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The celebration of May Day as a working class holiday evolved from the struggle for the eight-hour day in the 1880’s. In the USA, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day’s work from and after 1 May 1886, and called for a general strike on that day to achieve the goal.

In response more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the USA went on strike on that day, including roughly 80,000 workers in Chicago where a bomb was thrown at another demonstration a few days later resulting in the framing of a number of anarchists. Augustus Spies, Albert Parsons, Adolph Fischer and George Engel were hanged, while a fifth, Louis Lingg, killed himself in prison. The two remaining men who had been sentenced to life imprisonment were saved by international outrage at this miscarriage of injustice and they were pardoned after six years in prison.

For revolutionaries and workers everywhere Haymarket became a symbol of the struggle for a better world. In 1889, the first congress of the Second International met in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and called for international demonstrations to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs, and to continue the fight for the eight-hour day, and to put on a general show of international worker solidarity. In London, The Times listed 24 European cities where demonstrations had occurred. It also noted events in Cuba, Peru and Chile.

The following year the International declared May Day an annual workers’ celebration, and its popularity as such grew. However in New Zealand the occasion received little attention until 1905, when the first May Day workers gatherings were reported in the newspapers. There were two of the events, one in Wellington and one in Christchurch. The Wellington meeting was held in a packed His Majesty’s Theatre, and was organised by the New Zealand Socialist Party, whose acting Chairman, W.Wolstenholm declared the meeting as a recognition that the workers interests were the same the world over.

The main speaker of the day was the anarchist Philip Josephs who gave a full history of May Day and it’s meaning, and presented a motion that

We, the workers of Wellington, New Zealand, send fraternal greeting to the workers of every land, and affirm the principles of international solidarity; we affirm our determination to strive for the economic emancipation of our class, and are of opinion that no reform, political or economic, can be of lasting benefit to the workers of this country, that would not be of equal benefit to the proletariat of all nations.

The rest of the meeting was taken up by music from the Socialist Party Orchestra, and questions from the audience, who demonstrated an eagerness to know more about socialism, and made a request to make such meetings monthly.

In Christchurch, the audience were informed by J.A. McCullough of the existence of “hovels in New Zealand which would be a disgrace to any country, and the Socialists were the only people who had a remedy for that sort of thing,” before proclaiming, “that the cause was advancing, and the day was coming when right, and justice, and truth, would rule the world.”

A later speaker at the meeting, J. Cook, also mentioned the existence of hovels in New Zealand and added a mention of the spectacle of hundreds of people gathering daily in the wharves looking for work. “The ideal place for the working man,” he said, “was not at all perfect, and would not be perfect until the worker was the ruler and had the fruits of what he produced.”

Sadly, the notion of May Day as a workers’ day has never really caught on in New Zealand. We do of course have our own Labour Day in October whose roots can be traced back to our own struggles for the eight-hour day, but this is largely a depoliticised holiday.

Across the world though, May Day is still a day when workers take to the streets, and, although the New Zealand McDonalds’ workers are asking New Zealanders to stay away from McDonalds this May Day in support of their struggle against zero hour contracts, maybe all the rebels and revolutionaries of New Zealand should also mark their struggles on this day, and, in the words of Philip Josephs 110 years ago, make it a day to send fraternal greeting to the workers of every land, affirm the principles of international solidarity, and affirm our determination to strive for the economic emancipation of our class.

Sources:

Evening Post, 8 May 1905,Page 2

The Press, 8 May 1905, Page 3.