Historicising and Celebrating May Day

Jainab Tabassum Banu Sonali

2nd May, 2019 02:20:30 printer

Historicising and Celebrating May Day

The first day of May is observed as a public holiday in our country. People, regardless of their religion, class, complexion and gender, get day off from their working places to celebrate "May Day". Usually, most of the working people plan a holiday to be spent with family and friends in an exotic way. They plan a day out or a delicious lunch treat in a tropical place. They spend a lot amount of money to make it memorable. Some people prefer to only relax at home. They pass this compulsory holiday by sitting in front of a rectangular digital box called television and eating special homemade foods. While having this mandatory break from our work, have we ever realised the actual value of this day? Have we thought of sharing the history of May Day with our children? Have we paid a tribute to the people who really are to celebrate May Day? Before munching on the exotic food or going on a costly trip, let's first historicise May Day.

International Labour Day or Workers' Day is referred to May Day. The day is celebrated to commemorate the struggle of the labourers and working class people who raised their voices and protested to protect their rights as workers. Working class mainly refers to the ones who do physical jobs in factories, garments, lands and buildings. According to Karl Marx, working class people are the ones who sell their labour power to earn wages and who do not possess the means of production. It simply means that the labourers help the mode of production to sustain, but they do not own it. A farmer will grow crops, but will not own the land. A garment worker will sew clothes, but won't own the factory. Working class people are mostly subdued by their owners who belong to the capitalist class. Capitalists exploit the labour of workers. They do not provide them with proper wage and benefits.

In the early nineteenth century, in America, workers would work for more than 12 hours a day. But unfortunately, they were paid a very little amount of money which was never at all sufficient to lead a family life. The owners even exploited them physically. They overpowered the poor working class by making them work more and earn less. For this reason, in 1860, a few workers started showing their resistance. Michael Foucault was right in saying, "where there is power, there is resistance". The workers demanded for "8-hour per day" work without cutting their wages. Later they formed an institution named American Federation of Labour with a slogan, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will". Basically they wanted to lead a well-balanced sustainable life. This federation kept on working to support workers' rights.

Then in 1884, in Chicago, a group of labourers gathered to establish 8-hour working day. On 1 May, 1886, there was a general strike in which thousands of workers took part. The day was Saturday. Since the next day was Sunday, they could not do anything effectively. But on 4 May 1886, the workers gathered in Haymarket Square. August Spies was one of the leaders of the radical anarchists. All on a sudden, a bomb was exploded there. Police started firing on the workers. A few labourers died and many wounded. Spies along with seven of his anarchist comrades got arrested. A case was filed. And on the basis of false allegations, one was punished for 15 years in prison and seven were sentenced to death.

In November, 1887 Spies, Fischer, Parsons and other three comrades were hanged. Before hanging, August Spies said, "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than you are throttling today". This statement is written in a monument in Haymarket. Parsons said, "The voice of the people must be heard". Their voices and protests did not go waste. Finally, an 8-hour working day was sanctioned by law.

However, it is so unfortunate that America, being the pioneering country of the working class protest, do not acknowledge 1 May as International Workers' Day. More than 80 countries observe the day with full of spirit. Socialist countries like China, Cuba and other communist countries celebrate May Day. In Bangladesh, we also try to feel the struggle of the working class people. But our realisation is restricted to a certain limit. The father of the nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wanted to build a nation where capitalists would not exploit general people. He rightly pointed out that the tool of subjugation is capital. So, he suggested not using this tool to oppress the powerless. But are we obeying our nation's father?

The proletariats are still working inhumanely for more than 10 to 12 hours a day. They do not earn sufficient, and so they are bound to work overtime. Our honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has done a lot to secure working class rights. She even increased salaries in many job sectors. But unfortunately, still some corrupted businessmen keep on exploiting the workers by not providing them with proper wages and facilities. This is not a PM's job only to do everything single-handedly. If we do not remain clear on our side, we cannot blame anyone else.

The owners must secure workers' rights. Similarly, workers must not sell their ethics. A rule is a rule that should be followed and maintained by both owners and workers. In some cases, the workers become greedy to earn more money. Instead of shorter time, they work for longer period and claim more money. As a result, other workers suffer. Also, the owners get more chance to do injustice to labour power. This must be stopped. The workers who work under no capitalist boss are still workers. You will see some local poor workers who make handmade products and sell them at a very affordable price. They cannot do salaried jobs for not having minimum educational qualification. They are bound to choose more hardship for their survival.

So, before enjoying May Day as holiday, look at the rickshaw puller. Don't abuse him for five or ten taka. He is working all day long to feed his family. Don't abuse your maid servant. She is working really hard to keep your house clean and satisfy her hunger. Embrace local products, because these local workers cannot afford brands. These are the workers who do not get the luxury to have a day-off even on May Day. Their work is not 8 hours long. They need to work on a daily basis as long as their bodies support them. So, be kinder to these workers. And celebrate May Day!


-The writer is a Lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature, Premier University Chittagong.