Silent Agitator, by Ruth Ewan, Highline, New York City, photo: Katherine Connelly Silent Agitator, by Ruth Ewan, Highline, New York City, photo: Katherine Connelly

Out of the Chartist movement, the struggle against slavery and for international socialism, why the demands of May Day remain as vital as ever today

On a ‘burning hot’ 21 April 1856 stonemasons building Melbourne University in Australia downed tools and marched on the Parliament House demanding an eight hour working day.  They were victorious, winning an eight hour day with no loss of pay. The following month, they marched in a victory parade which they repeated each year. The idea of May Day, marching for an eight hour day, was born. 

There are two questions that should be asked about the beginning of May Day, the answers to which tell us why May Day still matters. The first: how were the stonemasons in Melbourne able to win such a swift and decisive victory? The second: why was has this proved such a difficult battle to win (even the eight hour victory in Australia really only applied to ‘skilled’ adult male workers) even today?

How Australian workers got more power

The British state had been transporting criminals to penal colonies in Australia from the eighteenth century. The continual importation of people sentenced to hard labour made it extremely difficult for workers in Australia to organise for better conditions. 

Nevertheless, the National Museum of Australia records that, even in these conditions, there were instances of convict labourers organising. The first strike in Australia in 1791 was organised by convicts for daily (instead of weekly) food rations; in 1822 a convict was sentenced to five years penal servitude, a month in solitary confinement and five hundred lashes for trying to unionise servants in a fight for better pay and rations.

By the 1850s, transportation to many parts of Australia had ceased, meaning that workers had a better chance of exerting their power – if they were organised. 

And James Stephens, the organiser of the 1856 stonemasons’ strike, had formidable organising experience. Born in Wales, he became a stonemason and joined the trade union. He also joined the Chartist movement – a nationwide working-class campaign for political reform which emerged out of the trade union movement. 

The Chartist movement, which organised the first general strike in Britain, terrified the British establishment who used every means to repress it, even sentencing some of their leaders to death. In 1839 around 10,000 Chartists, some of them armed, tried to free imprisoned Chartists in Newport. James Stephens was among those who joined what was called the Newport Rising. Three local Chartists leaders paid a heavy price: they were put on trial for high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. After a public outcry this was commuted – to transportation to Australia.

But Stephens was not among those sentenced.  He went in search of work and got a job at Windsor Castle! He was sacked when it was discovered he was a Chartist. He also got work building the new Houses of Parliament. This is especially intriguing: earlier this year, graffiti from 1851 was found on the wall of a blocked up passage in Parliament that had been written by the stonemasons during that rebuilding in which they described themselves as ‘Real Democrats’, another name for Chartists.

Stephens arrived in Australia in 1853. There was a gold rush in Australia at this time and Stephens knew his skills would be in demand. This, combined with the lack of new convicts to exploit, placed Stephens and his fellow workers in a potentially very strong position to bargain for better conditions. By withdrawing their labour, downing tools that hot April day, they revealed how necessary their labour was and were able to win an important victory.

The death of slavery: how American workers got more power

In August 1866, the General Congress of Labour, held in Baltimore, pledged its support for a law to restrict the working day to eight hours ‘in all States of the American Union’. Watching carefully was Karl Marx, who had worked closely with the most radical of the Chartists and was now in exile in London for his part in the 1848 revolutions. 

Marx was central to founding the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA) in 1864 – an organisation that linked up trade union organisations so that they could unite their struggles across national boundaries. One month after the American workers, the General Council of the IWMA declared the eight hour day ‘the preliminary condition’ for working-class emancipation.

Marx noted that the campaign for the eight hour day took hold in the USA immediately after the Civil War. In a powerful passage in Volume One of Capital, published just a year after the Congress in Baltimore, Marx argued that the defeat of slavery was the precondition for the eight hour day movement:

‘In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However, a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation.’[1]

Therefore, the struggle for a shorter working day required a united struggle of white and black workers able to identify common interests – something that was impossible while slavery still existed.

Class struggle and the eight hour day

But Marx also understood why this struggle was such a difficult one. The emergence of industrial capitalism had brought about a huge extension of the normal working day in order to maximise profits. Any attempt to restrict the working day was therefore seen by industrial capitalists as a threat to their ‘rights’ – as Marx well knew from studying their resistance to the Factory Acts in Britain. The normal working day was therefore ‘the result of centuries of struggle between the capitalist and the worker.’[2]

In the USA, that struggle erupted violently over May Day. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions established the 1 May as the date for general strikes in support of the eight hour day.   

Two years later, a meeting of striking workers in Chicago was attacked by police, resulting in fatalities. A meeting in support of the eight hour day and in protest at the police attack was held in Chicago’s Haymarket Square the following day on 4 May. Towards the end of the rally, large numbers of police appeared and marched towards the speakers ordering everyone to leave. Then a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. The police opened fire on the crowd. Seven police and four workers were killed. It became known as the Haymarket Massacre. 

Many of the workers believed the bomber had been planted by the employers. But the establishment were in no doubt that ‘anarchists’ were to blame. Seven labour activists, most of them immigrants, were put on trial. There was no chance of a fair trial and no trade unionists were permitted on the jury. 

Five of them were hanged, two had their sentences commuted and another committed suicide on the eve of his execution. 

Among those who took up the cause of the Chicago martyrs was Karl Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor Marx. Shortly afterwards, she became centrally involved in the eight hours movement and the campaign to bring May Day to London. 

In 1888, a strike led by the largely female workforce, many of them teenagers and from immigrant backgrounds, at the Bryant and May match factory in East London sparked the beginning of what was later known as New Unionism. Workers who had been written off by employers and trade union leaders alike as ‘unorganisable’ and ‘unskilled’, downed tools and organised their own unions. 

Eleanor Marx threw herself into this movement. In 1889, the gas workers in East London went on strike for an eight hour day and won. Eleanor Marx helped to found their new trade union: the National Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. 

The same year, at a meeting of the Second International (formed on the model of Marx’s IWMA) held in Paris on the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, Raymond Lavigne, a worker from Bordeaux, proposed that European workers should campaign for the eight hour day on 1 May to coincide with the day chosen by American workers. 

In Britain, Eleanor Marx was one of the leading proponents of May Day and spoke at the first demonstration in Hyde Park in 1890. She made it clear that she did not see this as a one-day annual ritual, this was a day to commit to struggling for social change for all workers:

‘it is not enough to come here to demonstrate in favour of an eight hours’ day.  We must not be like some Christians who sin for six days and go to church on the seventh, but we must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women that we meet, come into the ranks to help us.’[3]

Standing behind her on the platform was Friedrich Engels, her father’s lifelong comrade and co-author of the Communist Manifesto. This was his first public appearance since Karl Marx’s death. He expressed a feeling that resonates with anyone who’s been on a really big demonstration – ‘I can assure you I looked a couple of inches taller’ – and then explained why: ‘having heard again, for the first time since 40 years, the unmistakable voice of the English Proletariat.’[4] The struggle the Chartists began had returned. 

The brilliant basic idea

‘The brilliant basic idea of May Day is the autonomous, immediate stepping forward of the proletarian masses, the political mass action of the millions of workers who otherwise are atomized by the barriers of the state in the day-to-day parliamentary affairs, who mostly can give expression to their own will only through the ballot, through the election of their representatives.’

So wrote the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg in 1913. May Day was important because it broke down the falsely imposed barriers between ‘political’ and ‘industrial’ action – barriers that are very much in place with today’s anti-union laws. 

Luxemburg’s contemporary, the Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin explained: ‘[t]he demand for an eight-hour day . . . is the demand of the whole proletariat, presented, not to individual employers, but to the government as the representative of the whole of the present-day social and political system, to the capitalist class as a whole’. 

May Day, then, is about refusing to fight atomised and alone; it is about demanding far-reaching change for the whole of the working-class. And it does that by locating the struggle where workers are most needed and where we can act collectively: the workplace. 

May Day today

This history of the power of collective action and working-class internationalism is vitally important today. Marx’s insight that the length of the working day is determined by struggle still holds, as three decades of neoliberalism sees people in Britain working some of the longest hours in Europe. Not only is the average working day over eight hours long, but the government negotiated opt-outs from the European Working Time Directive (which restricted a working week to 48 hours, or 9.6 hours per day in a 5-day week) so that many workers are pressured into working well over 10 hour days. 

On top of this, the technological improvements we were told would shorten our working days have in fact increased the time we are expected to be productive. Work phones and laptops mean there is more pressure to work outside of ‘working hours’, or to work in ‘breaks’. How true Marx’s words from 1867 ring about capitalism today which

‘haggles over meal-times, where possible incorporating them into the production process itself, so that food is added to the worker as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, and grease and oil to the machinery.  It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, renewal and refreshment of the vital forces to the exact amount of torpor essential to the revival of an absolutely exhausted organism.’[5]

The outbreak of Covid-19 has revealed much about the nature of work in Britain. Many people greeted the announcement that Britain was to (partially) lockdown, with ideas and plans about how they were going to use their time: learning languages, instruments, writing and, in addition, hundreds of thousands of people volunteered. What an indictment it is of normal working life that a global pandemic was the moment these dreams were fleetingly expressed – before the pressures of working at home took hold.

But, of course, this is not the experience of all workers. Those judged key workers (who, it transpires, are not in fact the super-rich we’ve been repeatedly told we must fear leaving the country) have been exposed to appallingly dangerous conditions. Our government, despite ample warning, has manifestly failed to provide adequate protective equipment for those on the front line. 

This exposes two things: how reliant the employers are on their workforce and how potentially powerful workers are. And where workers have taken action they have often achieved swift victories – for example the tube workers who organised against the imposition of a dangerous new timetable. The lessons of May Day remain vitally important in our struggle to protect lives at work today. 

Full picture: Silent Agitator, by Ruth Ewan, Highline, New York City, photo: Katherine Connelly


[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol.1 (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p.414.

[2] Ibid, p.382.

[3] Quoted in Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), p.333.

[4] Quoted in Yvonne Kapp, Eleanor Marx Volume II: The Crowded years, 1884-1898 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1976), p.380.

[5] Marx, Capital, p.376.

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.