The Origins of May Day

May 1st, International Workers’ Day, commemorates the historic struggle of working people throughout the world. The holiday began in the 1880s, linked to the battle for the eight-hour day and the Haymarket Affair, in which eight anarchists were framed and sentenced to death in connection to uprisings against the repression of active strikers.

“Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth [and privilege].”
— Lucy Parsons, anarcho-syndicalist, founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and widow to Haymarket martyr Albert Parsons

An international campaign resulted in two of the death sentences being commuted to life, but worldwide protest did not stop the US State. Of the remaining five, one (Louis Ling) cheated the executioner and killed himself on the eve of the execution. The remaining four (Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel and Adolph Fischer) were hanged on November 11th 1887. They are known in Labour history as the Haymarket Martyrs. Between 150,000 and 500,000 lined the route taken by the funeral cortege and between 10,000 to 25,000 were estimated to have watched the burial. In 1889, the American delegation attending the International Workers congress in Paris proposed that May 1st be adopted as a workers’ holiday. This was to commemorate working class struggle and the “Martyrdom of the Chicago Eight”. Since then Mayday has became a day for international solidarity. Even less known is Australia’s connection to the day:

“The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890.”
– Rosa Luxembourg 1894 ‘What are the Origins of May Day?

“On the 1st of May 1886, Australia’s first formally anarchist organisation was formed. From 1887 to 1889 the 1st of May was initiated and celebrated in Australia by anarchists associated with the Melbourne Anarchist Federation. In 1890 May Day celebrations were held in the office of Dr. Maloney MP in Melbourne.

Chummy Fleming, a well known Melbourne anarchist, attended these celebrations. Demonstrations and celebrations were held in Ipswich and Barcoldine on the 1st May 1891 during the Shearers Strike, over 1,000 men took part in the Barcoldine march, 600 mounted on horseback. Melbourne held its first public May Day celebration on the 1st of May 1892.

The celebration on the Yarra Bank was proceeded by a march which began at the Burke and Wills monument. The meeting at the Yarra Bank was chaired by the principal organiser of the March, the anarchist Chummy Fleming. May Day was celebrated in Australia from 1892 to 1899. It was not celebrated in Melbourne and the rest of Australia from 1900 to 1927.

When May Day celebrations were recommenced in 1928, Chummy Fleming the Melbourne anarchist, although not part of the official organising committee led the May Day March in Melbourne until his death in the mid 1950’s.”
– Dr Joe Toscano (Anarchist Media Institute

May Day, the festival for worldwide working class solidarity, is a product of the struggle of working people using direct action and solidarity to change the world. May Day is more than a monument, it is more than the past, it is a time for all rebels and workers to reflect on the struggle, to place ourselves in the living history of the movement for lives worth living, lives of dignity. It is a time to remember past struggles and demonstrate our hope for a better future. A day to remember that An Injury to One is An Injury to All.

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