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About Us Annual Events May Day A brief history
A brief history

While May Day had a bloody birth in America in 1886, Australians have held their own - early days of protest and subsequent days of celebration - since 1890.

May Day - A Brief History for Australians

Text taken from a trade union poster printed in the 1960's

May Day is the international celebration of organised labour. Bonds of trade unionism spread world-wide with the demand for May Day to be recognised as a celebration of workers' rights. This led to bitter struggles which cost workers lives. Australian workers gave magnificent support to British dockers and later to the international forces against fascism in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. In modern times support for the third world, anti-fascist movements and world peace and been central demands of May Day marches.

May Day was conceived in America and had a bloody birth. A conference of Canadian and American unions in 1884 set May 1, 1886, as a day of strike action in support of the 8-hour day. In Chicago a crowd of up to 80,000 was attacked by police, who gunned down six workers. In a subsequent protest demonstration 11 more were killed. Seven anarchist scapegoats were arrested and four of them hanged. A fifth killed himself to cheat the noose and two others were sentenced to life terms in prison.

In Australia The Sydney Morning Herald in 1890 reported that in Vienna the wealthy were so unnerved by the support for May Day that they were 'placing their valuables in the custody of banks'. Two years earlier Australian workers rallied to the cause of British dockers during the famous 'Dockers tanner' strike of 1988. Of £48,000 contributed from overseas, more than £30,000 was sent by Australian workers.

In 1891 squatters in Queensland, determined to break the Shearers' Union, employed scab labour. Shearers struck and the Queensland Government sent in police and armed troops to arrest strikers and put them in jail. Shearers at Barcaldine staged a May Day march which demonstrated widespread support from overseas, with marchers representing workers of a number of European nations who had backed them.

The major union councils of Sydney and Melbourne held their 8-hour 'Labour Day' demonstrations in April, showing little inclination to transfer their celebrations to May Day, and until the 1920s, the international May Day call was only partly heeded, due to ideological splits in the trade union movement.

May Day has since gathered in strength in Australia and is now part of the world-wide celebration. The 1914-18 war and subsequent wars against fascism have developed the movement's sense of internationalism. Themes since the 1950s have embraced peace, nuclear disarmament, anti-conscription and the Vietnam War, opposition to Apartheid in South Africa, support for the Women's Movement and the Aboriginal Land Rights struggle.

A Local Perspective on May Day

May Day is a long established tradition for union members, but members of the general public might look up from their coffees on Fremantle's cappuccino strip and wonder what is going on. They might be interested to discover that what unionists celebrate is something that many workers take for granted, namely the 8 hour day.

The general misconception is that May Day has communist origins, but that is not the case. May Day actually originated during the 1880s in America, where the most common set of working hours was a 10 hour day, six days a week. Following a long and sometimes violent struggle, 1 May was officially recognised as a day of demonstration in 1893.

Australia's May Day activities officially began in 1890, although some workers had achieved the eight hour day as early as 1856. As more and more workers won the reduction in hours by solidarity and industrial action, the day was proclaimed as a holiday in all the states became known as Labour Day.

When May Day began to be adopted by socialist countries it acquired the communist tag. In 1948 when the Labor Party decided to move the holiday to March and then to abandon the procession altogether, Fremantle stepped in. The port's unions decided to continue the traditional event in May and were joined by a number of WA unions. Since 1952 it has been one of the city's most colourful demonstrations of working class solidarity.

 
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