, some things in Beijing were very odd — and some things were very much the same.” Another article noted that China used the occasion to honour medical workers on the frontlines of the battle against SARS. Six medical workers from three medical institutions received the Labour Day medal for their dedication to their work, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily said. (See Star article.)

The celebration was a more positive one than usual in London, where, as one commentator noted,

The only thing missing from Mayday 2003 seemed to be the traditional blacked-up, rock-throwing brew-crew intent on hijacking international workers’ day in the name of anarchy and anti-capitalism….Turks and Kurds, Colombians and Argentinians, French and American groups all dropped their national differences and highlighted injustices in their own countries. More than 20 British unions walked behind their banners, many complaining about privatisation.

(See Guardian article.) While fears had been raised from weeks of hype – by the police and some activists – that oil companies, arms traders, government offices and anyone associated with the Iraq war or big business would be targeted, proved largely hollow.

In Belgium, with national elections less than two weeks away, one commentator observed,

[w]hoever believes Belgium is boring and politics is dead should have been at Thursday’s May Day rallies in this small, affluent country best known for its strong beers, calorific chocolates and pedophile scandals. With just more than 2 weeks to go until Belgians head to the polling booths, the divisions between right and left, working class and middle class and French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders and were laid bare in a series of election rallies across the country.

See UPI article.) The country’s top Socialist officials gathered the faithful for “a series of tub-thumping speeches that would not have sounded out of place in Karl Marx’s era.” May Day attempts to sway the populace are more important than usual in Belgium this year, becuase “on May 18, Belgian voters will have to decide whether to stick with one of the mainstream parties of the center left and right or plump for fringe groupings like the Vlaams Blok. For many of those who have not benefited from Belgium’s recent years of growth, the choice may not be as obvious as it first appears.”

In Cuba, Fidel Castro asserted to a May Day crowd of hundreds of thousands that the United States is in the process of planning military action against Cuba–an accusation that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied. Castro was quoted as saying “In Miami and Washington they are now discussing where, how and when Cuba will be attacked,” while Rumsfeld responded, “there are no plans for military action against Cuba.” (See AP article.) Cuba has recently come under increased attack for sending 75 dissidents to prison on charges of collaborating with U.S. diplomats to destabilize the socialist regime, and for the firing-squad executions of three men convicted of terrorism for trying to hijack a Cuban ferry full of passengers to the United States–moves which Castro claimed were necessary to halt the hijackings and stem a growing migration crisis.

The fall of communism in the former Soviet Union has diminished the size and influence of May Day in Russia and Ukraine. (See Russia Journal article.) While rallies featured a range of political messages, the vast majority of Russians stayed home or headed out of cities for a four-day weekend. Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation said that only 4 percent of Russians polled planned to participate in rallies this year.

And here in the United States, May Day observances were organized in some locations around the country. Although these events were perhaps not marked with the same attendance and fervor as others around the globe, organizers made clear that the values and traditions surrounding International Workers Day were worth remembering and commemorating. In Eureka, California, “40 self-proclaimed anarchists, communists and laborers” met to march through Eureka for the purpose of spreading happiness and fun to local workers. (See Eureka Times-Standard article.) In Olympia, Washington, about three hundred people participated in a peaceful demonstration in the streets of Olympia–down from past years. (See Seattle Post-Intelligencer article.) And in Sunnyside, Washington, May Day participants gathered to learn more about the life of Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.

For those of us here in America who didn’t participate in any May Day events, here at least is some food for thought.

[H]ere in America, we apathetically go to the factory, the retail counter, and the cubicle, ignorant to the fact that May Day is the product of an American, radical workers’ movement that successfully agitated for the 8-hour day during the 1880’s. In these uncertain, tenuous times we have much to learn from these heroic men that braved the Billy-club and bullet to overcome economic exploitation. Distracted by war, working families are unaware the latest Bush budget slashes funding for healthcare, public education, and proven job creation techniques while the Administration showers lucrative contracts on the military-industrial complex and bankrupts the Treasury on an ill-advised, cynical tax cut for upper class constituents and campaign financiers.

These words, in a commentary entitled “Rolling Back May Day” also remind us that some battles are never over, as we continue to fight to preserve the eight-hour work day. For the most timely examples, see the blog entries of 4/29/03 and 4/10/03 to learn more about these latest threats. As the May Day commentary reminds us, “If the “comp” time bill passes, the eight-hour workday protection will be eroded since management can work employees longer for no money at all. If so, the Bush Administration will rollback the gains of 120 years of democratically won social protections in a little more than two years. The robber barons would be proud.”

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.