Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2011 > May Day 2011 - Commemorating 125 Years of Workers’ Uprising in (...)

Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 19, April 30, 2011

May Day 2011 - Commemorating 125 Years of Workers’ Uprising in Chicago

Tuesday 3 May 2011, by Nirmalya Biswas

It all happened on a Saturday; 125 years have passed since then. In those days people had to work for ten to twelve hours a day. But on that Saturday they broke the rule. They set aside their fear and strife, and left work. With an indomitable spirit they dared to raise their voice and make a start. Together they dreamt to change the world. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what we will”1 was what they decided as something non-negotiable. Workers in thousands marched down the streets of Chicago on May 1, 1886. Most of them were immigrants from Ireland, Britain, Germany, Italy, the East European countries and China. Chicago was a city where they worked in large factories.

It was a time when industrial capitalism was experiencing a boom in the United States which Marx and Engels described in 1882 as ‘fabulous concentration of capital’.2 Marx drew attention to the “monopolising power of the great companies swaying industry, commerce, property in land, railroads, finance—at an always accelerated rate since the outbreak of the Civil War”.3 The reverse side of American prosperity was large scale exploitation of the workers. “American civilisation was keeping whole layers of the population, the Negroes above all, in the condition of pariahs; only the upper strata of the US working class enjoyed better conditions, the rest—the bulk—especially the immigrant workers, differed little if at all from their fellows in other countries in terms of lack of rights and social hardship.…. Despite its democratic trappings, the US bourgeois state was acutely hostile to the working class, being an instrument in the hands of big business. ….. Marx was sure that the American working class would intensify its resistance to the power of capital. He realised that it was developing along specific and intricate lines.”4

It was a time when United States was still living with the memory of the Civil War. Many people had fought in the Civil War. Karl Marx wrote for the New York Tribune during the Civil War describing it as the most important event in world history which ended slavery and liberated the Black people.

It was a mass uprising in Chicago—a great empowerment movement for the immigrants who had come here and had not yet got the right to vote. They had been in years of deprivation and discrimination. What else could give the slaves of the factories more confidence and greater courage than work stoppage en masse!

What was important about May 1, 1886 was that people were demonstrating not only as US citizens, but as citizens of the world, the larger world community of workers leading the struggle for justice and freedom. The tragic Haymarket massacre had enormous consequences for what happened in the history of the labour movement thereafter. The workers’ movement in Europe grew strong. The significant develop-ment of this movement occurred at the Inter-national Workers’ Congress in 1889. It was resolved in the Congress that the workers all over the world would go for stoppage of work and demonstrate together on May 1, 1890 in support of the demand for eight-hour working day. No one had any idea of a repeat of the programme of cease work on May 1 in the coming years. The lightning effect of the movement which was initially planned by the Congress to be a one-time programme gained the support of the working classes who decided to commemorate May 1 every year.

INDIA is a country of 1.21 billion people5 with a workforce of some 400 million, about 90 per cent of whom work in the unorganised informal sectors. Only about 10 per cent are regular employees, of which two-fifths are employed by the public sector. The unorganised sector seldom provides social security and other benefits of employment. In the rural areas, agricultural workers form the bulk of the unorganised sector. In urban India migratory agricultural labourers make up most of the unorganised contract labour force. The size of the casual workforce will be further enlarged by professionals and skilled workforce in the Information and Technology and other emerging professional sectors. Consequently, the nature of the emerging labour market is expected to be contractual. Over the years full-time regular employment is gradually replaced by part-time and temporary work.

India’s labour force is growing at a rate of 2.5 per cent annually. Every year some seven million new job seekers enter the workforce with hardly any new jobs being created in the organised sector. A number of small and medium industries are facing severe competition from imports and many have closed down. Both the public sector enterprises and the large private sector units are downsizing thereby adversely affecting the employment levels. The scope of government employment will continue to fall, as the recommen-dation of the government’s various committees suggest.

Women workers account for about one-third of the total workforce. Over 85 per cent of women workers work in rural areas, mostly in agriculture. In urban areas, majority of the women are engaged in informal sectors, petty trades, services, construction work and so on. Since women’s employment is low in the organised sector (4.95 million or about 18 per cent of the total organised sector employment), their membership too is low in trade unions, except in those sectors in which women dominate, such as plantations where the women membership is as high as 70 per cent.

The wage policy in India is yet to provide for living wages, covering basic needs such as health care, education, transport and other social security measures. Minimum wages barely cover food requirements of a worker. In the unorganised sector even the Minimum Wages Act is flouted with impunity. The unorganised sector employs preferably casual workers. As the formal sector shrinks, millions are forced to work in the informal sector effectively even below subsistence wages with no social security or other labour rights. While privatisation gains pace, health, education and public transport and other public utility services go to rack and ruin. One-fourth of Indians cannot even afford two square meals a day. Record inflation of food and other essential commodities during the recent period has caused untold misery to the poor workers. Their purchasing power is sharply declining.

In India mere change of ruling party in the government does not necessarily lead to any significant change in economic policies and a fairer deal for workers. Successive governments have been pushing forward the agenda of economic liberalisation, globalisation and priva-tisation which adversely affects jobs, incomes and standard of living. The government conti-nuously disinvests government equity in the PSUs. The economic policies aggravate the problems of poverty, unemployment, hunger and disease. Every step of neo-liberalism has in fact further aggravated these problems and created huge disparities between the creamy layer and the bottom layer of the social structure. For the last few years, the trade unions have been struggling against the policies of economic liberalisation, privatisation and dilution of labour laws, which are adversely affecting workers employment and social security rights.

One of the major challenges before the trade union movement is how to organise the contract labourers. The existing law—Contract Labour (Regulation and Prohibition) Act, 1974—has not helped to improve the conditions of work of contract-casual employees. They hardly have any unions. The absence of unions in the unorganised sector does not provide any opportunity for collective bargaining. Over 70 per cent of the total labour force in the organised and unorganised sectors is either illiterate or educated below the primary level. An overwhelming majority of India’s labour force in the unorganised sector works long hours but doesn’t get minimum wages. They have not read the history of May Day. They have to work for more hours. The job market is so tight that they do not dare to revolt.

May Day or International Workers’ Day is observed on May 1 every year to commemorate the historic struggles of the working people throughout the world. On May 1 this year, as in all the previous years, workers all over the world will assemble and march. On May Day they will review their achievements and failures, the problems they faced, and mobilise workers to take new challenges ahead in the twentyfirst century.

May Day raised the demand for introduction of an eight-hour day 125 years ago. But even after their demand was recognised universally, the working class commemorates May Day every year in a befitting manner. As long as the workers’ struggle against exploitation by the ruling class continues, May Day will be observed by them vibrantly. To them it is a historically significant day to organise themselves against all sorts of exploitations and oppressions. Humanity will always celebrate May Day with dignity acknow-ledging the workers’ great sacrifice and indomi-table endurance in the past.


1. The agitation for the eight-hour day began after the Civil War. The Congress passed an eight hour law on June 25, 1868, but it was largely ignored. In the 1880s the issue was revived. This song was written during that revival. The tune is by Rev Jesse H. Jones and the words are by I.G. Blanchard. Source: The Fireside Book of Favourite American Songs: Songs of Work and Protest.

2. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 100.

3. Marx to N.F. Danelson (November 15, 1878), Central Party Archives of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

4. Karl Marx—A Biography, 2nd revised edition, 1977, Progressive Publishers, p. 620.

5. 2011 Census of India.

The author is an Associate Professor in Commerce, Bankim Sardar College affiliated to the University of Kolkata. His e-mail is:

Notice: The print edition of Mainstream Weekly is now discontinued & only an online edition is appearing. No subscriptions are being accepted