These celebrations originate in our ancient pagan past. The celebrants depended on the land for survival and needed it to be fertile. May Day was about fertility for land and people; so some of the celebrations were a little too bawdy for those churchmen who sought to ban the more boisterous festivities.
From the industrial revolution of the early nineteenth century, tens of thousands of countryfolk moved from their villages and rural towns to the large cities where they found work in the mills. This work was long, hard and exhausting. It was common to work anything from twelve to sixteen hours a day. Workers began to realise that they were enslaved to the machines of their 'masters'. These exploited workers began to combine to seek better wages and conditions. The most notable demand was for an eight-hour working day; summed up in the slogan “8 hours labour. 8 hours recreation. 8 hours rest”. This demand was first put forward in the British colony of Victoria in May 1856 when a parade of 1200 building workers were led by a band carrying a large Union Jack with a golden figure of eight on the top of the pole.
American workers passed a resolution in 1884 which asserted that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886 and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this district that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution.” The reaction from the authorities was heavy-handed and violent. This violent reaction galvanised the American labour unions and encouraged workers in Britain and Ireland to continue the struggle for the eight-hour day and better working conditions.
Employers are still all too willing and able to cheat workers of the fruit of their labours. The 'long hours culture' pressurises many workers into putting in many hours of unpaid overtime. In the interests of bigger profit margins, greedy employers are willing to employ cheap non-unionised migrant labour and throw British workers on the scrapheap. Others will close down factories and plants in this country and set up shop abroad in the Far East. Even public authorities will 'outsource' back office jobs to India if they think that they can get away with it.
This is why May Day should still be important to British workers in 2008. The battle for a better work-life balance as epitomised in the 8-8-8 slogan was won over a century ago. However, new battle lines are forming. As British workers find their pay and working conditions eroded under renewed, relentless pressure from ruthless employers and cheap non-unionised migrant labour; the need for a militant patriotic union to fight their case has never been stronger. New Labour talks of 'modernisation' as the workers it once claimed to represent are sold out to its new Corporate friends and financial backers.
May Day is our day. It doesn't belong to the New Labour appartachiks who are intent on betraying the workers who once trusted them It doesn't belong to the trade union bureaucrats who collude in New Labour's betrayal. May Day is ours. It belongs to the British Worker. May Day is a firm part of our nation's cultural heritage. We're not giving it up to the politicians and bureaucrats who have sold us down the river. May Day Greetings to you all. Solidarity Forever. Together we are strong!
- David Kerr, Solidarity National Executive