Countdown to May Day

The History of May Day

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday developed from the US workers struggle for the eight hour day in 1886. The working class movement in the USA began campaigning for an eight hour day in the 1860s, following the Civil War. The historic strike of May 1st, 1886 was a culmination of a concerted struggle. Chicago was the major industrial centre of the USA. Police attacked striking workers from the McCormack Harvester Co., killing six.

On May 4th at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police's own agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in the19th century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson. Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of Illinois.

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's Association (the FirstInternational) declared May 1st an international working class holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag became the symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers rights.

May Day in Australia

In Australia workers in some industries had claimed the eight hour day in the1850s. The new international Eight Hour day was welcomed by Australian workers.

On May 1st 1890, the Brisbane Workers editorial said "May Day, this is ourMay Day, the by-gone jubilation of our forefathers for the reconquering of by the bright sunshine of the bitter northern winter, the new-born celebration of the passing of the workers' winter of discontent. In Germany, in Austria, inBelgium, in France, all through Europe, in the United Kingdom and in the greatEnglish speaking republic across the Pacific, millions of workers are gathering at this hour to voice the demands of Labor for fair conditions of laboring. Never in all history was there such a meeting..."

A large May Day meeting was held in Melbourne in 1890, chaired by Dr Maloney, a highly respected person who later became a federal Labor MP. The group of radicals who called this meeting had an inaugural meeting on May Day 1886, to coincide with the US movement protests. Anarchist activists were prominent then, including J Andrews, Chummy Fleming, David Andrade and Monty Miller.

The spirit of the activists and early workers organisers is summed up inBernard O'Dowd's poem, May Day:

Come Jack, our place is with the ruck
On the open road today,
Not with the tepid "footpath sneak"
Or with the wise who stop away.

A straggling, tame procession, perhaps,
A butt for burgess scorn;
Its flags are ragged sentiments,
And its music's still unborn.

Though none respectable are here,
And trim officials ban,
Our duty, Jack, is not with them,
But here with hope and Man.

The first May Day march was held in Barcaldine in 1891 by striking shearers. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 1340 took part. Henry Lawson's well known poem Freedom on the Wallaby

...So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
O'those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle

was composed in Brisbane at the time the striking shearers were facing the troopers guns at Barcaldine.
Each year, UnionsACT celebrates MayDay with a dinner and the presentation of the Trades and Labour Council's May Day Award. The award is presented to the nominee who has made the most significant contribution to improving and advancing the conditions of ACT workers during the year.