May Day, International Workingmen’s Day, was first celebrated on the First of May, 1890, through processions and demonstrations across Europe and North America.
The origin of May Day is closely linked with the struggle for the shorter workday – a demand of major political significance for the working class. This struggle started almost from the beginning of the factory system in Britain, the US and European countries. Workers were resisting the long workday of 14-16-18 hours. The 1820s and 1830s were full of strikes for a reduction of work hours.
Although the demand for higher wages was the most prevalent cause for strikes, the demand for shorter hours and the right to organize were always kept in the foreground when workers formulated their demands against their capitalist employers.
In England, fierce struggle raged between the workers and the capitalists over the length of the working day. The passing of the Factories Act in 1847 by the British parliament, limiting the working day to 10 hours, was an important victory for the working class.
The International Workingmen’s Association, founded by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, called for the workers of all countries to fight for an eight hour working day at its Geneva Congress in 1866.
On August 20, 1866, delegates from over 50 trade unions in the US formed the National Labour Union. At its founding convention the following resolution dealt with the demand for a shorter workday: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free labour of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which 8 hours shall be the normal working day in all states in the American union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.”
Strikes and lockouts in 1885 increased to about 700 and the number of workers involved jumped to 250,000. In 1886 the number of workers’ strikes in the U.S. more than doubled, reflecting the fighting spirit of the workers.
Workers in many cities and different trades began to unite around the demand “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest”.
They began to prepare for a major strike action around this demand on May 1, 1886.
The strike centre was Chicago, where the strike movement was most widespread, but many other cities were also involved in the struggle on May First. Workers in large numbers participated in the strike in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and many other cities.
The 8-hour movement in the US, culminating in the strike on May 1, 1886, is a glorious chapter in the fighting history of the working class. On May 1, 1886, Chicago witnessed a great outpouring of workers, who downed their tools and went on strike. The US state and the capitalist class were terrified at the growing working class movement. They wanted to deal a deadly blow to the entire working class movement by attacking the militant leadership of the striking workers.
On May 3, police brutally attacked a peaceful meeting of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago, resulting in the death of six workers. In response to this unprovoked barbaric attack by the police, the workers organised a demonstration on May 4 at the Haymarket Square. The meeting was peaceful and about to be adjourned when agent provocateurs working for the police threw a bomb into the crowd. In the anarchy and violence that was deliberately organized by the police and agent provocateurs, several people were killed and many injured.
The capitalist media in the US then launched a massive anti-worker campaign, painting workers as anarchists and criminals and calling for their hanging. Seven leaders of the striking workers were sentenced to death. Four of them were hanged. Later on, the entire trial was exposed as a farce. For a time, the capitalist class in the US was able to suppress the working class movement for rights by unleashing a ferocious onslaught on workers. However, it was unable to destroy the fighting spirit of the workers, who decided to organize rallies throughout the US on May 1, 1890.
On July 14, 1889, the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille during the French Revolution, leaders from organized revolutionary proletarian movements of many lands assembled in Paris, to form once more an international organization of workers. Those assembled at the founding meeting of what was to become the Second International heard from the American delegates about the struggle in America for the 8-hour day during 1884-1886, and the recent rejuvenation of the movement. Inspired by the example of the American workers, the Paris Congress adopted the following resolution:
“The Congress decides to organize a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand of the state authorities the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890, by the American Federation of Labour at its Convention in St. Louis, December, 1888, this day is accepted for the international demonstration. The workers of the various countries must organize this demonstration according to conditions prevailing in each country”.
This marked the origin of May Day on 1st May.
In his preface to the fourth German edition of the Communist Manifesto, which he wrote on May 1, 1890, Engels, reviewing the history of the international proletarian organizations, called attention to the significance of the first International May Day:
“As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilised as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim: the standard eight-hour working day, to be established by legal enactment, as proclaimed by the Geneva Congress of the International in 1866, and again by the Paris Workers’ Congress in 1889. And today’s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the working men of all countries are united indeed.
If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes”!
Since then, workers throughout the world have celebrated May 1 as a day of solidarity among workers of all lands, in the common struggle against capitalism and for liberation from all forms of exploitation.
Centenary of the first May Day in India – 1923
May Day celebrations in India have been an integral part of the International Working Class Day celebrations that are organised throughout the world every year on May 1.
The first May Day celebration in India was organised in Chennai (formerly Madras) by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan on May 1, 1923. This was also the first time the red flag was hoisted in India. The party leader Comrade Singaravelu made arrangements to celebrate May Day in two places in 1923. One meeting was held at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court; the other meeting was held at the Triplicane beach. The Triumph of Labour statue on Marina Beach in Chennai marks the country’s first May Day celebrations.
The May Day celebration organized in Chennai reflected the rise of socialist consciousness amongst the working class. The Indian working class had already shown its revolutionary potential in the anti-colonial struggle through the great strike movement that followed the arrest of Lokmanya Tilak on sedition charges.
Following the end of the First World War, a massive strike movement swept India in the period 1918-1921. The end of 1918 saw the entire Mumbai cotton mill industry shut down as a result of workers’ strike for better wages and working and living conditions. Railway workers and textile mill workers throughout India were in the forefront of powerful struggles against the fascist Rowlatt Act. In November 1921, millions of workers participated in a countrywide general strike to protest the visit of the Prince of Wales. The workers of Mumbai textile mills brought the city to a grinding halt.
The heroic deeds of the Ghadar revolutionaries during and after the First World War, and the triumph of the Great October Socialist Revolution in the Soviet Union in 1917, were a source of inspiration for the rising working class movement.