May Day is unique among the holidays as it commemorates the actions and legacies of ordinary people as a collective. Indeed, much of history’s progress was fought for and won by ordinary people rather than the elite. For those who aspire to change the course of the future, May Day is your day.
Our voices are needed now more than ever; and today invites us to take a moment to reflect on the past, present, and future of our movement. It is great to see Bristol’s History Commission leading work to understand the fullness of the city’s history, including the contribution of the working classes, trade unions, workers, and strikes.
The Haymarket Affair
Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting the Haymarket memorial in Chicago, the site of a barricade in 1886, where trade union activists stood to demand the 8-hour workday. During the Haymarket Affair, a grenade was thrown into the police line opposite, which detonated, killing several police officers. The leaders of the protest were arrested, tried, and sentenced to death despite lack of evidence connecting them to the grenade. They were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing, but most had already been executed.
In 1890, in honour of these martyrs and their cause, a committee in Paris declared 1 May to be International Workers’ Day. The site is still commemorated by many plaques sent by trade unions from as far afield as the Philippines, Turkey, Sweden, and even Colombia (the most dangerous country on Earth to be a trade union activist). Indeed, International Workers’ Day is celebrated in the UK and across the world, with over 150 countries declaring the day a public holiday.
It is a day to honour the struggle for workers’ rights to date, the victories and sacrifices of workers who secured such victories as the weekend, minimum wage regulations, parental leave, an end to child labour, and more. Such victories are often repackaged as a benevolent gift from leadership, but as every historian knows, ‘power concedes nothing without a demand’ (Frederick Douglass).
Workers’ struggles in 2022
We are now living through a time where many of our victories need to be revisited – the minimum wage was intended to be a living wage, and the cost-of-living crisis is tearing through our communities with countless families left wondering how they can hope to heat their homes when the winter comes back around. Yet with it comes an upturn in struggle, as with the Clarks workers victory late last year.
Indeed, many industries and employers once seen as impenetrable or untouchable have recently been successfully targeted for union organising, with the objective of securing better working conditions and the right to collectively bargain.
From Impossible to Inevitable
In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit commented that social and economic advances are described as ‘impossible’ until the moment they are won, and henceforth called ‘inevitable.’ In one fell swoop this phenomenon erases the blood, sweat and tears of countless thousands of ordinary working people who dared to dream that they could join arms to secure a brighter world for themselves and the generations to come. It ridicules unsuccessful movements and dismisses successful ones.
It is critical to remember that the victories that have been won for economic and social justice were neither impossible nor inevitable. They were the culmination of the hopes and demands of those who came before us. To win a change, we need strategy, and we need hope to back up our anger. Researcher Brene Brown describes hope as “not a warm fuzzy emotion that fills us with a sense of possibility. Hope is a way of thinking – a cognitive process.” She argues that hope can consciously be cultivated through the trio of realistic goals, pathways to reach them, and the agency or capacity to take meaningful action.
In 1886, the 8-hour workday seemed out of reach to most, and Chicago activists lost their lives for it. Nowadays it is standard in many industries, alongside a climate of precarious contracts and bogus self-employment; best practice continues to advance, while loopholes are further exploited to circumvent it. We have our work cut out for us.
Many people working together can accomplish what one alone can only dream of. This is how, working together, we can recultivate that hope that we need to overcome the unique challenges of today, including the ones that currently feel impossible. We need each other more than ever; only people power will turn the tide. The brighter future we need and deserve is neither impossible nor inevitable; it is in our hands, collectively.
Happy International Workers’ Day.