Contrary to the popular belief, massacre of violent demonstrators in Chicago did not take place on May 1, but May 4, 1886. It was a decision of 2nd International of the socialists in 1889, to fix May 1st as International Day for the class of wage earners who, possessing neither production means nor capital, but earn a living by selling their labour.
A. E. Goonesinghe held the first ever May Day rally under the banner of Ceylon Labour Party way back in 1927, long before students of Prof. Harold Laski returned to island from London to set up Marxist/Trotskyite movement in1935. Until the entry of Bandaranaike’s Blue i 1956 [declaring a public holiday] and Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya’s (JSS) Green in the 1960s, it was a clean agenda of labour oriented, worker centred struggle demonstrated in Blood stained red shirts on 1st of May each year. Since then the two big wolves aided and abetted by some Marxists leaders gradually ate-up the red flag and the concept, replacing them with Blue/Green carnival of Song and Dance, a burlesque to deceive and mislead the ‘proletariat’. [Imitating Europe’s spring festival of flowers, picnics, clean frocks -- an ancient traditional spring holiday in many western cultures where dances, singing and cutting of cake are also usually included in the celebration called mayday on May 1].
For Socialists it means rhetoric, shouting slogans, parading, bombs, demos and brickbats. This implication dates back to April/May 1886, when some 200,000 U. S. labour engineered action for an eight-hour working day. While trade unions and workers’ rights factions are staging rallies across the Earth to mark May Day and to gather and fight for increased labour rights, we in Sri Lanka has transformed the concept to a ridiculous and pathetic propaganda stunt for political opportunists to promulgate party and personal agenda. The ruling party’s rally with the participation of head of state was reduced to 2nd place— in May 1970 and 1977 rallies which was held with General elections round the corner. This year it is a three-cornered competition of ‘show of strength’. The UNP’s walk-over is forgone conclusion; the million dollar question appears to be, will the President led official SLFP would secure the second or third place? Last year, they were taken by surprise when the poorly attended meeting at Hyde Park ended well before the rival faction’s massive rally at Kirulapone; but a repetition is most unlikely with adequately organized cadre preparing the ground work for gathering numbers, while powers at Darley Road are engaged in ensuring suppressive action like making the assembly point for demonstrators out of bounds and threatening the membership of disciplinary action.
A Brief History of Eight-Hour Day
Agitations for shortening the workday without a cut in pay began as early as the 1860’s in America but it was in the late 1880’s that organized labour movement was able to gather enough force to declare the 8-hour a day. Though it was without consent of employers, many of the working class supported the demand for this proclamation.
In the latter half of the 19th Century, a variety of socialist organizations sprung up throughout the Europe and in America ranging from choir groups to political parties. Many socialists were able to be elected into state office by their constituency. But most of these socialists were puppets of political process which were controlled by business Mafia and the bi-partisan political set-up. Large numbers of socialists rank and file broke away from their parties, rejected the entire political procedure, which they saw as nothing but protection for the rich; and formed anarchist groups. Factually masses of working people held the principles of anarchism, which determined to make an end to all hierarchical organization including the ‘State’, lay emphasis on worker managed industry, and valued direct success over the routine political process. It is wrong to say that labour unions were ‘invaded’ by socialists movement, but rather socialist made up the labour unifications. In 1884, the Federation of Trades and Labour Unions held its national convention in Chicago. This movement which later evolved into American Federation of Labour, declared that “eight hours shall add up to a legal working day. The following year many Labour locals repeatedly stated that their proclamations stating that agitations will be supported by work stoppages and demonstrations. A year before the Haymarket Mayhem, labour leader Samuel Fielden wrote to socialist newspaper ‘The Alarm’ saying, “whether a labour works eight hours or ten hours a day, he is still a slave.”
Nearly a quarter million workers in the Chicago region became openly involved in the campaign to win the eight-hour work day. As increased numbers of the workforce assembled against the companies, the radicals agreed to fight for demands with a sense of a bigger social revolution beyond the eight hours; a sweeping change in the economic structure. In a printed hand-out distributed just before May 1, 1886 appealed to working people with following slogans:
Workers to Arms—War to the rich, Peace to the hut. The wage system is the cause of the World’s despair, which is supported by the capitalists—to demolish it, they must be either compelled to work or die.—A pound of dynamite is superior to a bushel of ballots. DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOUR day, backed by weapons to meet the bloodhounds, police, and militia.
‘If wars are eliminated and production is organized scientifically, it is probable that four hours’ work a day will suffice to keep everybody in comfort.” –Bertrand Russell
Haymarket Mayhem in Chicago
Chicago and many other cities were the sites of major worker demonstrations agitating an eight-hour day. On May 3, 1886, a strike at the McCormick Reaper plant turned violent; the following day, a peaceful meeting held at Haymarket Square became violent too.
Around 10.00 pm on May 4, a storm began to gust up in Chicago. As the rain fell, the striking workers in Haymarket Square began to break up. Two hours ago there were around 3,000 men listening to leaders denounce the cruelty of the police; by10.00 pm there were only a few hundreds. The last speaker was winding up his talk when a battalion of over 150 policemen walked from the barracks to break up what remained of the crowd. The captain ordered the crowd to disperse, and the speaker retorted that it was a peaceful assembly, suddenly a bomb exploded on the police side wounding dozens of policemen, and killing seven of them. The police indiscriminatingly opened fire, killing several workers and wounding over 200. The Haymarket Tragedy of May 4, 1886 became a part of American history.
In 1889, the International Socialist Conference that, in remembrance of the Haymarket heroes May 1 would be an international holiday for labour: it is now known as International Workers’ Day.
Attempts by Govt. to scuttle Jt.Opp. rally
SLFP in fresh move to spoil Jt.Opp. May Day rally announced its plans to hold interviews to appoint electoral organisers before May 1st, a clear bid to attract dissidents back to party folds; they target members of PCs billed to attend MR faction’s rally at Kirulapone. Further, it also announced stern action if any member breach discipline of the party and attend joint opposition May Day. On 24th the party said there would be a reshuffle of PC ministries and new faces are likely to take-over. The Shalika grounds, belonging to CTB was booked by the trade union arm of Jt. Opp. well in advance with payment the organizers claimed; they were surprised by the Transport Board’s sudden decision to cancel the reservation at short notice.
Suppression of May Day commemorations in the past
“It is an alien concept, does not deserve a public holiday” was the reply A. E. Goonesinghe’s Ceylon Labour Party in early 1920s and the Marxist in 1930s received when the appealed to the State Council and UNP governments of 1940s and 50s. The workers had to forego their personal leave to attend rallies until Bandaranaike made May 1st a full holiday in 1956. However, the UNP too launched their trade union (JSS) under JR, who’s members marched the streets in mid1960s.
In the years gone by, Marxist leaders being bathed in sweat and rain shouted themselves hoarse on May Day rallies with cries like, ‘Down with Capitalists’; revolution round the corner’. They will shout slogans asking that May Day be made a public holiday. They also demanded enhanced pay, housing, better allowances for the workers. In late 1930s they were once attacked by A.E. Goonesinghe’s men. However, his organization died a natural death compelling the labour veteran to join hands with UNP -- The Marxists parties then kept their meetings short and had no music, song and dance; it was a day dedicated to the workers.
Worker’s Day needs a new concept
The whole concept has lost its grandeur with the introduction of music, song, dance and vituperative slogans in late 1970s. At Galle Face green’s massive rallies, popular Indian musicians entertained crowds. Even the leftist once they surrendered their fighting spirits to the Blue party, they lost their former glory, vigour and vitality -- demoted themselves to shouting ‘Dudlige badey Masala Wadei’ [late 60s…], ‘Ape amma maga enawa--Handen haal gena Enawa’ [1970-just before elections] In reply greens shouted,.. ‘Ai Sirima gandha…Kunu karola Gandha’… The world economic recession that prevailed in mid 1970s resulted in sky-rocketing of food prices; importing sugar became a burden for Sirimavo and leftists’ government. While a considerable section of the poor went in search for food in the waste bins, the party leaders swayed ‘the never-say-die’ loyalists to join May day rally shouting “SEENI-NETHUVA-THAE-BONAVA” [means... let’s have tea without sugar]. Most of the ‘slogans’ used in 70s - 90s by both sides are unprintable. Free buses, meals, money and spirits provided. People from villages flocked to the city for a ‘Day Outing’. How long do we have to witness this appalling extravagant circus called ‘May Day’ in Sri Lanka?
Dear Workers, you work so hard all year through; relax, take it easy and have fun, enjoy a restful day in the company of family and friends. Shun politics and politicos who would ‘take you for a ride’—Happy Worker’s Day!