May Day: A History of Struggle, Solidarity, and the Socialist Movement

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The 1st of May is International Workers Day. Today, we celebrate it as a public holiday in most countries across the world, including in Nigeria, where workers parade before labour leaders and government officials in different state capitals. But what we need to remind ourselves is that at the roots of May Day, and its global recognition, is a history of workers’ struggle, sacrifice, solidarity, and struggle for socialism. 

The first time that workers marked May Day was in 1890. This was based on the resolution reached by radicals and revolutionaries in Paris, on 14 July 1889, when they gathered to form the Second International of socialists and labour parties. 

Events that took place a few years earlier in Chicago, USA inspired their decision, and they took a stand of solidarity with American workers whose leaders were being prosecuted. 

These events, as most of us know, started with a mass strike of over 300,000 workers on 1 May 1886. The workers’ demand was for the workday to be eight hours and no more. They stood up against workers being worked to death by their bosses. The slogan of the Eight-hour Day movement” of the American working class was “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will.”

Socialists of various shades played key roles as organisers of this mass movement and its May 1886 strike, across the length and breadth of the USA. The moment that eventually set the events of that year into a historic watershed took place at Haymarket Square in Chicago on 4 May. 

Socialist trade union leaders addressed a rally of workers in the Square, as part of the active mass strike. They were about to wrap up after several hours, when the police tried to disperse them and somebody threw a bomb into the arena, leading to the deaths of several workers and police officers. 

Nobody ever knew the bomber. But many historians have pointed out that there is enough evidence to conclude that the bomber was an agent provocateur used by the state to discredit the strike with blood. 

The kangaroo trial of revolutionary labour leaders in the aftermath of that bombing lends credence to the argument that the bombing was a case of giving a dog a bad name to hang it. 

From the beginning to the end of the trial, the judge, the mass media (owned by the bosses), and the state showed hostility against the eight labour leaders arrested and charged for the bombing, which even included people that were not present at the rally. These activists were: August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, and Samuel Fielden.

At the end of it all, they were all found guilty, as expected. This was despite the fact that Spies, Parsons, Fischer, and Schwab had left the rally after they addressed the workers (in the case of Schwab he immediately went to speak at another rally happening at the same time). Engel was not even anywhere near the rally ground. And Fielden was the person speaking when the police tried to disperse the rally and a bomb went off. He was actually wounded in the knee, during the ensuing fracas.

Seven of these working-class activists were sentenced to death. Schwab was sentenced to life in prison. These revolutionary unionists and socialists were not cowed by the extremely repressive action of the capitalist rulers.

August Spies captured their position and the historic place of the working class and its struggle when he said:

“if you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery—the wage slaves—except salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there, and there, and behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. you cannot put it out.”

Indeed, the spark which the Chicago courts thought they had extinguished burst into flames of workers’ struggles across the world. The eight-hour workday became a central element of programme and struggle of the late 19th and early 20th century working class. And out of an attempt to stem the wave of a worldwide revolution, it was at the heart of the first Convention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in the aftermath of World War I.

The origins of May Day show us that we, as workers, have to dare to struggle, to dare to win. The day also did not become a public holiday as a mark of the benevolence of the capitalists. It was because workers continued to demonstrate, as they still do in several countries in the world today, on May Day, even when governments did not recognise the Day. 

Initially, workers in most European countries could not organise May Day activities during the week, to avoid being charged with embarking on wildcat strikes. Rather, they marched on the weekend following the Day.

The United States came up with an alternative “Labour Day” which is celebrated as a public holiday on the first Monday of September. This was with the intention of dousing the radical spirit behind the events of May 1886. The first law codifying this peculiar Labour Day was passed the following year.

For decades in Nigeria, radical trade unions organised public mass meetings and symposiums to mark Mark Day. The first time it was celebrated as a public holiday was in 1980. And this was only in Kano and Kaduna, the two states where the government was constituted by the radical People’s Redemption Party (PRP).

Not to be outdone by the leftist PRP, and to try to reconstitute its hegemony on the working people, the capitalist federal government led by the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) made May Day a national public holiday the following year. 

The tradition of marching before representatives of the capitalists which has now become the norm in Nigeria is not in line with the traditions of struggle at the heart of the May Day.

I was elated when I learned that the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) would organise processions and a rally in Abuja instead of the sterile jamboree of marching past labour leaders and representatives of the government. But this was simply a response to being initially denied use of Eagle Square. Once the government rectified this, radicalising misstep on its part, the trade unions reverted to the lukewarm celebration of tamed parades. 

But the good thing is that workers cannot always be caged. These parades have not always been tame. On several occasions since 2011, angry rank-and-file workers have booed top government officials and even (former) trade union bureaucrats like Adams Oshiomhole of the ruling APC, demonstrating their anger at paltry increases in wages and worsening working conditions. 

We need to fan the embers of such anti-systemic spirit, which brought forth May Day in the first place, into the flames of action for system change. 

We have every cause to celebrate and enjoy ourselves on May Day. We deserve it – it is a day purchased for our class with blood. But even more than enjoyment, it is a day for us to reflect and rededicate ourselves to defend and expand workers’ rights, and ultimately to kick the capitalists out of power, smash their exploitative for-profit system and build a new socialist order on the ashes of capitalism. 

During the trial of the Haymarket 8, Michael Schwab said “…today, every labour movement must of necessity be socialistic.” This is because as a body of ideas, as a movement, and as a system, the working class can liberate itself and rebuild society only with and through socialism. It is not an easy task, and there will be ups and downs as we have seen over centuries. But the power in our collective hands is greater than the capitalists’ hoarded gold, and the might of their armies magnified a thousandfold. It is up to us, and nobody else, to emancipate ourselves with this great power, and build socialism; a just and equitable society of the working people, by the working people, for the working people. 

by Baba AYE

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