May Day Reclaimed!

glparramatta glparramatta at
Thu May 3 05:34:18 MDT 2001

May Day Reclaimed!

By John Percy

national secretary, Democratic Socialist Party

The magnificent M1 protests and blockades of stock exchanges in eight
cities around Australia had an impact even beyond the specific demands
of the 20,000 activists who took to the streets.

* The greed of the corporations and the role of the stock exchanges were
well highlighted and exposed.

* Demands were very effectively publicised for dumping the Third World
debt, for boycotting the new WTO round at Qatar, for saving the
environment and for putting people before profits.

* And we continued the momentum of the inspiring international
resistance to corporate globalisation, from Davos to Seattle,
Washington, Bangkok, Prague, Melbourne, Seoul, Nice and Quebec City.

But the May Day protests had another victory. They reclaimed May Day.

In Australia for decades, May Day, the international day of workers
solidarity, had been pushed off May 1, and forced to celebrate on the
following Sunday. Labour movement veterans recall the last time May Day
was not celebrated on a Sunday was during World War II.

May Day began as an international day of struggle for the eight-hour day
on May 1, 1890. The American Federation of Labor staged a one-day strike
of 200,000 workers to demand that their employers grant an eight-hour
day on May 1, 1886.

The idea behind May Day goes back even further, as Rosa Luxemburg, the
great German Marxist explained:

"The inspired thought of introducing a proletarian holiday as a means of
obtaining the eight-hour working day first originated in Australia. As
early as 1856, the workers there resolved to call for one day of
complete work stoppage; the day to be spent in meetings and
entertainment instead – as a demonstration for the eight-hour day. The
21st of April was designated as this holiday.”

Unfortunately, the Australian labour movement has since relinquished
that pioneering role.

For years the official trade union May Day marches have been dwindling
and demoralised. Workers have been uninspired to come out to listen to
boring speeches – in Sydney blaring trucks borrowed from the bosses have
been called into service to substitute for the missing marchers.

For years the official trade union leaders have blamed lack of interest
on the part of the ranks. But they’ve not encouraged the involvement of
the many movements of activists. They’ve excluded radicals from the
platforms, and accused the left of being sectarian, and not able to
relate to ordinary workers.

But what May 1 showed was that workers, students, unemployed, migrants,
and activists in a multitude of movements are willing to go onto the
streets for a cause they believe in. They are willing to protest on May
1, more willing than for a passive Sunday May Day. May 1 was attended by
five times more people than Sunday May Days in recent years.

In 1924, when the NSW Labor Council was, for a brief time, inspired by
the Russian Revolution, it issued the following appeal, which has lost
none of its relevance today:

"The Australian movement desires not only that the [labour] day
[celebration] be fixed for May 1, but that the whole character and
purpose of the demonstration should be changed. Dinners, sports, picnics
– these are not good enough. The movement is worth more than this. Let
our May Day certainly be a day or rejoicing, but let it also be a day in
which all active elements of the movement take stock of the work of the
last year, of the prospects ahead, and the program required. Let it also
be a day of demonstrations which express a growing class-consciousness
of the working class and a declaration of war upon capitalist society.
We want a labour day which will give the movement a chance to unite for
a real move forward on the basis of all the more pressing interests of
the workers. Forward to a new battle! Forward to world revolution!"

And having reclaimed our day, we won’t give it up. From now on let’s
ensure that we celebrate May Day on May 1.

(for next issue of Green Left Weekly

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