Why We Celebrate Mayday


The struggle against capitalism and authority is constant but each year on May Day the labour movement takes time out to celebrate its history and achievements. Rather than dwell on the hardships of struggle we take to the streets and remember what it is we are aiming for - the emancipation of our class. Climbing a mountain means paying close attention to the ground you walk but it’s important to look up now and again in order to focus on exactly where it is you’re headed.

May Day’s association with class struggle stems from the trade union movement in the nineteenth century which fought for an eight hour working day. Their demands remained unheeded and direct action was then seen as the most effective way of creating change. Workers and unions set a date of May 1st 1886 on which workers would create the eight hour day themselves.

On this day an estimated half a million people took to the streets across America. In Chicago, where anarchists were the strongest organised force among workers, violent incidents involving police and strikers led to a crackdown on the labour movement by state forces. Eight well-known anarchists of the time were arrested and prosecuted as part of a campaign of terror aimed at crushing the strike movement.

Their subsequent trial closed with State Attorney Grinnell’s speech: “Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the Grand Jury, and indicted because they were leaders. There are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and you save our institutions, our society.” Four of these men, Parsons, Engel, Spies and Fischer, were hanged, while another man, Lingg, committed suicide in his cell and the three other men sentenced to lengthy jail terms.

May Day has since become a tradition of celebration of how far we have come in the struggle for democracy and freedom, a symbol of resistance, of people power and direct action. Every year, workers globally gather to celebrate the social and economic achievements our struggle has gained so far. One of the largest May Days in Ireland in recent years was in 2004, When an EU summit in Dublin clashed with our annual holiday. A weekend of activities was organised celebrating May Day and opposing the capitalist agenda of the summit.

May Day today poses the question - why should we continue to celebrate? Well, we should never forget our history or the potential we have to take control back of our lives. Here in Ireland, the labour movement has forced the bosses and the state to give many concessions around workplace conditions and basic social needs. We are well capable of defending these gains and of going on to win much more.


This article is from Workers Solidarity No 121 published May 2011