Unfinished Business: Reclaiming May Day

John Percy addressing an Occupy Sydney rally, October 22, 2011.

More than twenty years ago, on May Day 2001, one of the most militant and largest anti-capitalist protest actions took place around Australia.

These actions included blocking entrances to the stock exchange and other corporate targets around the country, as well as street mobilisations. They were initiated by the Democratic Socialist Party following the wildly successful national mobilisation to blockade a meeting of the World Economic Forum the previous September at Melbourne’s Crown Casino.

John Percy, then National Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party, wrote about these actions and the challenge of re-winning May Day as a day truly manifesting working class challenge to the capitalist status quo in Australia and around the world.

This is certainly unfinished business.

Red Ant reprints below John Percy’s article for May Day, 2023.


May Day Reclaimed!

By John Percy

The magnificent M1 protests and blockades of stock exchanges in eight cities around Australia had an impact even beyond the specific demands of the 20,000 activists who took to the streets.

The greed of the corporations and the role of the stock exchanges were well highlighted and exposed. Demands were very effectively publicised for dumping the Third World debt, for boycotting the new World Trade Organisation round of talks at Qatar, for saving the environment and for putting people’s needs before corporate profits. And we continued the momentum of the inspiring international resistance to corporate globalisation, from Davos to Seattle, Washington, Prague, Melbourne, Seoul and Quebec City.

But the May Day protests had another victory. They reclaimed May Day.

For decades in Australia May Day, the international day of workers’ solidarity, had been pushed off May 1, and celebrated on the following Sunday. Labour movement veterans recall that the last time May Day was not celebrated on a Sunday was during World War II.

May Day began as an international day of struggle for the eight-hour day on May 1, 1890. But the idea behind May Day goes back even further, as Rosa Luxemburg, the great German Marxist, explained:

“The inspired thought of introducing a proletarian holiday as a means of obtaining the eight-hour working day first originated in Australia. As early as 1856, the workers there resolved to call for one day of complete work stoppage; the day to be spent in meetings and entertainment instead as a demonstration for the eight-hour day. The 21st of April was designated as this holiday.”

Unfortunately, the Australian labour movement has since relinquished that pioneering role.

For years the official trade union May Day marches have been dwindling and become demoralised. Workers have been uninspired to come out to listen to boring speeches – in Sydney, blaring trucks borrowed from the bosses have been called into service to substitute for the missing marchers.

For years the official trade union leaders have blamed lack of interest on the part of the ranks. But they’ve not encouraged the involvement of the many movements of activists. They’ve excluded left-wing radicals from the platforms, and accused the left of being sectarian, and of being unable to relate to ordinary workers.

But what May 1 this year showed was that workers and students in a multitude of movements are willing to go onto the streets for a cause they believe in. They are willing to protest on May 1, more willing than for a passive Sunday May Day. May 1, 2001 was attended by five times more people than Sunday May Days in recent years.

In 1924, when the NSW Labor Council was, for a brief time, inspired by the Russian Revolution, it issued the following appeal, which has lost none of its relevance today:

“The Australian movement desires not only that the [labour] day [celebration] be fixed for May 1, but that the whole character and purpose of the demonstration should be changed. Dinners, sports, picnics – these are not good enough. The movement is worth more than this. Let our May Day certainly be a day or rejoicing, but let it also be a day in which all active elements of the movement take stock of the work of the last year, of the prospects ahead, and the program required. Let it also be a day of demonstrations which express a growing class-consciousness of the working class and a declaration of war upon capitalist society. We want a labour day which will give the movement a chance to unite for a real move forward based on all the more pressing interests of the workers. Forward to a new battle! Forward to world revolution!”

Having reclaimed our May Day this year, let’s not give it up. From now on let’s ensure that we celebrate May Day on every May 1.

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