Saturday, 2 May 2015

Labour May Day and Citizenship

"My duties as a trade unionist do not clash with my duties as a citizen. The object of good citizenship, I presume, should be the getting rid of abuses, the elimination of the cause of physical and moral degradation, and the establishing of those conditions which will operate most beneficially to the body politic. Chief amongst the causes that degrade are excessive hours of labour and insufficient wages. It is the duty of the trade unionist to rectify these wrongs; it is equally the duty of the citizen. To argue that all such changes should come solely by trade-union effort, as some politicians are doing, is to argue that the highest form of citizenship are to be left unperformed by the citizen."

So wrote Tom Mann one of the architects of the organisation of the first May Day labour movement demonstration in London 125 years ago on 4 May 1890.

His argument remains valid today for everyone  who wants to see improvements in pay and conditions in  the work place, the end to workplace exploitation, low wages, and zero hours contracts.

New Unionism

1890 was the time of the wave of worker militancy for better pay and conditions known as New Unionism, kick-started by the successful strike of the match women in the East End in 1888, followed by dockers and gas workers pay victories in 1889. One of the movement’s demands was for a legalised eight hour working day. The inspiration for this had come from the socialist Tom Mann whose advocacy led to the formation of a campaign organisation. This in turn led labour and socialist organisations across Europe to decide to organise demonstrations on May Day 1890.  As representative of the Battersea Engineers Mann persuaded the London Trades Council to support it. The Times reported that about 75 organisations sent delegates to the final planning meeting held at the pro-New Unionist Rev. Morris’s Workmen's Club in 

May Day 1890

The joint demonstration was attended by an estimated 200,000 plus  people walking to Hyde Park from different parts of London.  There were several speakers platforms. Tom Mann chaired one, while his comrade John Burns, who had been elected for Battersea as a socialist onto the newly formed London County Council, was a speaker on another.

This overwhelming support for the eight-hour day and the parallel success of the 'New Unionism', enabled Mann and Burns to have the eight-hour day adopted as policy at the Trades Union Congress in September 1890.

In May's issue of the journal  The Nineteenth Century Review Mann set out his version of the agenda that he and Burns were pursuing, in a review of 'The Development of the Labour Movement'. The motive force behind the new unionist wave of unrest and strikes, he argued, was revolt at the inequalities and deprivations that a modern society was capable of eradicating.

‘But the effort being put forward by the workers by means of their voluntary combinations justified them in using their powers as citizens to get their grievances rectified by means of legislation, either by local governing bodies or by Parliament.

The hope for the future lies in the extension of labour organisations on the side of the workers, corresponding combinations of employers adjusting differences by conciliation or arbitration whenever possible, the work of trade unionism being supplemented by the local governing bodies, by workers habitually taking a direct working interest in connection with them, such bodies absorbing all small and at present conflicting authorities, thus developing the best qualities of the citizen in the true work of citizenship and gradually assisting in the development of the co-operative ideal, when the workers shall include the whole of the able-bodied community, and when peace and plenty shall abound as the result harmonising the at present antagonistic tendencies of different sections of society.’

The Eight Hour Day

An early demand for an eight hour day had been made in Sydney Australia in 1855, then in the United States in 1866,  and was boosted when the TUC’s American equivalent decided in 1884 to start campaigning. In 1887 the British TUC voted for an international conference on the demand. The socialist  Second International declared 1 May to be an international day to demand a legal eight hour day. Demonstrations were seen across Europe.

The historian of May Day, the late John Gorman, explains that 

‘Labour’s May Day gave birth to a new visual culture’. In Britain there were banners, prints, posters and illustrations. Key in this was the artist Walter Crane. His ‘prints were to adorn the homes and meeting rooms of socialists and trade unionists throughout Europe for decades to come.’

The 1900 May Day  was held in Crystal Palace for a family day of sport and entertainment with a pyrotechnic display designed by Crane in which his ‘Solidarity of Labour’ cartoon was reproduced in fireworks , complete with the motto, ‘The unity of labour is the hope of the world.’ 

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