“Yes, the celebration of May Day has truly been made official. It has been celebrated by the state. The might of the state was evident in many ways. But is it not intoxicating to think that the state, until recently our worst enemy, now belongs to us and has celebrated 1 May as its greatest festival?
And yet, take my word, if this festival had only been official, it would have produced nothing but coldness and emptiness.
But no, the popular masses, the navy, the Red Army all true working people put their efforts towards it. And we can therefore say that this festival of labour has never been so beautiful.”
Extract from A. V. Lunacharsky’s diary for 1 May 1918, describing the May Day festivities in Petrograd.
When some Australian workers in 1856 first decided to organize and celebrate a no-work day on May 1, they had no idea how much they deserved it. Hence, despite their intent of participating in the event just one time, the day gained such prominence, not out of a media publicity or government endorsement, but because of the growing needs of the times for the workers to assert themselves.
During those days, the average work hours per week was 70 hours! No wonder May 1 celebration touched the lives of millions and immediately followed the Americans. Early in 1886, the Chicago employers were filching away from their employed, the privilege recently unreasonable length than ten or eleven hours. Against this familiar device of the masters, many meetings of the men were held in Chicago in the earlier months of 1886. One of these meetings was called in the Haymarket, for the evening of May 4th. It was called by the Anarchists. A special protest was to be made against the killing of seven unarmed workers a few days earlier, outside McCormick’s premises, by Pinkerton detectives. The speeches of the Anarchists before this particular occasion had been of the “sound and fury” type. There had been talk of bombs and the like. (To-Day, Nov 1887).
Even before it, on May 1 that year, working men mobilized in support of the eight-hour workday in cities across the United States. According to New York Times of May 2, 1886, in Chicago, “one good-sized procession, one small one, two small meetings, some gatherings too feeble to be called meetings, and less than 30,000 laboring men taking a holiday, either willingly or unwillingly, represent the first day of the era in which, it has been declared, eight hours shall constitute a day’s work and 10 hours’ pay shall be gotten for eight hours’ work. The red flag has bobbed up here and there, some incendiary speeches have been made.”
NYT reported that the furniture manufacturers of St. Louis formed an association and unanimously resolved to operate their factories on the eight hours per day system after that day, on a basis of eight hours’ wages. All the plumbers in the city, 200 in number, quit work that morning. They made a demand of the bosses that they adopt the eight-hour system without decreasing their wages, beginning to-day. Similar reports were filed from Indianapolis, Detroit, Milwaukee, Louisville, Washington, Pittsburg, Philadelphia, Troy, Hartford, New-Haven, Boston And Portland.
Soon after, the Resolution introduced by Raymond Lavigne, International Socialist Congress, Paris, July 20, 1889 summed up the intent for a truly International Labor Day. The International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam calls upon all Social-Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace. The most effective way of demonstrating on May First is by stoppage of work. The Congress therefore makes it mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May First, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.
And as Leon Trotsky put it in 1924, the fundamental May Day demands were threefold: the eight-hour working day, for which generations of the working class have fought, the international solidarity of workers and the struggle against militarism.