Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page:

From The Socialist newspaper, 29 April 2020

Some of the May Day greetings in the Socialist, May 2020

Some of the May Day greetings in the Socialist, May 2020   (Click to enlarge)

130 Years of May Day in Britain: Fight for workers' rights more relevant than ever

Iain Dalton

Overworked, underpaid, struggling to afford the basics - this is true of the situation facing many 'key workers' that the Covid-19 lockdown has so clearly demonstrated society is dependent on. This was also the situation facing many workers 130 years ago, when the first May Day marches took place to celebrate International Workers' Day.

At that time, trade unions were mostly based among skilled 'craft' workers. These 'aristocrats of labour' found political expression by riding on the coat-tails of the capitalist Liberal Party. As industrialisation developed, however, unskilled sections of workers arose in industry. But the attitude of most craft trade union leaders was that such workers simply couldn't be organised, and would be a drain on their strike funds.

It was in this period that International Workers' Day originated. It started in the US, where strikes took place in May 1886 for the eight-hour day, with strikers often facing repression from the police. In 1889, the newly founded Socialist International called for protests and strikes demanding the eight-hour day to take place on or near 1 May 1890.

In Britain, socialists like Eleanor Marx pioneered the May Day marches, seeking to build a coalition between the socialist groups and the wider working class, including the craft unions.

'New unions'

Eleanor Marx, along with socialists like the Leeds-based Tom Maguire, as well as workers like Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and Will Thorne, who had passed through the ranks of socialist organisations, also helped to organise mass strikes, and build the 'new unions' organising unskilled workers, who were suffering horrendous working conditions.

Despite attempts by the craft unions to split the 1890 London May Day demonstration, around 100,000 turned out. 90% of those attending crowded the platforms organised by Eleanor Marx and the new unions. Karl Marx's collaborator, Friedrich Engels, was on one of these platforms and later commented: "And I hold it to be the most important and magnificent in the entire May Day celebration that on May 4, 1890, the English proletariat, rousing itself from forty years' winter sleep, rejoined the movement of its class."

The new unions and socialists also demonstrated in Leeds, through the newly established Yorkshire Labour Council. The previous year, they had successfully organised a strike over pay by several thousand building labourers. Now they were in the run up to what Engels called 'The Battle of Leeds'. This was the tremendous strike of gas workers in defence of the concessions - eight-hour day, paid holidays, time and a half for overtime - wrested from the council who owned the gas works in Leeds.

The Leeds Mercury reported that 30-40,000 attended the Leeds demonstration. The Yorkshire Post reported the march was so large that the speakers at the rally were delayed by an hour so that the whole march could reach the rally.

The resolution, passed from both of the platforms set up at the rally stated: "This meeting rejoices in the universal action taken by the workmen of the civilised world with respect to the necessity of an eight hours working day, and regards it hopefully as the first step towards the abolition of national and industrial war, the overthrow of race hatreds between the working classes, and the final emancipation of labour."

But as well as the immediate industrial issue of the eight-hour day, political issues were raised too. In her speech at the London demonstration, Eleanor Marx said: "We must kick these Liberal and Radical members out if they refuse to support our programme. I am speaking this afternoon not only as a trade unionist, but as a socialist.

"Socialists believe that the eight hours' day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of."

This was to be the music of the future. Just one month later, during the gas strike, Liberal councillors used the town hall to shelter and entertain strike breakers. The following year, during the Manningham Mills dispute, the Liberal-controlled watch committee allowed the police to be used to break up their demonstrations, and the poor law guardians refused strikers relief.

Those strikes were the impetus for the formation of the Independent Labour Party in Bradford in 1893. Further battles, including the 1897-8 engineers' lockout, began to push the Trades Union Congress to support the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, precursor of the Labour Party.

Struggles today

130 years on, these struggles continue. During the Covid-19 crisis, Keir Starmer, newly-elected leader of the Labour Party, seems to be even keener than some government ministers to represent the desire of big business to defend their profits and force workers back into potentially unsafe workplaces. The question of independent working-class political representation is back on the agenda.

Workers have won concessions to improve their conditions over the years. But experience has shown that, in a capitalist system, these concessions can be taken back in the drive for profit. In the current crisis, workers are having to work in unsafe working conditions due to lack of PPE, or the greed of construction bosses who refuse to furlough workers.

The threat of lay-offs and redundancies hangs over many workers whose workplaces have shut. Many only take home the 80% furlough pay, and others have been forced to use up annual leave.

To ensure adequate safety protection, workers need to organise and take control in their own workplaces. The steps in this direction, through action by London bus workers and postal workers, for example, shows what can be done.

But to permanently achieve the aims of the pioneers of May Day - not just an eight-hour day and decent pay and conditions but a society that meets all the needs of ordinary people - we need to go further and fight to bring the major companies and finance institutions into public ownership under democratic workers' control and management.

See our 2020 May Day greetings here

Donate to the Socialist Party

Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • We must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our Fighting Fund.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation


Your message: 


In The Socialist 29 April 2020:

Coronavirus news

Workers' safety before bosses' profits

Dispatches from the front: PPE chaos goes on

Private firm causes weeks of delay to free school meal vouchers: bring it back in-house!

Lessons from history

No return to the 1930s: World War Two and 'a land fit for heroes'

May Day

May Day 2020: join the protests - wear red, bring flags and banners

130 Years of May Day in Britain: Fight for workers' rights more relevant than ever

May Day greetings pull out 2020

Workplace news

Workers fighting to defend safety and livelihoods - NSSN national meeting a huge success

Civil servants in Paisley protest after Covid outbreak

Irish police use Covid-19 emergency powers to disperse Dublin shop workers' protest

B&M Bargains management puts profit before safety

Schools: No return without a national union agreement that guarantees safety!

Unions must organise throughout crisis

Waltham Forest trade unions discuss the fight for PPE and workplace safety

Woolwich ferry - workers secure 100% furlough agreement

ISS workers' pay victory

Organising during coronavirus

Should the Socialist still be produced during the Corona crisis? An exchange with Mark Serwotka about sales of the Socialist

Coronavirus crisis finance appeal

Adding demands to the weekly claps

Readers' opinion

Going viral: Socialist comments and letters


Home   |   The Socialist 29 April 2020   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook

Related links:

May Day:

triangleInternational Workers' Day - struggle, solidarity, socialism

triangleHow you can amplify the Socialist's voice - Help us build subscriptions to the Socialist

triangleA CWI May Day 2020 statement

triangleWorkers fighting to defend safety and livelihoods - NSSN national meeting a huge success


triangle10,000 tube workers vote to strike

triangleWorkplace news in brief

triangleCoventry bin strike continues

triangleSomers Forge workers continue pay strike


trianglePamphlet: What the Socialist Party stands for

triangleCaerphilly and RCT Socialist Party: Where is Britain going?

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: Britain in 2022


triangleEmployers use vaccine excuse to attack sick pay

triangleCarmarthenshire gritters take action as Plaid-led council reneges on agreement


triangleWant to fight austerity?


trianglePeople's Budget: We beat council cuts before, we will again

Eleanor Marx:

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: Eleanor Marx and new unionism

Historic events

Historic events


Rob Windsor

Rob Windsor - remembering a tireless fighter for socialism



New unionism - when mass workers' action changed Britain



Chartism: The world's first working-class movement



75 years after the first new town


South Africa

The fall of Apartheid in South Africa


South Africa

The fall of Apartheid in South Africa


Winter of Discontent

The 'winter of discontent' - When workers could take no more



Ten years since our 330-mile Jarrow March for Jobs



10 years since Occupy



9/11 and the 'War on Terror' twenty years on



Lessons from Poplar 100 years on


Soviet Union

August 1991 - The aborted military coup in the 'Soviet Union'


Terry Fields

Terry Fields MP, Prisoner DV 3695 - The jailing of 'poll tax' rebel and Militant



The 1971 Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation and work-in


Bob Marley

Get up, stand up - don't give up the fight!

triangleMore Historic events articles...

Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube



Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: [email protected]

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 020 8988 8786

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 077 7221 5281

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 078 0983 9793



Alphabetical listing

January 2022