Sunday, April 10, 2011

May Day: A History of Political Protest

By Dr. Mark Leier
Centre for Labour Studies
Simon Fraser University

The origins of May Day as a day of workers' protest are well-documented and well-known. Delegates to the International Workers' Congress held at Paris in July 1889 called upon workers around the world to hold a one-day demonstration to fight for the 8- hour day. 1 May 1890 was chosen for the protest, timed to coincide with the launching of the American Federation of Labor's (AFL) long planned campaign for the shorter work day. Originally intended only as a single day of solidarity, May Day captured the attention of working people around the world.

A century later, May Day was recognized as an official holiday in 107 countries and as an unofficial labour day in others, including Canada and the United States. It is a day often marked with parades, demonstrations, and festivities, with its symbols of red flowers and red sashes signifying, in the words of historian Eric Hobsbawm, "renewal, growth, hope, and joy."1

The significance of May Day as a day of workers' celebration does not, however, lie in its recognition as an official, legislated holiday. It lies in the fact that it was originally asserted unofficially, often without legal sanction or permit, and often by rank and file workers rather than labour leaders. Workers themselves proclaimed the day; they did not receive it as a day granted by the state. In this it stands as a counterpoint to Labour Day in Canada and the US, and as a counterpoint to other holidays proclaimed by the state to mark religious and nationalist occasions.

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