Democratic Socialist Movement

For Struggle, Solidarity and Socialism in Nigeria

By - DSM

MAY DAY: A Day Of Jamboree Or Agitation?

MAY DAY: A Day Of Jamboree Or Agitation?

By Olatunji Olamide

The 1st of May has been set aside worldwide as International Workers’ Day; the day is usually marked with rallies and political demonstration. In Nigeria, May Day has become a day when labour leaders rub shoulders with anti-poor political office holders. Both the government and private employers of labour often now give money and materials to trade unions for May Day celebration. Meanwhile, workers are made to march in the scorching sun to the admiration of political office holders who are busy implementing policies inimical to their very interest.

Apart from a few radical speeches, highlight of most speeches at this events are always bent to hide the deep class antagonism between the capitalist ruling class and the oppressed working class and to create the false impression that workers and the bosses can cooperate for “industrial harmony and the greater good of the country”. However, this is far from the objectives of May Day at conception. It is imperative that we go back into history to see the essence of May Day or Workers’ Day.


May 1st is historically regarded as a day for the down trodden masses and poor working people. The origin of May Day can be traced to the movement for an eight-hour work day in the late nineteenth century in Haymarket square in Chicago, Illinois (USA). Before 1886, workers were being forced to work 12 to 16 hours a day in unsafe conditions. Therefore as early as the 1860’s, the agitation to shorten the working day without loss of pay rapidly received overwhelming support of the rank and file poor working people. At this time too, socialist ideas had begun to take root among the workers and poor masses with a variety of socialist and anarchist’s organisations springing up.

In 1884, the federation of organized traders and labour unions of the United States and Canada, (which later changed its name to American Federation of Labour in 1886) passed a resolution which declared “eight hours shall constitute a legal days work from and after May 1st, 1886 and that we recommend to labour organisations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolutions”. This proclamation was backed by protests and demonstrations. Despite the opposition of the employers to this proclamation, many workers supported the demand.

Thus on May 1st, 1886, more than 300, 000 workers in 13, 000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. In Chicago, the epicenter of the 8-hour day agitators, 40, 000 went on strike. More and more workers continued to walk off their jobs until the numbers swelled to nearly 100,000, yet peace prevailed. An estimated quarter million workers in the Chicago area became directly involved in the agitation to implement the eight hour work day. Equally too, the aspirations of the workers rapidly grew beyond the demand for eight hour day to demands that threatened the capitalist system.

However it was not until two days later that violence broke out between strikers and the police. On May 3rd, 1886, police fired into striking workers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing one with many seriously wounded. To protest this police brutality, anarchists called a mass meeting for the following day in Haymarket Square, May 4th in Haymarket square.

This meeting went on peacefully until when about 180 policemen invaded it and ordered the meeting to disperse. As the meeting was winding up, a bomb was thrown at the police killing one instantly and six others later with about 70 officers seriously wounded. The police responded by firing into the crowd but there was no record of how many civilians died or sustained injuries.

Of course, as is traditional of the capitalists and their ruling class collaborators, the incident was used to clamp down on the labour movement in general with police terror sweeping over Chicago. In connection with the Haymarket bombing, a kangaroo court found eight working men guilty and subsequently sentenced them to death. On November 11, 1887, four of the condemned men, Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer and George Engel were hanged while Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison. On June 26, 1893, John Peter Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois, issued a pardon for the remaining three, Samuel Fielden, Oscar Neebe, Micheal Schwab. Governor John made it clear that there was no evidence or connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw the bomb.

Subsequently, the Second International (then a new formed international of workers’ parties) in Paris in 1889, declared May 1st as an International Workers Day to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs with a red flag as the symbol of the blood of the working men martyred in the struggle for workers rights. From this day on, May Day has become a day set aside annually to commemorate the historic movement of the working masses for an eight hour working day and to reflect and organize to defend workers’ rights. May Day is therefore a reminder to workers that all the rights gained today were not won through the magnanimity of the capitalist bosses and the government but through serious struggle, repression and sacrifices.


Born from the struggle for eight hours working day, May Day has however endured and remained relevant till today. Though eight hour day has been attained especially in most advanced capitalists countries, workers are still exploited and forced to work under dehumanizing conditions. In factories in Nigeria, the eight hour day is hardly observed, child labour and casualisation abound while workers are subjected to sub-human working conditions not too different from what obtained in 1886. Yet, if the huge wealth daily produced by workers today is equitably distributed, it can guarantee shorter working hours today than was possible in 1886. But this is impossible on the basis of capitalism. Only a higher form of society the socialist society can achieve this.

As long as capitalist neo-liberal philosophy continues to hold sway, as long as the exploitation of workers continue and as long as profit is put first before people’s needs, May Day will continue to be an annual expression of workers’ demands for better living and working condition. Therefore labour leaders must realize that May Day is a day to push for demands on better welfare and better working conditions, not a day to hobnob with capitalists and their misruling collaborators. May Day is not a day to preach class collaboration, it is a day for the working masses to reflect on their condition as an oppressed class, weigh the balance sheet of struggles fought in the past and decide on how to organize to change society.

Labour must therefore use the occasion of this year’s May Day to commence mass mobilization and preparation of workers for a struggle for implementation of the new N18, 000 National Minimum Wage and sound a strong note of warning to the governments and private employers of labour that no worker should lose his or her job on account of the new minimum wage. Also, workers should use the day to soberly reflect on the need to fight against capitalist neo-liberal attacks on living and working conditions.

However, the need for the working class to take political power is greater now than ever. With a genuine and fighting workers’ political party, the working class will be strong enough to take the reign of power from the exploiters and establish a workers and poor people’s government to run society on a democratic socialist basis. This is the task that we must set our eyes to as we celebrate this year’s May Day.