Is May Day a communist holiday? No, it’s a celebration of workers’ rights

The oldest workers’ celebration – with a tradition of more than 130 years – has been almost completely forgotten and silenced in 2022, in both opposition and pro-government media. On holiday morning, there wasn’t even a mention of him in the media headlines.

The PAP recalls that on May 1 and 3, 1982, there were large demonstrations of “Solidarity” against the regime of martial law in the People’s Republic of Poland. Veteran memorabilia from that era is also published by Tygodnik TVP Info (but nothing more).

“Do Rzeczy” recalls a brief history of the holiday and informs that since 1955 the Catholic Church celebrates – not by chance on this day – “the memory of St. Jozef Robotnik”.

“Wprost” reminds you that it was one of the most important holidays in the Polish People’s Republic and that it was expedient to come (the fact that the march was not well received in workplaces ).

“WPolityce.pl” does not notice the holidays at all. On the front page, “Wyborcza” devotes a brief note to him in the historical supplement “Ale Historia”.

Even the left-lewica.pl website only writes about the holiday in historical terms – recalling the great parades in Poland in 1936.

In 2022, the May Day march returns to Warsaw after a two-year break caused by the coronavirus epidemic. However, it is difficult to hope that it will attract more than a few hundred, perhaps a little more than a thousand people – politicians and left-wing politicians, but also trade unionists and activists.

OKO.press covered this event live:

Meanwhile, in the Second Polish Republic, tens of thousands of people in Poland’s biggest cities regularly took part in the parades.

Leaders remain silent on vacation

Leaders remain silent on the holidays. On Twitter, Prime Minister Morawiecki honors the anniversary of his joining the European Union in 2004. It’s hard to find a mention of him on President Duda’s official Twitter.

Przemysław Czarnek, the Minister of Education and Science, announced, for example, on May 1, the “National Reading of the Holy Scriptures”. He himself also set the example.

It wasn’t the communists who invented this party

The May Day holiday was not invented by the communists. Originally, it was the most important holiday of the labor movement – of which the Communists were an important part, but a small part.

Why May 1? The international labor movement – the so-called Second International, the international agreement of labor parties – thus commemorated in 1889 the dramatic events that accompanied the Chicago labor protests in the early days of May 1886.

Chicago – a large industrial metropolis of over half a million people at the time – was also the seat of various labor groups, among which the anarchists played the most prominent role. At the time, the workers’ movement itself was not divided between socialists – supporters of democracy and a progressive approach to socialism – and communists seeking revolution and the overthrow of capitalism by force.

From the point of view of public opinion at the time, all militant workers were subversives, violating the social order and the sacred right to property.

Labor protests and strikes were taking place regularly in the United States at this time. Their peak came in 1877, when there was a great protest from railway workers.

The standard procedure for strikers at the time was lockout, that is, the firing of workers and their forced expulsion from the factory. There were also frequent victims, also from the police and private companies – today we would call them security guards – hired by employers (like the famous Pinkerton agency).

Bombs on Haymarket

In 1886 there was a strike at the McCormick harvester and farm machinery factory in Chicago. The conflict had been going on for several months. In February 1886, Cyrus McCormick Jr., heir to the founder of the factory and one of the richest people in the city, decided on the lockout. He fired all the workers, hired new ones, and hired dozens of bodyguards from Pinkerton to guard the scabs and the factory itself.

After weeks of layoffs, they picketed the factory gates and the labor press called McCormick a “monster” and a “pimp”.

On May 1, tens of thousands of people – including workers expelled from McCormick factories – marched through the city demanding an eight-hour workday (10 to 12.5 hours was the norm at the time) and freedom of association.

On May 3, there was a fight in front of the factory gate between the “new” and the “old” workers. The police started shooting, two people were killed.

On May 4, the German-language newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung, edited by socialist-anarchist Albert Spies, printed a poster calling for a rally for the following evening, Tuesday May 4.

“Workers in arms,” ​​she called. “REVENGE!” The headline read.

Only three thousand people came to the Haymarket rally, cordoned off by police. Around 10:30 p.m., while several hundred people remained in the square, the police called on them to disperse.

Someone then threw a pipe bomb into the police cordon. The shooting began: workers and police were shooting at each other, often in chaos.

The anarchist process

The following day, mass arrests of labor activists began in the city. The “anarchist trial,” the newspapers then wrote, had captured the attention of all of the United States.

Eight people (including Spies) sat in the dock – by jurors who were themselves local businessmen. Seven were sentenced to death and one to 15 years in prison.

The press portrayed the defendants as bloodthirsty beasts bent on destroying civilization. The publicists demanded blood.
Of these eight, only two were present at the rally at the time of the explosion. They stood on a trolley which served as a support for the speakers. One of the defendants left town, but returned and turned himself in to the police – convinced he was innocent for obvious reasons.

In the end, 4 people were hanged – who did not want to ask the governor for mercy. A defendant committed suicide in prison by detonating a contraband bomb in his mouth. Three were released from prison after seven years.

Parades and party

The May Day march was to commemorate these events. The holiday was first celebrated in Poland in 1890. Working conditions in Polish factories were then often worse than in Chicago, and the Polish socialist movement grew rapidly, despite numerous internal conflicts and splits.

The Polish Socialist Party was founded in Paris in 1892. A dozen years later, in 1905, it played a leading role in the revolution that upset the entire Russian Empire.

The 1st of May celebration was an opportunity to show the solidarity of workers (and of workers and employees in general). It was, among other things, to demonstrate that they are not alone in the face of the force of their employer and the police, but that there is a huge movement behind them.

On May 1, 1936, at the end of the Great Depression, 80,000 people appeared on the streets of Łódź. people, Warsaw – 40 thousand. and Lviv – 50 thousand At that time, the marches were often accompanied by violence: there were clashes with far-right activists.

In the People’s Republic of Poland, the marches were nationalized and became demonstrations of support for the authorities. They paraded in front of the stands with state dignitaries, carrying for example pictures of leaders or heroes officially approved by the authorities in power.

They were also meant to be a happy holiday, not full of anger – showing that “working people” are happy in a socialist state.

It was often different behind the scenes. Attendance at the procession was often seen as a duty by superiors. Attendees were also tempted by fairs, where one could buy goods not normally found in stores. Thus, the communist authorities transformed May Day into a caricature of a working-class holiday.

Is it still necessary today?

In the Third Republic of Poland, the holiday was systematically marginalized. Even in the 1990s, thousands of people came to the parades – voluntarily, not forced. Thereafter, the number of participants systematically decreased – until the pandemic pause of 2020-21. Today, there is no indication that the tradition of mass marches will return.

This does not mean, however, that the conflict between employers and employees is over. In November 2021, mBank fired the syndicate founder for the entry that the syndicate was created.

Also in November, Amazon fired a legally protected trade unionist. “Victims of accidents at Amazon feel guilty for crimes,” the fired trade unionist later told OKO.press about the working conditions.

Strikes have not gone away either. In August 2021, for example, there was a strike at the Paroc factory in Trzemeszno – in the context of a dispute over wages and working conditions. The workers won the strike.

So maybe Labor Day – a symbol of workers’ solidarity – is still necessary.

Adam Leszczynski
Adam Leszczynski

Historian and sociologist, professor at SWPS University, journalist. Author of two report books on Africa and several history books. He “slandered” Poland, among others in “The Guardian”, “Le Monde”, “El Pais”, “Suddeutsche Zeitung”. Recently he published “The People’s History of Poland” (WAB 2017). At OKO.press he writes about politics and history.


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