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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 19, May 1, 2010

Labour Day and May Day: Some Lesser Known Features

Saturday 1 May 2010, by Anil Rajimwale


There are several aspects of the International Labour Day and May Day yet unknown; certain myths need to be clarified and little known facts about them must be highlighted.

It is interesting to know that Labour Day did not originate as ‘May Day’. In fact, the working class movement in the United States had a long tradition of observing Labour Day much before the May Day originated. The workers’ movement in the US was part and parcel of the rising tide of industrialisation in Europe and America and the consequent mass and group movements emerging in an increasing number of places. It was also inextricably linked to the American War of Independence of the 1770s, as also with the civil war in that country in the 1860s.

In England, workers’ organisations arose earlier than elsewhere. That was in the middle of the 18th century. The labour and TU organisations became stronger by the end of the 19th century, when organisations began emerging in several countries of Europe.

That was also the time when labour associations came up in the United States. The first workers’ associations began to be formed in the US in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. For example, the unions of the hired shoe-makers in Philadelphia, of tailors in Baltimore, of printers in New York were formed in 1792. The furniture-makers formed a union in New York in 1796 and the shipwrights in New York in 1803. Struggles against strike-breaking took place all over the US, and was a specific form of united workers’ movement in that country. Strike-breaking was considered the gravest offence and the breakers were immediately expelled from the unions.

The 1830s were a period of rapid expansion of trade unions in the US, especially in the period 1833-1837. They included weavers, book- binders, tailors, shoe-makers, factory hands as also women workers. The first local unions of the labour organisations also began to be formed at that time. They included the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia (1827), similar unions in other cities like Boston, New York, Baltimore etc. In 1836, there were 13 city inter-trade union associations, including the remarkable General Trade Unions of New York (1833), which was highly efficient. It had a permanent strike fund, ran a daily paper, and had contacts with other cities. Attempts were also made to form nationwide organisations, for example, that National Trades Union was founded in 1834.

Some Early Struggles for Reduction
of Workday

The struggle for reduction in work-hours has one of the earliest and most effective movements contributed by the American working class. The New England Workingmen’s Association launched a campaign for the reduction of hours of work to 10 in 1832. Leaders of the movement were already raising political slogans. Leaders like Seth Luther of the Association opposed the copying of the English factory system. The American working class had also been closely linked to the Declaration of Independence, and demanded that the rights of the workers be respected.

Here a crucial historical fact has to be noted: the working masses and Blacks were closely associated with and interested in the American Revolution of 1776. July 4 is celebrated as the Day of the American Independence. A large number of common workers take part in its celebrations, often on a big scale.

The workers and common people participated in the struggle for independence on a wide scale. For example, most of the soldiers in the 11th Pennsylvania Battalion were workers. Negroes and freed slaves were enlisted in the armies from the Rhode Island, 72 Massachusetts towns and Pennsylvania.

The Army of the American Revolution was a people’s army. This, along with its slogans and aims left an indelible mark on the working class movement of the US.

For many generations, July 4 was celebrated in the manner of a working class day. Meetings were held, festivals, banquets, parades, gatherings etc. were organised, and the workers’ demands and aspirations were raised.

The American workers gained a 10-hour workday in some parts of the country as far back as in 1835. That year there was a general strike of labour unions in Philadelphia. The city authorities were forced to introduce a 10-hour workday. This led to a countrywide movement for the demand, resulting in an upsurge.

The first law on a 10-hour day was adopted by the legislature of New Hampshire in 1847. Similar laws were passed by the States of Maine and Pennsylvania in 1848. By the early 1860s, the 10-hour day had become the norm throughout the US.

Political Organisations

Political parties of the working class in the US were formed much before they emerged in Europe. The United Stated had a strong tradition of utopian socialist movement, and one of the reasons was vast geographical areas where one could experiment with utopian, self-sustained colonies. Thomas Skidmore, George Ripley, Francis Wright, Robert Dale Owen (the son of the famous Robert Owen), Horace Greeley and some others were the prominent political figures of the American working class at that time, many of them utopian socialists. Several utopian socialist organisations came up under the influence of Owen, Fourier and others. Later on, large sections adopted Marxism and scientific socialism under the impact mainly of the First International.

The first political workers’ party was formed in Philadelphia (US) in 1828. In the course of the next six years, workers’ parties were organised in more than sixty cities. Their demands included a number of social and political issues, including a 10-hour workday, children’s education, abolition of the compulsory service in the militia, the abolition of imprisonment of insolvent debtors, payment of wages in cash, introduction of income tax, etc.

The workers’ parties also contested elections to various legislature bodies including the municipalities and state assemblies etc. In 1829, twenty labour candidates were elected in Philadelphia with the support of the federalists and democrats. In New York, a Working Men’s Party was formed as a result of the 10-hour work struggle. In the elections to the State legislature in 1829, the party got 28 per cent of votes and its candidates got elected.

The first recorded strike of the factory workers in America took place in 1828 when the mill owners in Paterson, New Jersey, tried to change the dinner hour from 12 to 1. The workers were mostly children, and they feared that the next thing they would be asked was to abandon dinner time at all! Militia was called out to break the strike.

Women were in the forefront of many struggles in the 1820s and 1830s. As a result, even a Factory Girls’ Association was formed in 1834.

The workers were active in several other parties too, mainly among the Democrats and the Republicans. In fact these parties often banked heavily on the workers. During those days, these parties were much closer to the workers and their demands and movement, unlike the later days.

May Day Takes Shape

As we have seen, there was already a tradition of observance of some kind of Labour Day in the US much before May Day came into being. Often, a day used to be set aside in September for observance of the Labour Day, particularly in the first week. These used to be occasions for great festivities. Workers and their families used to come out in processions and gatherings and fairs. We have already mentioned about observance of July 4 as the Labour Day.

The Labour Day and May Day arose out of certain events in the American labour movement and their TUs. There were two major national TU organisations in the US: Knights of Labour and the American Federation of Labour or the AFL. Earlier it was known as the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions (FOTLU) of the US and Canada.

In a meeting of the Central Labour Union of New York on May 18, 1882, Peter McGuire moved a resolution proposing that a day be set aside as a festive day. He proposed that the first Monday of September be fixed for the purpose. It was a time of the year, nearly midway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.

More than 30,000 workers from all the trades paraded the streets on the morning of September 5 in New York, and it was there that the slogan was advanced: “8 hours for work; 8 for rest; 8 for what we will”. The event was repeated in 1883. In 1884, the NY CLU decided to hold the Labour Day parade on the first Monday of September, which was September 1. Workers in other cities were also called upon to celebrate the day as a universal holiday. Marches were brought out in several cities.

The FOTLU decided in 1884 to observe the first Monday of September each year as the workers’ national holiday. The call was taken up all over the country. The first nationwade observance of the first Monday of September in this way took place on September 7, 1885. Subsequently, the labour day began to be made a holiday by more and more numbers of the States.

These unions and their national organisations also decided to observe the First of May to demonstrate their class solidarity, particularly in support of the demand of an eight-hour work-day. That would take place from May 1, 1886, they decided. In some States, the law for eight- hour day was already in place, but the national legal right was yet to be established. It was to emphasise this demand that a strike all over the US was organised on May 1, 1886.

A few years before May 1886, various days or dates for nationwide strikes and action were being contemplated. Observance of a day was being contemplated for September in, for example, 1884. Nationwide actions were being planned by the national TUs in 1885 and 1886.

In fact, countrywide movements that took place in May 1886 were actually were being thought of for September in the previous years. But due to a number of reasons, they were shifted to May, including the reasons of business cycles. By this time, the struggle for a 10-hour day was converted into that for an eight-hour day.

The rest of the history of May Day is too well-known to be repeated here.

But one point needs to be clarified. It is a mistake to propagate that the red flag was ‘born’ during the events of May Day, 1886. In fact, in the US itself, the red flag was a common sight much before 1886. Workers displayed red flags, banners and arm bands during meetings, processions and festivities way back in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on.

Besides, the red flag had already become the working class standard by the 1830s (‘thirties’) in Europe; the workers hoisted the red flag as their own politically for the first time in June 1832 at the Paris barricades.

May Day in India

It is interesting to note that one of the earliest strikes of the workers in India took place in April-May 1862, when 1200 labourers of Howrah Railway Station struck work for some days. The more interesting part of the event was that their demand was for an eight-hour workday. Already the workers of the Locomotive Department worked eight-hours; so they also demanded the same. The event took place some 24 years before the historic May Day in the US.

Now, we will deal briefly with some early examples of observance of May Day in India. As far as is known, it was celebrated for the first time in India in 1923. Singaravelu Chettiar was one of earliest Communists in the country and an influential trade union and working class leader in South India. He suggested in April 1923 that the workers of India celebrate May Day, “since workers all over the world will celebrate” it. He further said that meetings should be held on this occasion all over the country. In Madras, he said, an appeal was being made to celebrate the day. Two mass meetings were held on that day in Madras, preceded by big processions, one on the High Court beach of the workers of north Madras, and another of south Madras at the Triplicane beach. Singaravelu announced the formation of Labour Kisan Party on that day and explained its manifesto. Several Congress-men too joined the meetings

Singaravelu presided over the High Court beach meeting, while the other one was chaired by S. Krishnaswamy Sarma, and the manifesto of the LKP was read by P.S. Velayutham.

The meetings were duly reported in the daily papers. The Vanguard, published from Moscow, called it the first May Day in India. (June 15, 1923)

In 1927 again, May Day was celebrated at the initiative of Singaravelu, this time at his house in Madras. He gave a feast to the workers and others in the afternoon. In the evening, a big procession was brought out. It was converted into a mass meeting under the presidentship of Dr P. Varadarajulu Naidu. It is said that since a red flag was not immediately available, Singaravelu used the red sari of his daughter to make one, and hoisted it over his house!

Thus, the history of working class movement, and of May Day and the Red Flag in particular, has many interesting and educative episodes, richer than what we know.

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