May 1 is celebrated as International Labour Day in most countries except those under military dictatorship or authoritarian rule. In the United States of America and Canada, the first Monday in September is observed as Labour Day whilst the first Sunday in May is celebrated as Labour Day in Great Britain, which can be considered [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

May Day: Creating a new social force


May 1 is celebrated as International Labour Day in most countries except those under military dictatorship or authoritarian rule. In the United States of America and Canada, the first Monday in September is observed as Labour Day whilst the first Sunday in May is celebrated as Labour Day in Great Britain, which can be considered as being out of step. However, there is no other international celebration that generates more enthusiasm and fraternity as the May Day Celebration.

It was in the centenary year of the French Revolution that the Second International meeting in Congress in Paris on July 20, 1889, decided that May 1 every year be observed as International Labour Day. The decision resulted in the first May Day being held in 1890. Thus, when the working people, the world over, participate in May Day celebrations today, they will be celebrating the 126th May Day.

The original decision to observe May Day was that it should be an enforced event, whether the governments and employers approved it or not. However, May Day came to be celebrated officially at international level only in 1917. Red was selected as the colour of the working people in recognition of the blood-shed in the eight-hour workday struggle.

The decision to declare May 1 as International Labour Day arose from the historic struggle launched by the American workers for an eight-hour workday and the brutal attack by the police on the workers at a protest rally held at Haymarket Square in Chicago, U.S.A. on 4th May 1886.

The American workers struck work on 1 May 1886 demanding an eight-hour workday. The workers of the Mc. Cormick Harvester Works who had been locked out from February 1886 too joined the short workday movement. When August Spies, an anarchist worker leader was addressing the workers at a place close to the Mc. Cormick Harvester Works, some of those gathered at the meeting moved away and heckled the scabs or strike-breakers who were leaving for their homes. The Police arrived within minutes and fired at the strikers, killing four and wounding a large number. The Police attack resulted in a protest rally being held against the brutal force unleashed on the unarmed workers on  May 3, 1886. The protest rally was held on 4th May 1886 at the Haymarket Square in Chicago commencing 7.30 p.m.

Towards the end of the meeting, the Mayor Carter  Harrison who watched the meeting in progress went away convinced that there would be no violence. The crowd at that stage also began to disperse. Samuel Fielden continued to address the few hundred left when a squad of 180 policemen led by Inspector John Benfield, hated for his brutality, advanced on the crowd, ordered Fielden to stop speaking and the crowd to disperse. At that stage a bomb was thrown at the police from a side-walk injuring 66 and killing policeman Mathias Degan. The police retaliated by shooting at the crowd killing several and wounding over 200.

As to who threw the bomb never came to be known. Eight anarchist labour leaders, August Spies, Samuel Fielden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Oscar Neebe, Louis Ling and Albert Parsons were indicted for the murder of Policeman Mathias Degan, and were brought to trial. Judge Joseph E. Gary pronounced the sentence as decreed by the Jury. Seven of the eight defendants were sentenced to death whilst one, Oscar Neebe, was sentenced to a 15 year prison term. The Supreme Court of Illinois, whilst admitting that the trial had not been free of legal error, affirmed the sentences entered into by the lower Court. The Appeal to the Supreme Court saw no change to the sentences entered into.

Fielded and Schwab appealed for clemency and received executive pardon commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment, Louis  Ling committed suicide before the death sentence could be executed. The four others, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer and Albert Parsons, who refused to appeal for clemency, were hanged on 11th November 1887.

John P. Atgeld who became Governor of Illinois in 1893, on a petition signed by 60,000 presented to him, insisted on a thorough investigation into the bomb throwing incident and the trial against the eight defendants. When he pardoned the three in prison he concluded that the eight defendants had not been given fair trial and that the prosecution had failed to establish any connection between the defendants and the unknown person who threw the bomb at the Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886. He, in fact, charged the community of judicial murder. The executed worker leaders are regarded as martyrs to the cause of the working people and their monument at the Waldhiem  Cemetery has become a shrine visited by thousands every year.

The brutal attack on the workers by the police, the Haymarket Square incident, arrest, trial and conviction of the worker leaders who fought for a eight-hour workday proved the bias against the working people at the time and the immense power wielded by the employers. That had an impact on the thinking of the working people especially in the USA and countries of Western Europe. It projected the necessity to mobilise the working class to fight against inequity and for safeguarding the rights of the working people.

An eight-hour workday was only a dream 126 years ago, and the employers never intended to concede the right of a short workday. It is the struggle launched by the American workers that made it a reality. It is the unity, fraternity and strength of the working people that led to the emancipation of those who worked to earn a living wage.

With the observance of the first May Day 126 years ago, a new social force, that of the working people merged. The labour movement grew in strength and power and trade unions fought against injustice and discrimination and defended freedom, democracy and human rights.

The world today is engulfed in conflict, competition for international supremacy between nations, attempts to destabilise governments and control economies, resulting in distrust and fear among countries.

The advances in science and technology which could be used to improve living standards are used for destructive purposes. It is the working people who are mostly affected as a result. Hence worker solidarity and unity is as essential today as it was 126 years ago.

Despite May 1 – May Day – being set apart for the working people, in Sri Lanka, May Day is observed as a political event. Politicians who have never worked for a living and political parties attach great importance to May Day rallies to show their strength. Every political party has a trade union under its control. The working people exhibit their disunity and weakness having surrendered May Day to politicians.

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