England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Join Socialist Alternative in celebrating International Workers’ Day

By Jack Yarlett, Socialist Alternative Merseyside

May Day has been celebrated, particularly in Europe, since ancient times, tracing its roots back to pagan festivals celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring. For us today however, its significance is as ‘International Workers’ Day’. A day that commemorates the working class of the world and our liberation struggle.

May Day is a bank holiday in the UK and in many other countries, which is usually marked by rallies and marches by trade unions, and other left organisations. It is also commemorated by sharing ‘May Day greetings’ between different campaigns and organisations.

Why do we celebrate May Day when we do? It was not a date chosen randomly, nor was it picked out because it coincided with a pre-existing holiday. The history of May Day as a worker’s holiday stretches back nearly 140 years. Its origin is rooted in both the bloody repression of the working class and its hard-won victories.

From the mid-19th century onwards, one of the key demands of the early trade union movement was the eight-hour working day, as the advent of the Industrial Revolution had brought about new heights of exploitation of workers labouring in factories. One such demonstration calling for the eight-hour day was held in what would go down in history as the Haymarket Affair.

On 1 May 1886 in Haymarket Square, Chicago, a demonstration organised by trade unions, anarchists, and socialists was attacked by the police in an attempt to disperse it. In the confusion, a bomb was thrown into the formation of police, killing one officer. Panicked police officers fired into the crowd and armed workers returned fire. When the dust settled, four workers had been killed along with seven police, with dozens more injured.

In the aftermath, amid anti-anarchist hysteria in the press, seven organisers were sentenced to death in what is now universally recognised as a biased show trial, four of the sentences were carried out. All of the condemned were found guilty of “conspiracy” – none of them were identified as having carried out the bombing.

The Haymarket Affair galvanised the US workers’ movement, driving recruitment into the trade unions and boosting the ideas of socialism and anarchism. In 1890 the Second International called worldwide strikes on 1 May, demanding the eight-hour day to mark the anniversary. The event proved a massive success, with demonstrations across Europe and North and South America. 1 May has since been marked as International Workers’ Day.

The ruling class would never have allowed a holiday with such radical roots to be officially acknowledged of their own choosing. It marks a concession won by the strength of the organised working class.

In the current era of capitalist crisis, where we are faced with rising poverty, war, climate change, and a ruling class bent on stoking bigotry and division, International Workers’ Day takes on a renewed significance – as a time to focus on redoubling our efforts to build a socialist movement capable of putting an end to the violence and madness of capitalism.


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