As the Socialist Equality Party’s candidate for president in the 2012 US elections, I want to express my solidarity with workers throughout the world on May Day. The marking of this holiday—which has its origins in the bitter struggle by American workers to win the eight-hour day in the 1880s—takes on a special relevance this year. ~ Jerry White, ‘May Day 2012: Unite workers around the world against austerity and war’
The origin of our present holiday lies in the fight for an eight-hour working day, in which cause the leaders of the socialist Second International called for an international day of protest to be held at the beginning of May 1890. They did so just as the American Federation of Labour was planning its own demonstration on the same date. ~ Richard Seymour, ‘May Day is not about maypoles: the history of international workers’ day’
People seem to know about May Day everywhere except where it began, here in the United States of America. That’s because those in power have done everything they can to erase its real meaning… May Day started here, but then became an international day in support of American workers who were being subjected to brutal violence and judicial punishment. ~ Noam Chomsky, ‘What May Day means to me’
On this day in 1958, President Eisenhower proclaims Law Day to honor the role of law in the creation of the United States of America. Three years later, Congress followed suit by passing a joint resolution establishing May 1 as Law Day.
The idea of a Law Day had first been proposed by the American Bar Association in 1957. The desire to suppress the celebration of May 1, or May Day, as International Workers’ Day aided in Law Day’s creation. May Day had communist overtones in the minds of many Americans, because of its celebration of working people as a governing class in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
The American Bar Association defines Law Day as: “A national day set aside to celebrate the rule of law. Law Day underscores how law and the legal process have contributed to the freedoms that all Americans share.” The language of the statute ordaining May 1 calls it “a special day of celebration by the American people in appreciation of their liberties and rededication to the ideals of equality and justice under law.”
On a day that, in many parts of the world, inspires devotion to the rights of the working classes to participate in government, Law Day asks Americans to focus upon every American’s rights as laid out in the fundamental documents of American democracy: the Declaration of Independence and the federal Constitution. The declaration insists that Americans “find these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and guarantees the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The Bill of Rights amended to the Constitution codifies the rights of free speech, free press and fair trial.
Law Day celebrates the legal construct for the determination of rights that the revolutionary leaders of the 1770s, hoping to prevent the sort of class warfare that went on to rack Europe [sic] from 1789 to 1917, were so eager to create. ~ history.com, ‘May 1, 1958: President Eisenhower proclaims Law Day’
The first eight-hour day procession
On 12 May 1856, over a thousand building workers celebrated winning an eight-hour working day. They marched through central Melbourne behind a banner declaring ‘Eight Hours’ Work, Eight Hours’ Rest, Eight Hours’ Recreation’, to a fete and sports event at Cremorne Gardens in Richmond.
Gaining the eight-hour day
A few months earlier, stonemasons working on some of Melbourne’s major buildings, including The University of Melbourne, Melbourne Public Library and Parliament House, instigated a movement to reduce their daily working hours from ten to eight. They argued that eight hours a day was appropriate in the Australian heat, and that it would give stonemasons time to improve their ‘social and moral condition’. From February 1856, employers conceded the eight-hour day to masons, carpenters and joiners, bricklayers, plasterers and slaters, and then to painters, quarrymen, saddlers and harness-makers.
The gain of the eight-hour day was an astounding international precedent, contributing in later decades to Australia’s reputation as a ‘workingman’s paradise’. New Zealand and Sydney building workers had gained the eight-hour day by 1848 and early 1856 respectively, although Sydney’s gains were short-lived. However, unlike their Australasian counterparts, Melbourne’s building workers did not concede pay or other conditions, and they promoted themselves as national and international pioneers, setting a precedent to which working men of the imperial world should aspire.
The eight-hour day procession and trade union banners
From 1857 the Eight-hour Day procession was held on 21 April. It became Melbourne’s biggest annual procession, growing in popularity when the Eight Hour Day became a public holiday in 1879, and reaching its peak just before World War One, when tens of thousands of spectators watched 13 000 ‘eight-hour men’ march.
The procession date changed in 1927 and again in 1949, and in 1934 the Eight-hour Day was re-named Labour Day. Moomba, first held in 1955, superseded the Labour Day procession. Trade unions continue to march with banners in the Moomba procession, May Day and other industrial marches and events. Many unions commissioned new banners in the 1980s. ~ Museum Victoria