Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cedric Beidatsch on the roots of May Day.

image by Ken Sprague

Today- May 1st- is of course May Day.

May Day (or International Workers Day) is a celebration of the labour movement and left wing movements and is usually celebrated by organized street demonstrations and marches by working people and trade unions.

In the Northern Hemisphere May 1 is also a spring festival and public holiday.

Here in Perth the trade unions have organized a picnic and family fun day in Fremantle- but on the weekend- five days after May Day.

In this piece Cedric  Beidatsch writes that in West Australia the radical origins and history of May Day have been forgotten and the day's significance trivialized. Cedric's piece has been published online here.

Here are some extracts from Cedric's challenging piece:
As an Australian worker I am lucky; I do not work Tuesdays, so I can enjoy the worker's holiday. My fellow workers are not so lucky; May day is most emphatically not a holiday in Australia. Instead we get fobbed off with a "Labour Day" public holiday in March (in this state at least, it differs across the country). The closest we get to an acknowledgement of the significance of May Day is trade union organised "family fun day" on the nearest Sunday, which includes a march through the streets. But what a watered down event this is, compared to the real holiday elsewhere on which workers remember how they had to organise and fight - and yes in some cases die - to win the eight hour day and a day off!
My seven year old twins - Andre and Marie (in this proud fathers' heart the most beautiful little people in the world) ask me what May Day is about. And that is a wonderful opportunity not only to educate them in a long heritage but also to share some thought on the significance of May Day.
So let us take a quick tour through history and remember that the struggle for the dignity 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 counter revolution of the lat 30 years has been precisely to destroy that memory. As Walter Benjamin tells us, 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......................................
And so we come to the nineteenth century fight for free time for workers. Let us not forget that 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 (which even my twins an recite) "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 us to the USA, and the Haymarket tragedy. 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 the 3 May of 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 agents provocateurs. 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". Sound familiar dear reader?
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. To me here is the true significance of May Day - workers saying, this is OUR DAY, no matter what and we will enjoy it and use it for our purposes.
And thus I return to the sad spectacle of the Australian May Day of 2012, when a spineless, subservient union movement can't even call for the assertion of labours' 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 world wide 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. When we have to revert to a cowardly and forelock tugging practice of having our workers celebration on a state sanctioned Sunday (except of course for the workers in the hospitality industry who work on that day, and are not allowed to strike to participate in the 'family fun day' and instead have to rely on bosses' generosity in rostering them off).
Well nest year May Day will be a Wednesday and probably a work day for me. I will be on strike and I will take my children out of school to strike too. I long for the time when the Australian union movement rediscovers its heritage and I salute the Indian comrades who have won May Day as a holiday.
A May Day lal salaam to you from distant Western Australia, lapped by the shores of the same ocean.

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