On 1 May, South Africa will enjoy Worker’s Day (effectively a May Day holiday). Worker’s Day celebrates the role played by Trade Unions, the Communist Party and other labour movements in the struggle against Apartheid.
May Day, as we know it refers to various socialist and labour movement celebrations conducted on 1 May. May Day was born from the industrial struggle for an eight-hour day.
Origins of May Day
International working classes have existed since the development of agriculture, about ten thousand years ago. Serfs, slaves, trades people and others were forced to turn over the fruits of their labour to an exploiting class. But the modern working class, whose exploitation is hidden by the wage system, is only several hundred years old. Men, women and children forced to work long hours in miserable conditions just to eke out a living.
These conditions gave rise to demands for limitations on the working day. Utopian socialist, Robert Owen of England, had raised the demand for a ten-hour day as early as 1810, and instituted it in his socialist enterprise at New Lanark. For the rest of the English workers, progress was slower. Women and children were only granted a ten-hour day in 1847.
French worker’s demand for a 12-hour day was granted after the February revolution of 1848.
In the United States, where May Day was born, Philadelphia carpenters campaigned for a ten-hour day in 1791. By the 1830s, this had become a general demand. In 1835, workers in Philadelphia organised a general strike, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, “From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.” From 1830 to 1860, the average work day had dropped from 12 hours to 11 hours.
Already in this period, the demand for an eight-hour day was being raised. In 1836, after succeeding in attaining the ten-hour day in Philadelphia, the National Laborer declared: “We have no desire to perpetuate the ten-hour system, for we believe that eight hours’ daily labor is more than enough for any man to perform.”
At the 1863 convention of the Machinists’ and Blacksmiths’ Union, the eight-hour day was declared a top priority. The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organised mainly by the International Working Peoples’ Association.
Business and the state reacted to the rapidly growing militant movement by increasing its support to the police and the militia. Local business in Chicago purchased a $2 000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to use against strikers. On 3 May 1886 police fired into a crowd of striking workers, killing four and wounding many.
This uproar was carried out against the backdrop of the Civil War, which marked the abolition of slavery and the opening of the Southern states to free-labour capitalism.
A few years later, in 1872, a hundred thousand workers in New York City struck and won the eight-hour day, mostly for building trades workers. It was in this protracted campaign for an eight-hour day that May Day was born.
The movement for the eight-hour day was linked to the date of 1 May at an 1884 convention of the three-year-old Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada, the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor.
Five years later, in 1889 over 400 delegates met in Paris on the 100th anniversary of the French revolution at the Marxist International Socialist Congress. The congress passed a resolution calling for an international demonstration to campaign for an eight-hour day. It was resolved to hold the demonstration on 1 May 1890 in keeping with the American Federation of Labour’s 1886 demonstrations of 1 May.
The call was a resounding success. On 1 May 1890, May Day demonstrations took place in the United States and most countries in Europe. Demonstrations were also held in Chile and Peru. In Havana, Cuba, workers marched demanding an eight-hour working day, equal rights for all and working-class unity.
Although the 1889 resolution called for a once-off demonstration on 1 May, the day quickly became an annual event. Throughout the world workers in more countries marked the celebration of labourers rights on May Day.
May Day was celebrated for the first time in Russia, Brazil and Ireland in 1891. By 1904 the Second International called on all socialists and trade unionists in every country to “demonstrate energetically” annually on 1 May “for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
Chinese workers celebrated their first May Day in 1920, following the Russian socialist revolution. In 1927, workers in India observed May Day with demonstrations in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. By that time, May Day was truly a world workers’ day.
Ironically, while May Day gained momentum across the world it lost steam in the United States where the celebration originated. Today May Day is celebrated as a public holiday throughout most countries with the exception of the United States, because of the holiday’s association with Communism.
Mayday has been celebrated unofficially in South Africa since the 1980s. However, 1 May only became an officially recognised public holiday after the democratic elections of 1994. South Africa’s mining industry’s history and the development of strong Trade Unions and communist ideologies has largely determined the country’s labour history and the workers struggle. Below are some links to important features and sources on this history
Did you know?
May Day is not only celebrated everywhere as a ‘workers day’. The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian Europe, as in the Celtic celebration of Beltane, and the Walpurgis Night of the Germanic countries. Many pre-Christian indigenous celebrations were eventually banned or Christianised during the process of Christianisation in Europe. As a result, a more secular version of the holiday continued to be observed in the schools and churches of Europe well into the 20th century. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the Maypole and crowning of the Queen of May. Today various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on 1 May.
The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring (season), May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer. In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps.
Find more information on International Labour Day on our site.
For more information on the Labour Movement in South Africa and May Day’s local history.