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The Beginnings of May Day in Australia

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In 1884, the 1st of May 1886 had been chosen as the day the Federation of Organised Trade and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada had earmarked "as the date from and after which eight hours shall constitute a legal days labour". On the 1st May 1886, Australia's first anarchist organisation was formed - The Melbourne Anarchist Club.

From 1887 to 1889 the 1st May was remembered and celebrated in Australia only by anarchists associated with the Melbourne Anarchist Club. In 1890 May Day celebrations were held in the office of Dr. Maloney MP in Melbourne, Chummy Fleming, a well known Melbourne anarchist, attended these celebrations. Demonstrations and celebrations were held in Ipswich and Barcoldine on the 1st May 1891 during the Shearers Strike, over 1,000 men took part in the Barcoldine march, 600 mounted on horseback.

Melbourne held its first public May Day celebration on the 1st of May 1892. The celebration on the Yarra Bank was proceeded by a march which began at the Burke and Wills monument. The meeting at the Yarra Bank was chaired by the principal organisers of the March, the anarchist Chummy Fleming. May Day was celebrated in Australia from 1892 to 1899. It was not celebrated in Melbourne and the rest of Australia from 1900 to 1927.

When May Day celebrations were recommenced in 1928, Chummy Fleming the Melbourne anarchist, although not part of the official organising committee led the May Day March in Melbourne until his death in the mid 1950's. He normally started marching 30 minutes before the official march and waited for the main march to catch up with him.

Joe Toscano from Anarchist Age Weekly Review
Number 297 27th April - 3rd May, 1998
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May Day Melbourne 1901

Although Melbournešs City Fatheršs saw fit to ban the May Day procession. Around thirty hardy souls gathered at the Burke and Wills statue on Sunday the 5th of May outside State parliament to march to the Yarra Bank. Chummy Fleming, the Melbourne anarchist who initiated the first May Day March in Australia in Melbourne in 1891, led the procession carrying his red flag. Under banners reading "free railways" and "8 hours labour or less", they began their stroll down Bourke and Swanston street. At the intersection of Bourke and Swanston Street, the little procession was split up by a regiment of cadets. Chummy Fleming who according to the Agešs Monday 6th, May 1901 edition "carried a red flag and an air of serious determination bore his standard to the Yarra Bank alone".

By this time around 1500 people had gathered at the Yarra Bank around a platform made up of three lorries. Once the brass band which had come along for the celebrations stopped playing, a succession of speakers paid tribute to May Day. Speaker after speaker stated that "the worker was an abject slave who was downtrodden and oppressed both by capital and Government". A well known free thought lecturer slammed the press which he stated produced "abominable deluge of infernal rubbish" (looks like nothingšs changed). Resolutions carried by the crowd "opposed militarism in all its forms, expressed a determination to overthrow capitalism and wagedom, to bring in an international co-operative Commonwealth in which the instruments of industry would be owned and controlled by the community, they affirmed the principles of one vote one value and a tax on land values and they demanded the legislative enactment of eight hours and a just wage in all occupations.

Source of Article, the Age, Monday 6th May 1901.

Joe Toscano from Anarchist Age Weekly Review
Number 447 23rd ­ 29th April, 2001
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The Origins of May Day - Rosa Luxemberg

Rosa Luxemburg what are the origins of may day?

The happy idea of using a proletarian holiday celebration as a means to attain the eight-hour day was first born in Australia. The workers there decided in 1856 to organize a day of complete stoppage together with meetings and entertainment as a demonstration in favor of the eight-hour day. The day of this celebration was to be April 21. At first, the Australian workers intended this only for the year 1856. But this first celebration had such a strong effect on the proletarian masses of Australia, enlivening them and leading to new agitation, that it was decided to repeat the celebration every year.

Photo: Melbourne University - where Stonemasons downed tools in 1856 for the Eight Hour Day
Melbourne University - In April 1856 Stonemasons downed tools
here and marched to the city for the Eight Hour Day
Insert Text: From a plaque on the wall of this building

In fact, what could give the workers greater courage and faith in their own strength than a mass work stoppage which they had decided themselves? What could give more courage to the eternal slaves of the factories and the workshops than the mustering of their own troops? Thus, the idea of a proletarian celebration was quickly accepted and, from Australia, began to spread to other countries until finally it had conquered the whole proletarian world.

The first to follow the example of the Australian workers were the Americans. In 1886 they decided that May 1 should be the day of universal work stoppage. On this day 200,000 of them left their work and demanded the eight-hour day. Later, police and legal harassment prevented the workers for many years from repeating this [size] demonstration. However in 1888 they renewed their decision and decided that the next celebration would be May 1, 1890.

In the meanwhile, the workers' movement in Europe had grown strong and animated. The most powerful expression of this movement occurred at the International Workers' Congress in 1889. At this Congress, attended by four hundred delegates, it was decided that the eight-hour day must be the first demand. Whereupon the delegate of the French unions, the worker Lavigne from Bordeaux, moved that this demand be expressed in all countries through a universal work stoppage. The delegate of the American workers called attention to the decision of his comrades to strike on May 1, 1890, and the Congress decided on this date for the universal proletarian celebration.

In this case, as thirty years before in Australia, the workers really thought only of a one-time demonstration. The Congress decided that the workers of all lands would demonstrate together for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890. No one spoke of a repetition of the holiday for the next years. Naturally no one could predict the lightninglike way in which this idea would succeed and how quickly it would be adopted by the working classes. However, it was enough to celebrate the May Day simply one time in order that everyone understand and feel that May Day must be a yearly and continuing institution [. . .].

The first of May demanded the introduction of the eight-hour day. But even after this goal was reached, May Day was not given up. As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.

Source: Posted on the Leftlink List - Wednesday, May 2, 2001 11:12 am
From Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg,
tr. Dick Howard (NY: Monthly Review Press, 1971), pp. 315-16.
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