The Guardian • Issue #2003

The importance and history of May Day

Photo: Anna Pha

May Day was chosen as the day for International Workers’ Day in 1889 by the Marxist International  Socialist Congress, in Paris. 1889 is a long time ago, and Paris is a long way away from Australia. So why care? Why celebrate May Day?

Paris is indeed a long way away from most Guardian readers, but Melbourne and Sydney are a lot closer, and in 1856 stonemasons in these Australian cities won the eight-hour day as an industry standard. We started it (kind of)! In the United States there was a gigantic strike planned on 1st May 1886 in support of the eight-hour day. The Congress of the Second International declared the first of May International Workers’ Day to mark the anniversary of that strike.

Back home, Australians initially didn’t celebrate May Day. We already had the eight hour day to celebrate – to this day, different states have different Labour Days. But in 1891, we had our first May Day protests as part of the Shearers’ Strike. More than 1300 workers took part, waving the Eureka Flag and union banners.

Since then, May Day has grown into a global celebration of workers and their movement, and a reminder of present struggles for workers’ rights and conditions.

Working conditions in Australia now are much better in many respects than they were when May Day was established. In a large part, this is because of the struggles of  generations of workers who came together, organised and protested for conditions we should never take for granted. The struggle is by no means over. People still die at work – 29 so far this year, and employers never stop demanding “flexibility,” that weasle word also known as “savage cuts,” as far as wages and conditions go.

Last year, The Guardian – The Workers’ Weekly described May Day as a “display of class solidarity in opposition to the attacks by capitalist governments and employers on working people.” Those attacks continue.

In addition, this year, the Morrison Government which casually spent $5.5 billion on not getting any submarines from the French, has committed us to AUKUS, an open-ended alliance of English-speaking imperialist and neo-imperialist countries which includes a blank cheque (starting price $80 billion, end price who knows?). What does this have to do with May Day and with workers? For one thing, these billions will have to come from somewhere, and neither of our major parties is going to take them from the rich (the Liberal-national government has introduced tax cuts which unsurprisingly are aimed at people on over $200,000 a year,  while the Labor Party, laughably described as “the only party in Australia that holds itself accountable to the needs of the working class” has waved the tax cuts through). The money for AUKUS will not come from thin air, and it will not come from the employers. It will come from workers and the debt will be used to put pressure on workers’ wages and conditions.

If there are problems and/or dangers at your work – that’s why we march on May Day. None of the good things about your work – wages, sick leave, holidays, workplace safety – came without struggle and work from organised labour. None of the good things about your work enforce themselves. That’s why we march on May Day.

Long Live May Day!

Long Live Peace and Socialism!

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