The origin of May Day is indissolubly bound up with the struggle for the shorter workday – a demand of major political significance for the working class, as Alexander Trachtenberg wrote in 1932 as the first lines of his important pamphlet titled The History of May Day. Hence, it becomes crucial for the working class as well as proletarian revolutionaries to keep in mind the history and significance of May Day. The struggle for better and humane working conditions and particularly shorter work hours commenced in the 18thand 19thcentury, with the commencement of the factory system in the United States where work hours of 14 to 18 or even 20 hours per day was commonplace, and later spread to different parts of the world. The demand of 10-hour workday was formulated first which was manifest in the working class struggles of the 19th century which later took the shape of an 8-hour workday. However, the 8-hour day movement which gave birth to May Day finds its roots in the United States’ workers’ movement of 1884 when the working class garnered enough strength to declare that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886 at the national convention of ‘Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions’ in Chicago held on 7 October 1884. Subsequently, May Day became an international movement when the Second International (an international working-class organization), in its Paris Congress on 14 July 1889, adopted a resolution to organize a great international demonstration (to demand) legal reduction of the working day to eight hours on May 1.
However, as is expected, this great political struggle of the working-class was met with vehement repression and bloodshed by the capitalist state and many among the ranks of the workers were locked up and even killed. On the first May Day demonstrations on May 1, 1886, lakhs of workers in the United States walked off their jobs and participated despite threat of violence and oppression by the police and thugs. Only two days later, on May 3, the police opened fire on a group of striking workers killing 6 workers and wounding many. To protest these killings, the workers called for a meeting at the Haymarket Square in the US State of Chicago on the following day, which continued peacefully until being violently disrupted by the police following which a bomb was thrown at the crowd. The incident resulted in the death of 4 workers and 7 policemen, which gave the capitalists a golden opportunity to crush the May Day movement. 8 working-class leaders, out of which only 3 were present at the Haymarket Square during the time of the incident, were immediately arrested following the Haymarket affair and convicted of murder by a jury comprising capitalists’ agents and business leaders. Subsequently, 4 workers, Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, were hanged to death, for daring to proclaim that even workers deserve humane working and living conditions, to ensure that ‘justice’ prevails above all.
The significance of the May Day struggle, by the workers of the United States and across the world, remains as it was two centuries ago, if not more, since it evokes the historical revolutionary struggles of the working class against the capitalist class and manifests the importance of the slogan workers of the world, unite! However, as the working-class movement across the world faced relentless attacks and got weakened, boosted by the capitalist restoration of the working-class State of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, the hard-earned rights for the workers were gradually dismantled by the ruling capitalist regimes which saw unprecedented acceleration in the last four decades through rampant implementation of neo-liberal policies across countries. The 8-hour workday got reduced to a mere writing on paper and even 12 to 14-hour workdays became commonplace. Security of tenure, social security, safe and humane work environment became luxuries available only to the few in place of basic rights for all. Minimum wages stagnated while prices skyrocketed. Even the right to organize and agitate was virtually dismantled as the working-class became more and more disorganized and the ground became fertile for the ruling class to launch scathing and relentless attacks on the working class of the world.
Today, at a time when the world capitalist order finds itself stuck in a permanent and structural crisis, we witness an even more authoritarian and fascist shift in the regimes all across the world. The prime agenda of these regimes have been the implementation of anti-worker policies and dismantling of the existing hard-earned labour legislations to protect the profits of their masters, particularly in times of crisis, at the cost of the workers. In India, particularly, we witness the rise of a fascist power which assumed State power in 2014 and again in 2019 and has since then launched a campaign against the working class of the country. Apart from several anti-worker labour reforms, breaking the back of the unorganized sector, which employs 94% of India’s workforce, through policies like Demonetization and GST, and heavy expedition of the process of centralization of capital, it has aimed to launch the fiercest attack on the working class of India till date by dismantling the whole apparatus of 44 labour laws and replacing them with just 4 labour codes having anti-worker orientations, one of which has already been passed in the Parliament, that will virtually dismantle the safeguards of minimum wages, maximum working hours, social security, security of tenure, forming unions, safe working conditions among others. Along with this, a parallel and more visible campaign of crushing civil liberties, democratic rights and its movements, along with any form of dissent has also been launched by the state to further its anti-worker agenda. Both campaigns are bound to be extensively expanded with each passing day.
A significant development since the last few months has been the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic which has forced the world to go in a state of lockdown that has further intensified the existing crisis of world capitalism to unprecedented levels. All sectors of the economy and all production activities are shut down. Naturally, as is the case with all crises, the brunt is being faced by the workers across the globe, who have been laid off, facing a dearth of essentials, poverty, starvation and unemployment at unparalleled levels at the same time. While on the other hand, the governments have been eager to heed to the demands of their masters, the big capitalist class, of providing them with multiple stimulus packages to allow them and their profits to come out of this crisis unscathed. Naturally, again, these packages are being paid for by the people’s money, at a time when there exists an acute shortage of ventilators, test kits, isolation and quarantine beds, other healthcare facilities, protective equipments (PPEs) on one hand, and of food, shelter and funds for the masses, on the other. The crisis has led to even further centralization of capital and further proletarianization of the masses on an enormous scale. Even the middle class has not been spared this time and salary and other benefits cuts including a freeze in Dearness Allowance and Relief for Central Government employees and pensioners have been announced till now by the Government.
The greed of the big capitalist class, even in times of an epidemic of such scale, leads capitalism to its worst ever crisis, the worst effects of which are yet to unfold. Even after a plethora of resources at its disposal (grains for food, factories for production of essentials, vacant buildings for housing and quarantining, hospitals and resources for free healthcare, labs for free testing, and enormous amounts of capital) and more than sufficient capacity to utilize them and provide essentials and healthcare facilities for free to all the people as well as fighting the pandemic way more effectively, the system of capitalism has chosen to focus on its main agenda of capitalist accumulation and generation of profits at the cost of the survival of humanity. The bloodsucking big capitalist class has proclaimed that it does not want to shed even a single penny even in such times when the question of survival of humanity is at stake. Rather, it has decided to crush the working-class masses and extract even the last drop of blood and sweat from them to maintain its rule. The proclamation of 12-hour workday by various state governments in India, namely of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, and the talks of implementing the remaining three labour codes through an ordinance or an executive order, along with mass layoffs are indicators of this. Hence, it would only be suitable to say that Capitalism has now made itself stand in the way of, not only progress, but survival of humanity.
In such precarious situations, the migrant workers in various industrial states of India, who were till now struggling to make ends meet due to the absence of any source of income and essentials in the nationwide lockdown have agitated at various locations yearning to go to their home villages and towns. Even though not being allowed to move out of the states initially, after realizing the repercussions of such agitations, numerous states have started to bring back the workers from these industrial states to their homes where further agony, poverty, and hunger await them in the coming days even after the Covid-19 outbreak subsides.
On the occasion of May Day in these extremely tough and unparalleled times, the working-class must identify the root cause, not only of its suffering, and but of the danger posed to the survival and progress of humanity. The root to both the phenomena will direct them to Capitalism, which, even though has outlived itself and is bound to become anachronistic, since crisis-ridden, becomes more ferocious in its attacks on the working class with each passing day. To ensure the emancipation of the working class and thereby, the survival and progress of humanity, the society must be freed from the clutches of Capitalism and capitalist greed. Without this, not only will humanity pay a huge cost in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic but will pave way for barbarism and its own destruction, creating a man-made disaster for itself in the near future.
The working class today must flip the pages of the history of May Day and take inspiration from their fellow comrades, in order to unitedly gird themselves up in the struggle for the overthrow of a system based on exploitation and inequality for one devoid of these.
Long Live May Day!
Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 1/ May ’20)