May 1st: A symbol of worker misery

The International Workers Day is underpinned by the notion of workers’ rights in a fair and just stature. It has been associated with the ‘left’ but today all blue and white collar workers globally are calling for respect for their labour.

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Updated Feb 12, 2016


Every year tens of thousands of people around the world descend onto the streets to mark International Workers' Day also known as Labour Day. The streets fill with colourful protests organised by left wing parties and trade syndicates.

In Asia, the main cause promoted on May 1st is the demand for better pay and working conditions. In Europe, protests are generally over government imposed austerity measures, especially following the 2008 Eurozone Financial Crises. In socialist oriented countries, Labour Day is a day where citizens stand in political solidarity with their fellow workers. In the United States of America (USA), Labour Day is not a national holiday on May 1st but is nonetheless celebrated in a less enthusiastic manner in September.

The idea of uniting workers around the world may sound ideological in nature but in practice has become part of the humaneness of modern society which is a global theme today. The seemingly never-ending misery of the working class and rising inequality provides a common ground bringing workers together.

The Newly Industrialising Asian Continent

More than 80 countries participate in the May Day celebrations and the largest crowds gather in Asia. As the continent develops the cost of living increases and workers demand more rights. Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are countries that attract the largest crowds each year, made up of people who are wholly dissatisfied with rising consumer prices. Indonesia’s capital Jakarta is the city where the largest protests take place by far. Enthusiastic crowds in the city are regularly surrounded by tens of thousands of police.

Today things appear as if they will not be any different. In the Philippines, calls for higher wages within the last couple of May protests were shot down by President Benigno Aquino III who responded saying such a move “would worsen inflation.” Those calls will continue to echo once more today.

European Affairs

The economic crisis affecting the European Union (EU) has led many workers around Europe to participate in the Labour Day events. Thousands of Greeks come together in the capital Athens every year. An economic crisis hit Greece in 2010 and since then government austerity measures have led to a loss of jobs and social security. In Spain, with over half of young people unemployed, larger protests than ever before are expected in various cities. In the United Kingdom and Ireland economic disparity between the rich and poor is likely to draw crowds in capital cities.

The Socialist Tradition

On this day every year, countries with a political system associated with socialism - especially in South America - embrace the Día Internacional Del Trabajo (International Workers Day) in solidarity with the worker. In Venezuela and many other Latin American countries, celebrations are decorated with colourful parades and traditional music in the air. May 1st there is seen both as a day of celebration and a day of continuing struggle for the liberation of the worker. The holiday is one of the rare days in the year that is not commemorated with a major church service, preserving the strict secular nature of the celebration.

Nowadays many former socialist countries celebrate Labour Day as a national event. By mobilising the populace the ruling administration depicts the notion of the state as part of a collective consciousness. In contrast the traditional socialist spirit of the past has deteriorated over time, being subsumed by the modern liberal ideals of the West.

In the Russian capital, Moscow, over 100,000 people have gathered and on occasion marched alongside President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The rallies are organized by trade syndicates and chant for the rights of workers to be respected. President Putin may also make an appearance in today’s large rally in Moscow.

Labour Day: Made in USA

In 1886 workers from all around the USA united in Chicago, demanding the right to 8 hour work days. Many demonstrators were arrested during this riot with some losing their lives for their cause. Labour Day is widely accepted as beginning with this protest. Today, Labour Day flags are decorated with the colour red, symbolising the blood of those workers who lost their life challenging unfair working conditions. Although Labour Day was created as part of the American people’s struggles it does not carry the importance in the capitalist world as it does in the socialist.

The International Workers Day is underpinned by the notion of workers’ rights in a fair and just stature. It has been associated with the ‘left’ throughout history but today all blue and white collar workers globally are calling for respect for their labour.

Labour Day in the USA is celebrated on the first Monday of September. Even though May Day is not an official holiday, there will likely be various protests around the country calling for a more just and dignified society. As in previous years the USA is anticipating large crowds preparing to strike and commit acts of civil disobedience due to unchanging economic climate. Today may mark the most visible ‘Occupy Wall Street’ style protests since 2012.

The Real Issue: Labour Exploitation

The legacy of the Haymarket 8-8-8 continues, with demands for 8 hours work, 8 hours leisure and 8 hours sleep. Economic turmoil in the EU and inequality in Western economies is provoking workers to fight for more rights and freedoms, marking the day as significant as ever.

In the developing world harder working conditions and increasingly expensive living standards has led to demands for increases in the minimum wage for workers and increased salaries.

Prior to the early 20th Century, child labour, 16 hour workdays and low wages were common around the world and these factors were the driving force in the internationally recognized Labour Day movement. Today the remnants of such conditions still remain in many societies.

Sweatshop factories operated by global corporations are a tragic reality in developing countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Mexico. It is often claimed that exploitation of the population of poor rural areas and the abuse of labour are negative features of the development of growing economies in Asia and Latin America.

The West continues to invest in overseas manufacturing at low costs, which many activists blame for increasing both economic disparity and ecological degradation. Thus, Labour Day is symbolic of a history of workers, a history of unfair treatment, a history of the production line, a history of injustice and also a history of humanity’s inability to eradicate injustice or exploitation. 

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Turkey's dramatic May Day history

In Turkey, the first Labour Day celebration took place during the reign of the Ottoman Empire and took place in Skopje in present-day Macedonia in 1909. In Istanbul, the capital of the Ottomans, Labour Day was celebrated for the first time in 1912. Following the establishment of Republic of Turkey May Day celebrations were banned between 1925 and 1975.

On May 1st, 1976, a May Day rally took place in Taksim Square in Istanbul and saw mass participation. However, on May Day the following year Turkey witnessed the Taksim Square Massacre - a tragedy that would deeply affect the perception of Labour Day in the minds of Turkish people. Commemoration of this incident still plays a large role in May 1st gatherings in Turkey every year.

A few years later, the Republic of Turkey witnessed the 1980 coup-d'état and May Day, as well as all other public gatherings were banned. In 2010 the incumbent AK Party (Justice and Development Party) government led by then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan restored May 1st as a national holiday. Labour Day is highly esteemed in Turkey and there is even a special anthem for the event. Unfortunately the history of Labour Day in Turkey is also a history of tragedies. Clashes with police forces became almost synonymous with May 1st.

1977 The Taksim Massacre

The Taksim Square Massacre happened amidst waves of political violence in the 1970’s. On May 1st 1976 an important labour syndicate named DISK organised a rally for the first time for many years in Taksim Square.  Few hundred thousand people participated in the event. DISK wanted to turn this into a tradition and organised an even greater celebration the next year. According to numbers given by DISK, at the celebrations in 1977 the participant count is usually claimed to have been over 500,000.

Before the event, rumours of possible clashes circulated. Newspaper columnists openly announced their predictions that blood would be spilt. In those days clashes between leftists and rightist and also between different factions of leftists were so common that political killings became an everyday occurrence. The organisers of the rally heeded the warnings and assigned 50,000 participants as a make-shift security force.

During speeches given by notable persons, gun shots were heard. Provocateurs whose identities are still unknown opened fire on the crowd.  A single shot was heard first, followed shortly by another. A few moments later crossfire from several different angles ensued. Suddenly a white car burst into the square, driving through the crowd with its occupants firing randomly. Police also stepped in and hosed and fired at the already panicked crowd. Panic rapidly spread among the crowd and caused stampedes. A road out of Taksim to which the crowds rushed to escape named Kazanci Yokusu was blocked by a lorry. The pre-assigned labour security force was helpless.

An official investigation into the incident stated that there were 34 deaths but autopsy reports indicated that only 4 of those were due to bullet wounds. This suggests the objective of the attack was to create chaos rather than merely kill activists. There are still ongoing allegations that visual evidence, bombs, arms, and even individuals suspected of firing the crowd were detained by gendarmerie forces but later went “missing” after being turned over to the police. None of the perpetrators were caught and brought to trial. 500 demonstrators were detained and 98 were indicted.

At first, opposing leftist factions were scapegoated. With hindsight regarding the motive and perpetrators the public came to believe there was involvement of a “deep state” popularly known back then as the “counter-guerrilla”. Such suspicions were voiced by many, including opposition leader at the time, Bulent Ecevit. During a speech in İzmir on May 7th, 1977 Ecevit said that "Some organizations and forces within the State, but outside the control of the democratic state of law, have to be taken under control without losing time. The counter-guerrilla is running an offensive and has a finger in the May 1st incident.”

1980 The Coup

The Taksim Massacre on May 1st 1977, paved the way for the many momentous which followed, including a coup in 1980.

The Coup banned all public gatherings for the years to come. No official May Day celebrations could be organised until the first years of the 1990’s. During the second half of the 80’s some attempts to publicly celebrate the event met with police resistance and clashes. The Çaglayan and Kadikoy Squares in Istanbul housed gatherings for many years during this era.

1996 was one of the most significant moments in Turkey’s Labour Day history. A hundred thousand people participated in events at a celebration in Kadikoy Square. Three were killed in clashes with police and this resulted in the banning of any further gatherings in Kadikoy.

AK Party Term

In Istanbul the past several years has seen discussions regarding the location of where the May 1st gatherings should be held. During the 2000’s official stance of Istanbul’s authorities was to accept commemoration ceremonies in Taksim attended by a limited delegation and to hold large scale events with public participation in other designated demonstration areas. Trade unions and leftist groups including the major opposition party, the CHP, pushed for May Day to be freely celebrated at the site of the 1977 Massacre at Taksim Square. The AK Party government which rose to power in 2002 is concerned that holding the event at Taksim may pose security risks and disrupt daily life in the area. 

In Istanbul there are huge recently constructed areas designated to hold such events such as Yenikapi, Kazlicesme and Maltepe. These modern gathering locations can safely and conveniently house millions of people during public events. Taksim on the other hand is tiny compared to those areas. The Turkish government believes that allowing hundreds of thousands of people into such a limited space would make it impossible to enforce security. The entry points to Taksim square remain narrow and the memory of the 1977 Kazanci Yokusu stampede still looms large.

In an interview with the CNN TURK TV channel in 2004 mayor of Istanbul Kadir Topbas drew attention to these concerns. He voiced the opinion that large scale celebrations such as May 1st in Taksim obstruct daily city life and cripple transportation networks.

One other fact that rectifies this argument is the pattern easily observed in the photos of last decade’s event’s aftermath: vandalism. Property damages, broken windows, sticks and stones laying around, even some vehicles charred because of molotov cocktails; these are sights Istanbul residents do not want to witness ever again. Articles in the recently approved domestic security measures bill aim to prevent specifically this type of unwanted actions.

So in the face of such objections why do many people in Turkey still insist that May Day be held at Taksim Square? The most common response is that “If there is a centre of the whole of İstanbul, it is Taksim.” Another reason is the symbolic significance of Taksim Square for the Turkish leftist movements that wish to pay homage to the victims of the 1977 Taksim Massacre. However, the current AK Party government wants to distance Turkey from the negative aspects of its past and does not seem to agree with them. Remembering the bloody memories of the ‘Old Turkey’ is inconsistent with the AK Party’s vision of a ‘New Turkey’  

In 2015, the same topic of discussion once again makes the headlines. Istanbul Governance’s statement regarding 2015 celebration emphasises on possible security concerns for Taksim Square. The administration points to 8 other areas around Istanbul; at the same time clarifies that symbolic commemorations or celebrations with limited participation would be allowed in Taksim.

In Turkey, the focus on Labour Day events have always been on Istanbul; specifically, on whether or not gathering in Taksim Square is allowed. But of course, it does not mean there are no significant celebrations in other cities. Capital Ankara, Izmir, Kocaeli, Eskisehir and many more cities hold annual events as well.