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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 9. 1ts May 1973

Celebrate May Day!

Celebrate May Day!

May Day belongs to the working people. It is the day on which workers in many countries take to the streets demonstrating in their thousands. They march to proclaim international unity in the struggle for socialism against all forms of exploitation and repression.

May Day originated in America. At the American Federation of Labour's convention in 1885 it was resolved that on May 1 1886 there would be a mass walk out onto the streets to demand an eight hour day.

Although workers demonstrated all over the United States the strike centre was Chicago, where there was particularly bitter conflict between militant workers and the employers who were backed by the city government.

By May 1, 1886 Chicago was at a standstill. A local paper reported "No smoke curled up from the tall chimneys of the factories and mills and things assumed a Sabbath-like appearance". Tens of thousands of workers downed their tools and moved into the streets. One procession headed by two workers, one with an axe and the other with a mallet over the shoulder, stopped at factory after factory, calling on workers to join the strike for an eight hour day.

The Chicago employers and the police reacted violently to this demonstration of working class strength. The climax came on May 3 and 4. On May 3 the police attacked a meeting of striking workers at the McCormick Reaper works, killing six and wounding many others. The next day a mass meeting was held at Hay market Square to protest against these brutal murders.

The meeting was peaceful and about to be adjourned when the police again launched an attack upon the assembled workers. A bomb was thrown into the crowd killing a sergeant. A battle ensued with the result that seven policemen and four workers were killed. In the general hysteria that followed the leaders of the left-wing Central Labour Union were arrested and tried for "conspiracy". After a jacked-up trial four of them were hanged. The trial judge, was a former president of U.S. Steel, one of the largest corporations in America.

One year after the Chicago strike leaders had been railroaded to the gallows, the AFL resolved at its convention in St Louis in 1888 that there would be another nation-wide strike for the eight hour day on May 1, 1890.

News of the AFL's decision reached the foundation meeting of the Second Socialist International in Paris. On the final day of this meeting delegates from socialist movements throughout Europe adopted the following resolution:

"The Congress decides to organise a great international demonstration, so that in all countries and in all cities on one appointed day the toiling masses shall demand ... the legal reduction of the working day to eight hours, as well as the carrying out of other decisions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar demonstration has already been decided upon for May 1, 1890 by the American Federation of Labour .... this day is accepted for the international demonstration".

On the eve of the first international May Day Frederich Engels wrote:

"As I write these lines, the proletariat of Europe and America is holding a review of its forces; it is mobilised for the first time as One army, One flag, and fighting for One immediate aim: an eight-hour working day... The spectacle we are now witnessing will make the capitalists and landowners of all lands realise that today the proletarians of all lands are, in very truth, united".

J.D. Salmond author of "New Zealand Labour's pioneering Days", has recorded that even in Auckland there was a celebration of May Day in 1890.

The first May Day demonstrations were centred around the immediate demand for the eight hour day. Since then the demands of May Day demonstrators have changed, but one important aspect of the celebration of May Day is the expression of the trade union movement's immediate demands. Thus on May Day this year the British Trade Union Congress have planned a nation-wide strike against the Tory Government's vicious industrial relations policy.

"National Defence" by Andre Fougeron who was inspired by the struggles of French miners against police.

"National Defence" by Andre Fougeron who was inspired by the struggles of French miners against police.

In New Zealand May Day coincides with the opening of the Federation of Labour's Annual Conference in Wellington. A number of remits to this conference state the immediate demands of New Zealand workers: firm price control on all essential items of food, clothing, building materials and household equipment; trade union opposition to the increasing domination of the New Zealand economy by national and international monopolies; the development of co-operatively owned industries particularly in areas that are controlled by monopolies, such as freezing works; and the demand that Government protect tenants from eviction or threats of eviction by landlords.

The most important aspect of May Day is the expression of international working class solidarity, the belief that the struggles of workers in different countries are part of a common struggle. This year the May Day celebration in Wellington will concentrate on the exploitation of Black Workers in South Africa. In this issue we have reprinted the speech delivered by John Gaetsewe, the Western European representative of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), to the 1972 FOL Conference, which summarises the oppression suffered by his people.

But South Africa is not the only country where workers are suffering vicious repression by employers and governments.

In Fiji the trade union movement is at present fighting against Government attempts to shackle workers to the dictates of the monopolies which control the country's economy.

In Indochina, Southeast Asia and South America workers and peasants are struggling to achieve their national independence against fascist regimes supported by the U.S. Government and U.S. monopolies.

Even in the so-called democratic countries of Western Europe, North America and Australasia workers still have to fight for the right to organise as a class. The Industrial Relations Bill, introduced into Parliament last year by the National Government, shows that the capitalist class has not given up its efforts to destroy the New Zealand trade union movement.

Despite the military and economic power of the imperialist forces, the principle of international working class solidarity is still very strong. Only a few days ago the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) announced that it would call on its affiliates to take action in protest against French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. At the same time the ICFTU decided to join the New Zealand and Australian trade union movements in supporting Fijian workers.

In New Zealand trade unions have always strongly opposed American aggression in Indochina, and any form of New Zealand support for the racist regime in South Africa.

Today some "revolutionary" people see trade unions merely as agencies for stifling conflict with employers. May Day is a reminder that trade unions were born in bitter struggle against the capitalist system. Although the leaders of some unions deliberately work in the interests of the employers, trade unions are still essential. In Lenin's words, "organisation is the only weapon of the working class".

The Students Association's decision to abandon the traditional Capping activities in favour of May Day celebrations with Wellington trade unionists has an important political significance. Capping stunts in the past have been tolerated because people accepted that students were a privileged elite in society. This year the Students Association has decided that, instead of proclaiming the status of students as an elite, it will proclaim its solidarity with workers throughout the world in their struggle against the injustices of the capitalist system.

The essential meaning of May Day was well summed up by the then Secretary of the New Zealand federation of Labour, Ken Baxter, when he wrote in 1965:

"The struggle of the wage and salary earners of all countries is a struggle for unity on the industrial and political fields to achieve an economic, social and political democracy".

—Peter Franks