International Workers’ Day needs a soft reboot to make a comeback

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Mayday photo by Moises Gonzalez

While International Workers’ day used to be an important part of the workers movement all over the world, this is no longer the case in many places where it appears to have been watered down and turned into a milquetoast version of what it used to be and perhaps could be in the future. Elsewhere it remains important, but only of a workers’ movement that itself has fallen in status and utility.

International Workers’ Day has developed into a day to celebrate the workers’ movement in general, but it was originally celebrated to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre of 1886, which occurred when nearly 400 000 workers were striking across the US for an eight-hour workday, beginning on May 1st.

Leading up to the Haymarket Massacre, more than 40 000 workers were striking in Chicago — an epicentre of labour rights agitation at the time — and this number rose to nearly 100,000 by May 3rd, when violence broke out between workers and police. Someone had thrown a dynamite bomb, and seven cops and several others were killed in the explosion and ensuing violence.

Several labour movement leaders and anarchists were convicted and four were hung on charges of terrorism, despite several not being present and others who could be accounted for elsewhere during the explosion. Outrage at the capitalist institutions’ violence led to May 1st being commemorated as International Workers’ Day. May Day was formally recognised as an annual event in 1891, at the Second International’s second congress.

In the USSR and other communist Eastern Bloc states, May 1st became a day of celebration where party leaders greeted crowds, workers participated in parades, and military parades could be seen in capital cities. However, it did not matter to nearly the same extent that it was only a day of celebration in the USSR, because Soviet workers were living in a world meaningfully more cognisant of and concerned with their rights than workers today all over the world.

In particular, younger generations now — including young workers — do not even know what May 1st is or what it came from. Builders and other workers in similar traditional crafts and trades see it as a celebration and a day off for them to party with friends; where previously they would have chosen to protest for their rights, workers now naturally prefer to lay in the grass and drink beer, at least on a sunny May 1st.i Those who do participate do so mostly out of nostalgia, not because they feel that participating is meaningful.ii

When surveying a sample population of primarily Danish teachers, retired teachers and union members, half say that May 1st has deteriorated both in terms of achieving political goals and participation; only a small percentage said that May 1st events have improved in terms of participation, and none say that the situation has improved with regard to achieving political goals.

While nearly half of respondents said that they are participating this year or usually participate, they did not feel it was very useful for the goals of communism and  the workers’ movement and many respondents also mentioned that it has turned into meaningless partying.

One argument is that Leftist movements have fallen behind in many places because many workers feel that their conditions have generally improved compared to a century ago; and if they feel that their personal circumstances are good enough, they do not feel the need to protest at all — even in the name of international solidarity.iii

Earlier this month — on this year’s May 1st — there were nearly 50 arrests in Paris, hundreds of rallies in various other cities in France, participants such as Jean-Luc Mélénchon — leader of the eco-socialist political party La France Insoumise — and CGT union leader Phillippe Martinez. iv v  Despite the large amount of activity, many young French see May 1st [or Premier mai, in French] as just another day off, even when it is virtually the only day where workers are legally obligated to be given leave.

In a survey of a random selection of young French people, a very small percentage actually participated in May 1st events even though 100% reported that they understood May 1st to mean that they had a day off. About half said that they understood May 1st as a day to fight for workers’ rights, but several responded specifically that they did not even know what Premier mai stood for.

Only a small percentage responded that May 1st was about furthering personal, organisational or party political goals; anti-capitalism or anti-capitalist protests; or striking. In defence, regardless of the strength of workers’ movements, striking is unlikely to be at the forefront of French workers’ minds on May 1st when they already have the day off. Still, it is a concern for workers’ movements and by extension communist movements that May 1st has seemingly been completely deradicalised and that the day has lost its symbolism to become like any other holiday.

In a small European survey of communists, several respondents raised similar concerns about other places. A Norwegian respondent complained that May 1st has been completely defanged of its communist and revolutionary spirit and that those who participate are more interested in simply celebrating the existing social democracy instead of fighting for more. Similarly, a German worker complained that most unions have turned into ‘yellow unions’ — unions which are highly influenced by an employer — and that union members are not interested in anything more than not getting laid off. Several respondents from the UK were also disgusted by the current state of affairs, saying that International Workers’ Day means “utterly nothing” and there are no events or protests or class consciousness in general.

One can see in many examples of May 1st events that there is often a conflict between protest and celebration; in most cases only one prevails. Respondents to the survey from all over the world complained that protest and revolution has been discarded only to be replaced by parties in the best case. Meanwhile in France, one can see that while revolution has been preserved, the relevance to any larger struggle has disappeared.

All things considered, it is difficult to see the point of protesting on May 1st from the perspective of a worker; but even though it may feel futile, workers must continue to fight for their rights and liberation. As is the case in all fights against oppression, workers need to fight with solidarity at the front of their minds; and instead of going through the motions of their nostalgic traditions, the workers of the world need to look beyond social democracy in their own countries and turn their focus towards the liberation of the global working class.

Buggle is a ML writer who lives in Denmark

Cover Photo by Moises Gonzalez on Unsplash

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i ‘Kom med ind i skurvognen, S1E3’, Et rigtigt fucking arbejde, Chief Editor Anne Marie Severine Lütken, Denmark, TV2 Zulu, 2018

ii S. Linnemann, ‘Prekær 1. maj’, Arbejderen [Website], https://arbejderen.dk/debat/prekaer-1-maj/, (accessed 6 May 2021).

iii U.H. Güzel, ‘Arbejderne har det ikke dårligt nok til 1. maj-taler’, Jyllands-Posten [Website], https://jyllands-posten.dk/debat/blogs/utkuguzel/ECE12953063/arbejderne-har-det-ikke-daarligt-nok-til-1-majtaler/,

iv France 24, ‘En France, un 1er-Mai encore sous Covid-19, les syndicats dans la rue’, France 24 [Website], https://www.france24.com/fr/france/20210501-france-un-1er-mai-encore-sous-covid-19-mais-les-syndicats-%C3%A0-nouveau-dans-la-rue,

v France 24, ‘Un 1er-Mai sous haute tension, des heurts à Paris’, France 24 [Website], https://www.france24.com/fr/20190501-direct-manifestations-1ermai-france-paris-gilets-jaunes-black-blocs-syndicats