Historical context of May Day

As the calendar turned to 1st of May 2024, the internationally recognized workers day or May Day, many protests were organized worldwide. Celebrating, and reminding us the struggle of the brave generations before us that asked, protested and fought for the very basic working rights that we now take for granted.

Many people don’t know what May Day is and the historical context of it, and why we celebrate it today. During the late 19th century, at the peak of the industrial revolution, thousands of people were dying because of poor working conditions and long working hours. To end these inhumane condition, the Federation of Organized Trades and labor unions (later changing its name to American federation of labor or AFL) organized a convention in Chicago in 1884. The convention concluded and proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886”. They also stated that their claims will be supported by demonstrations and strikes.

On May 1st, 1886, major demonstrations were held across the United States, over 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses in the first May Day celebrations to be held. The epicenter of the demonstrations was Chicago, where over 40,000 workers went out on a strike. The first demonstrations were peaceful.

The following week during other demonstrations and speeches, violence erupted between the police and demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of eight demonstrators and seven police officers, and leaving up to forty wounded. Eight anarchists were convicted and were hung for this violence in a very controversial court case named the Haymarket affair trial, where the jury was extremely biased and especially selected to be anti-socialist. Sources say that jurors that were sympathetic to socialism or anarchism were dropped immediately. Here are two noteworthy quotes from the closing remarks that particularly emphasize the injustice that took place in this case.

“If these men are to be tried…for advocating doctrines opposed to our ideas of propriety, there is no use for me to argue the case. Let the Sheriff go and erect a scaffold; let him bring eight ropes with dangling nooses at the ends; let him pass them around the necks of these eight men; and let us stop this farce now.”

–Defense Attorney William Foster (closing argument)

“You stand between the living and the dead. You stand between law and violated law. Do your duty courageously, even if the duty is an unpleasant and severe one.”

–Prosecutor Julius Grinnell (closing argument)

Today, May Day is celebrated officially as a public holiday in 66 countries. In the US it is not formally recognized as a public holiday. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of communist governments in eastern Europe in the late 20th century, it mostly lost its major political significance in this region of the world. Despite having lost the majority of its political relevance, it still serves a great opportunity for labor unions to protest, and for friends and families to celebrate, commemorate and have a great time overall..

(source 1), (source 2), (source 3), (source 4) (source 5)

May Day demonstration in Ghent

The May Day Demonstration in Ghent of the 1st of May in 2024 was very successful, it was a very big celebration of the workers rights that have been achieved (as mentioned earlier). It saw thousands of people in the streets and many political organizations. What I found particularly interesting was how there were not only labor unions, but also other organizations that demonstrated for peace and justice in the world. Among the parties and unions that participated in the march were General Labor Federation of Belgium (ABVV), Jong Groen and Groen, Labor party (PVDA) and Comac, and various organizations demonstrating for Palestine, Cuba and Ukraine, also there was a loosely organized (anarchist) black block, there were also two marching bands from labor unions, also some more political parties participated in the march.

The atmosphere was very pleasant, with the bands playing classic songs such as the international and other music related to labor movements, a moving DJ set with dancers behind it and many other organizations that had speakers that played music and danced along with it. Also, the PVDA had many people dressed up as Robin hood, distributing coins that said, “Tax the rich” (beautiful symbolism in my opinion). The protest was peaceful and did a big circle around Gent that lasted just over 2 hours. There were no conflicts along the way among protesters or with the police. Police presence was very limited, which was unusual for a May Day protest, particularly in light of recent demonstrations in Belgium, and, more importantly, other nations.

Finally, there was a lot of campaigning for the upcoming elections by all the political parties that participated in the march, something that was, of course, expected.

Interview with Joren Gistelinck from Jong Groen

During the march I had the pleasure to Interview Joren Gistelinck, who is the chairman of the board of Directors in Jong Groen. He has many years of experience and has been a member of several political organizations in the past. He has been very active in Gent, his hometown. He gave me some great insight on what he thinks of the historical significance of the workers day and how it aligns with green ideology. He also commented on the political campaign of Groen and gave his thoughts on the upcoming elections. I have attached a transcript of the interview here, but you can also watch it on YouTube by clicking here.

You can check out more of Joren’s work on his Instagram: @jorengistelinck also you can get more information on Jong Groen from their website https://www.jonggroen.be/ and from their Instagram: @jonggroen

-Dimitris: So, we are here in Ghent for the May Day march, and we have here Joren from Jong Groen. Who are you and what is your title in Jong Groen?

-Joren: Alright, thanks. My name is Joren. I am the chairman of the board of directors of Jong Groen. I am also a very active member here in Ghent, my home city. I’ve always lived here.

-Dimitris: So how does your organization view the historical significance of workers day and how does that align with the green political ideology?

-Joren: Within the Green party, it’s a little bit up for debate. So, I will just give, my own honest opinion on the historical significance of workers day. It’s a very important day because it highlights where we’ve come from, and we try to remember where we’ve come from and what kind of struggle the workers had to go through to get basic human rights. And I think the significance of this day for the Green party isn’t that we still value, we still uphold, we still respect human rights everywhere, and we understand that struggle is necessary to attain these human rights, to have these human rights. But, where we diverge, maybe from the classic workers movement, from the socialists, for example, is that we really view those human rights, as broader even than humans alone. We think about justice, for ecosystems, we think about justice for animals, we think about justice for future generations. And we understand that our lifestyle should respect, the rights of other beings, of other people, of people not yet born. So, for us, this day of workers Day, we see it as a celebration of the struggle for human rights and the struggle for justice in general.

-Dimitris: And what do you think of the party Groen and their campaign for the upcoming elections?

-Joren: Thanks for that question. I think we’re really trying, but we’re seeing all over Europe, right wing populism is gaining ground. We see left wing parties going to the right, we see the center moving to the right. And we’re trying to stand where we are because we believe, we believe in the value of where we stand, what our values are. Even if we understand that maybe, this right-wing wave will bring a very difficult time for green politics, a very difficult time for justice and human rights in general. We are trying our best, which we are very fearful as well, of these general tendencies. And, yeah, it’s okay. But that also motivates us to just fight that struggle, especially on workers day.

-Dimitris: Thank you very much. Have a great day.