May Day 2020: A Look Back

While we celebrate a May Day of 2020 like no other, a look back at the history of May Day in Australia.


Norm Jeffery

Identification of the Australian labour movement with the celebration of May Day had its beginnings in Barcaldine, Central Queensland, on 1st May, 1891 – seventy-one years ago.

Communist Party marching May Day 1966.

In the midst of the great 1891 Shearers’ strike, the workers of Barcaldine in almost complete solidarity utilised the 1st May to popularise their economic demands in a united demonstration.

It is interesting to note also, that during the stormy period of May, 1891, the Eureka Flag was flown in Barcaldine.

On a somewhat broader scale was the first May Day celebration in Melbourne and for that matter, in any of the Australian capital cities, 1st May, 1893, was the occasion of a march to the Yarra Bank where a meeting was held. These two simple but dramatic facts, Barcaldine and Melbourne draw attention to the historic recognition and extension of the decisions made by the International Socialist Congress, held in Paris, 1889, to establish May 1st as the International Working Class Day.

Frederick Engels was one of the driving forces for this Congress. His indefatigable insistence, his influence in the organisation of mass Socialist Parties helped to make the 1889 Congress possible. But, the sponsors for the 1st May decision were the American representatives.

They came mostly from Chicago, where the United Labor Movement, fighting to win the eight-hour day, set 1st May 1886, for a general strike to achieve their aim.

It was a magnificent display of solidarity and many employers conceded the eight hour day. It was under the stimulus of this struggle that the proposal for 1st May was submitted to the Paris Socialist Congress in 1889.


So, as I have stressed in previous statements, May Day is associated with the establishment of the eight-hour day in America and Europe.

Australia, of course, pioneered the world in the winning of an eight-hour working day in 1856, when the building workers of Sydney and Melbourne registered a great victory.

But, May Day has always in its original authorisation and subsequent universal distribution, been associated with working class struggle. This is the paramount feature of “the day we celebrate.”

Lenin in St Petersburg stirred the workers into action in the early and mid-eighteen nineties, for better wages, improved conditions and shorter hours.

Frederick Engels stirred restlessly in his old age at the rising tide of struggle and was delighted with the 1889 decision.

He jeered at the fears of the rapacious bourgeoisie about the call for mass demonstrations on 1st May.

In Vienna the wealthy capitalists and aristocracy were so panic stricken that they hid the family jewels and other belongings symbolic of their ill-gotten loot.

Over the years from 1886, 1889, to 1962 May Day has expressed the will of the proletariat to fight for their demands, yet it must be recognised that May Day always meant more than that.

It symbolised class opposition to exploitation, poverty and hunger; it is identified with the against imperialism and war, besides arousing the masses to the inspiring solidarity of united working class action.

Therefore, it is not accidental that May Day becomes integrated with the victory of Socialism in the USSR, peoples of China and all Socialist countries. In these countries it is a great joyous day of the people pledging their solidarity for greater socialist victories and avowing their support for the proletariat in all capitalist, colonial, and newly independent countries.


Australians are thus marching with the multimillion masses irrespective of colour, nationality, or sex. Also, we identify May Day with our own struggles for the 35-hour week, higher wages, democratic rights, Trade Union unity and above all, a common determination for peace and defeat of the imperialist warmongers led by Yankee imperialism.

By tradition and practice it is just as much Australian as our native land. As Australians it links us internationally with the useful people of all lands – this basic truth is expressed in the declaration of the World Federation of Trade Unions and summarises our aims for 1962 May Day.

“Let us display united action in a strong and confident common front of the workers and trade unions for the preservation of peace and satisfaction of our demands.

“The working class of the world, acting in unity with all progressive forces can solve all current problems facing mankind. War is not inevitable, it can be averted. Peace can be preserved and strengthened.”

“Long live May Day, 1962.”

This article originally appeared in Tribune May, 1962.