Picture: Wall mural at Community House, a living heritage site in Cape Town, South Africa.
The Labour Research Service extends its greetings to you on Workers’ Day, a celebration of the historical struggles of the trade union movement around the world to secure a better life for workers.
Workers’ Day or May Day has its roots in the struggle for an eight-hour working day. The Second International (1889–1916) was an organisation of socialist and labour parties formed in (Paris) on 14 July 1889. At the Paris meeting, delegations from twenty countries participated. Among the Second International’s famous actions were its 1889 declaration of 1 May (May Day) as (International Workers’ Day) and its 1910 declaration of the International Women’s Day.
In the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the delegates of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago in the US. The Haymarket affair followed the convention held by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions in October 1884 which unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard. As the chosen date approached, U.S. labour unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour day. The Haymarket affair was the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labour demonstration on May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour work day, the day after police killed one and injured several workers. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at the police as they acted to disperse the meeting, and the bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded.
In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy. The evidence was that one of the defendants may have built the bomb, but none of those on trial had thrown it. Seven people were sentenced to death and one to a term of 15 years in prison. Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby commuted two of the sentences to terms of life in prison; another committed suicide in jail rather than face the gallows. The other four were hanged on November 11, 1887. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants and criticized the trial.
May Day in South Africa
The first recorded celebration of May Day in South Africa is reported by Ray Alexander to have taken place in 1895 which was organised by the Johannesburg District Trades Council. The next occasion was the visit of British labour and socialist leader Tom Mann, who came to South Africa in 1910. Mann, like Kier Hardie before him, criticized the South African Labour Party (SALP) for its neglect of African workers and urged the white labour movement to begin to think seriously of organising among African workers. His visit inspired a mood of international worker solidarity and culminated in a mass May Day procession in which all sections of the labour movement participated.
Today, we face down the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic and South Africa enters the first day of a level four lockdown on 1 May 2020. Under level four, the indications are that certain trade union activities are deemed essential services. Now is the time for unions to reinforce their role on the ground, holding employers accountable for the health and safety of workers and monitoring the implementation of Covid-19 relief measures. The role of trade unions has never been more important, even as the conditions under which it must operate are made most difficult. Great things can be achieved in times of crisis. This will require planning and creativity and we extend an offer to all our member unions to assist in any way that we can in this vital role.
Yours in physical distancing and social solidarity,