Republican News · Thursday 04 May 2000

[An Phoblacht]

The real meaning of Mayday


This week, tens of thousands of workers from all over the world marched to celebrate May Day while also highlighting and protesting about the vast range of issues affecting the livelihood of workers in the world today.

In Bilbao, it was the demand for a 35 hour week. In Dublin, the theme was combating racism. In London, thousands of people marched to reclaim the streets from car use as part of a carnival against capitalism. In South Korea, students and workers protested about foreign take-overs of domestic companies. In Brazil, thousands of rural workers occupied plantations in protest at the slow pace of agrarian reform while another 1,500 workers blocked traffic on the Trans-Amazonian highway, one of the state's most important roads.

In London, the huge Carnival against Capitalism went off largely peacefully. One section of the marchers chose to ransack a McDonald's, and then while in conflict with riot police added some embellishments to Winston Churchill's statue and defaced the cenotaph, symbol of remembrance for Britain's war dead.

Cue the establishment outrage. Tony Blair led the way, branding the McDonald's wreckers as ``idiots'' who were ``beneath contempt''. Blair's condemnation was expansive. He said: ``The people responsible for the damage caused in London today are an absolute disgrace. Their actions have nothing to do with convictions or beliefs and everything to do with mindless thuggery''. On the defacing of the cenotaph, Blair said: ``It is only because of the bravery and courage of our war dead that these idiots can live in a free country at all.''

So the end result of May Day activism was that most of the media coverage went to cover the high moral tone of Blair and others who were only too willing to express outrage. The real reasons behind protests all over the world were casually glossed over.

As a Labour leader, Blair seemed strangely ignorant of the history of May Day as a platform which workers around the world use to highlight what they believe are the important issues affecting them.

May Day's origins begin with the 1884 convention of the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Unions in the USA. They adopted a resolution stating that beginning 1 May 1886, ``eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work'' and workers would strike at companies that did not recognise the eight-hour day.

By April 1886, a quarter of a million workers had committed themselves to go on strike as part of the May Day movement. This enabled thousands of workers to win shorter shifts. Most employers, however, refused to reduce working hours.

Chicago, along with many other US cities, became a focus for widespread worker dissent and that year's May Day march became a symbol of struggle for workers around the world.

The International Working People's Association had been building a movement that included immigrants, African-Americans, women and white workers. Up to 50,000 workers were on strike that day and thousands of others attended the May Day parade, which went off peacefully. Two days later, on 3 May, at another meeting police fired into the crowd, killing two protesters and wounding others. Another meeting held the day after in Haymarket Square on 4 May led to more indiscriminate killing of eight protesters after a dynamite bomb was thrown at police lines, killing one sergeant. The Haymarket martyrs have become a symbol of the struggle workers face around the world today.

What Tony Blair seems to have forgotten is that some of the basic demands made in 1886 by workers have not been met. He is making the false assessment that the reasoning behind the current transnational protests in Seattle, Washington and now again in London, are driven not by misguided anarchists but by an evergrowing number of people who believe that capitalism in its present form is killing our environment, exploiting many first world workers and impoverishing those in less developed states.

What Tony Blair and many other political leaders across Europe and North America have to realise is that the call to kill capitalism before it kills the planet is much much more than just a catchy slogan. It is like the call to cancel third world debt, a deeply felt belief by an ever increasing numbr of people who don't consider themselves to be idiots or thugs.

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