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A proud day for workers

“An injury to one is an injury to all”, is the cry of the workers from all over the world. And this cry is heard loud and clear on the first day of May every year. This day is called May Day – a day that belongs to workers everywhere.

On May Day workers celebrate their victories in the struggle for better living and working conditions. And on this day workers come together to carry on the struggle for a better world – a world without rich and poor, a world without hunger and pain, and a world with peace and unity.

May Day will always be an important day for workers. But in South Africa this year, May Day was really special.

Workers came together to show the world their unity and their strength. This country has not seen such unity for a long, long time.

In the Transvaal, workers from 31 trade unions celebrated May Day together. They had meetings in Johannesburg, Soweto, Lenasia, Sebokeng and Tumahole. At these meetings workers gave a list of 18 demands. The first demand was for May Day to be a paid public holiday.

In Cape Town the unions who are coming together in the new big federation celebrated May Day together – and they invited 10 other unions to join them. In Natal workers had meetings in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Estcourt and Ladysmith. And workers also had May Day meetings in Port Elizabeth and East London.

The workers in South Africa and all over the world have paid a high price for their unity. The history of May Day is written in blood and struggle.


Workers first celebrated May Day in Australia over 100 years ago, on the 1 st May 1856. On that day workers in Australia went on strike to demand an eight hour working day. The workers in Australia, like in all other countries, worked very long hours – anything up to 16 hours a day. They worked in terrible conditions and for low, low wages.

“We are living to work instead of working to live,” said the workers of Australia. “We cannot go on like this much longer. The bosses are getting fatter and we are getting thinner. Soon there will be no workers left.”

So the workers went on strike. They had meetings to talk about their problems. And they had parties so workers could relax and enjoy them­ selves. They decided that from that day on, the first of May will be a workers’ day – a day of celebration and struggle.

But the workers in Australia were not the only ones who worked long, hard hours. Workers in other countries had the same problems. And when they heard what the workers in Australia had done, they too demanded an eight hour working day. They too decided that the first of May will be a workers’ holiday

In America workers demanded an eight hour working day from the 1 st May 1886. They decided to force the bosses to give them an eight hour working day. One of their leaders said: “We must organise if we want an eight hour working day. If we want an eight hour day, we must make it ourselves. “

So the workers had meetings to demand an eight hour working day. Some of the workers had already won an eight hour day. They called the goods they made eight hour goods. At the meetings the workers smoked ‘eiqht hour tobacco’ and they wore ‘eiqht hour shoes’. And they sang an eight hour song:

We mean to change things, we’re tired of working for nothing. Not enough to live on, never an hour for thought. We want to feel the sunshine, we want to smell the flowers. We’re sure that God wanted it, and we mean to have eight hours. We are calling our forces from shipyard, shop and mill. Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours to do what we want.

But the bosses were not interested. They did not give the workers an eight hour day. So on 1st May 1886 the workers in America went on strike. The factories came to a standstill and the mills were quiet. But the streets were full of noise – the noise of the workers singing the eight hour song:

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours to do what we want.”

The strike was a big success and the bosses gave in. The workers got an eight hour working day. The workers won, but the price was heavy. The police shot and killed six of the striking workers. The police arrested the workers’ leaders – and hanged four of them.

The story of the American workers was carried across the sea to England and the other countries in Europe. These workers were also fighting for better living and ‘working conditions.

In 1889 workers in Europe started the International Workers Congress to unite workers everywhere. The Congress decided to have demonstra­tions in all countries on 1 st May 1890 to demand an eight hour day.

And so in 1890 May Day was celebrated by workers in America, Australia, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Hungary, Poland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. May Day became a day of unity for workers all over the world.

Since then workers all over the world have celebrated May Day. In socialist countries like Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, May Day is a public holiday. In most other countries, workers have won a paid holiday.

In countries like South Africa where workers don’t have many rights, May Day is a day of protest against the apartheid laws. It is a day when workers come together to demand better living and working conditions. It is a day of unity and celebration. And in South Africa, it all started over 80 years ago.


On Sunday May 1 1904, about 2 000 white workers had a meeting in Market Square Johannesburg. This was the first May Day meeting in South Africa. Their cry was: “Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.” They were blind to the sufferings of their fellow black workers.

The white workers did not care about the other workers because they got higher wages and they had better working conditions. The bosses used the old trick of “divide and rule”. They did not want the workers to stand together.

But the whiter than white May Day meetings did not last forever. In 1915 a small group of white workers started an organisation called the Interna­tional Socialist League.

This organisation later became the Communist Party. The people in this organisation said: “The workers produce all the wealth in the country. But most of this wealth goes to the bosses. And the government is always on the side of the bosses. We want the workers to share in the wealth of the country. And we want a govern­ment that will be run by workers.”

They said that if workers want to fight for their rights, they must be united Black and White, African and European, Indian and “Coloured”. And so in 1917, they invited Horatio Mbelle, a member of the African National Congress, to come and speak at their meeting.

But the meeting did not last long. It was broken up by soldiers and white workers. They did not like a black man talking to white workers.

Black workers also began to celebrate May Day every year. But most white workers still did not want to join together with black workers. These white workers had their own meetings.

The Communist Party tried hard to bring black and white workers together. They had a big May Day meeting in Johannesburg in 1931. About 3 000 black workers and 1 500 white workers marched from Market Square to the steps of the City Hall. The speakers praised the unity of the white and black workers.

After the meeting the workers marched to the Rand Club – where the bosses went to relax and enjoy themselves. In the club the bosses were smoking fat cigars, drinking whisky and stuffing their stomachs with food.

And then they heard the workers singing outside. “We want work, we want bread,” sang the workers. The bosses were shocked when they saw black and white workers standing side by side. The cigars dropped out of their mouths, the whisky choked in their throats and suddenly they didn’t feel so hungry anymore.

Black and white workers only really and truly came together for May Day meetings in 1936 – and they carried on meeting together until the 1940’s. Together workers demanded that May Day should be a paid public holiday. They demanded higher wages and the right to start trade unions. And they demanded the right for black and white workers to do the same jobs for the same pay. At last the workers in South Africa were standing together.

But the unity of black and white workers did not last very long. In 1948 the Nationalist Party took over the government and started passing the apartheid laws. These laws made life easier for white workers – and harder for black workers. And so the white workers started celebrating May Day on their own again. Some white workers stopped celebrating May Day altogether.

In 1950 the government passed a new law that banned the Communist Party. Members of the Communist Party, ANC, Transvaal Indian Congress and the African Peoples’ Organisation decided to show their anger with the new law. They called for a stayaway from work on the 1 st May 1950.

The government banned all meetings and they sent the army and police into the townships. Vans with loud­ speakers went around the townships telling people to go to work. The police promised to protect people from the “trouble-makers”. The bosses also tried to make the stayaway fail. They told workers that they could sleep in the factories if they came to work.

But the government and the bosses could not stop the stayaway. On 1 May 1950, the factories were quiet. The workers were united in their anger.

In Cape Town workers marched down Adderley Street – the biggest street in the city. “Down with Apartheid!” they shouted. “Down with passes”. We want freedom!”

In Johannesburg the police broke up meetings in the townships. They killed 19 workers and injured 30 more. The stayaway was a big success because the workers were united in their hatred of apartheid. But like the American workers before them, the workers paid for their victory in blood.

A day of mourning and protest was called on 26 June 1950 to remember those who died on May Day. June 26 was called Freedom Day. And since then, every year on June 26 people come together to remember those who have died in the struggle for freedom.

After 1950 there were no big May Day meetings for a long time – because political organisations and trade unions were under heavy attack from the government. There were no meetings. But workers did not forget about May Day.

Workers celebrated May Day in their homes. Trade Unions wrote stories about May Day in their newspapers and printed messages from workers in other countries. The government stopped May Day meetings – but they could not take May Day out of the hearts and souls of workers.

In the 1970’s workers started to join and build up trade unions again. The unions grew bigger and stronger. And once again, workers came together to remember May Day.

“In the past when workers were strong, they celebrated May Day, “ an organiser for FQSATU told Learn and Teach. “Then after 1950 the workers became weak and they stopped celebrating May Day. But now we celebrate May Day again because we are strong again. And we will get stronger and stronger. Nothing can hold us back now.”.


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