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May First celebrations in Halifax, across Canada, and around the world

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
One of the main slogans on May Day
One of the main slogans on May Day
Workers are one
Workers are one
Ad for Halifax May Day. Photo is from the 2010 march, proudly led by laid-off women from the National Philatelic Centre in Antigonish, which is being privatized by Canada Post
Ad for Halifax May Day. Photo is from the 2010 march, proudly led by laid-off women from the National Philatelic Centre in Antigonish, which is being privatized by Canada Post
Halifax display on labour history
Halifax display on labour history
Hamilton Day of Action, January 29
Hamilton Day of Action, January 29
First Nations defend their hereditary rights
First Nations defend their hereditary rights
Workers are demanding pensions as a right
Workers are demanding pensions as a right
Women take the streets on International Women’s Day
Women take the streets on International Women’s Day
Attacks on migrant workers are being met according to the principle, An Injury to One is An Injury to All
Attacks on migrant workers are being met according to the principle, An Injury to One is An Injury to All
May Day in Havana, Cuba, 2010
May Day in Havana, Cuba, 2010

MAY FIRST is May Day, known and celebrated around the world as International Working Class Day, the day when workers affirm their rights, celebrate the struggles and achievements of workers in all lands, and put forward their vision for a better society free of poverty and exploitation.

Once again, workers and people in Halifax are getting together on May Day to celebrate their achievements and formulate their demands under the banner of the Defence of the Rights of All. A rally begins at 2 p.m. in Victoria Park followed by a march and a forum / cultural program at the Mikmaq Friendship Centre, Gottingen Street, organized by the Halifax May Day Committee (HMDC).  

Over 50 postal workers, whose contract struggle includes the fight for quality public services and against Modern Post, are taking up the honour of leading the May Day March through the downtown core.

Last year over 200 participated.

Food services worker Aaron Doncaster of the HMDC says, “When we started this work in 2007, when some 25 workers and youth attended, we identified our aims as ‘(1) re-establishing May Day; (2) preserving and strengthening the principle of unity in action; (3) restoring collective memory; and (4) renewing the working class movement.’ 

This has been the deed of all those who contributed and participated over these years,” he stressed. Youth have always been a strong and enthusiastic core.

One of the unsung but important initiatives the HMDC has started is an informative wall display on labour history as part of its May Day Forum entitled “Standing the Gaff.”

“Although the working class battles in Cape Breton are better remembered, it is little known that in Halifax thousands of construction workers launched an epic general strike in 1919, precisely on May Day.”

The workers’ resistance was aimed in part against wage-gouging by capital during the reconstruction following the Halifax Explosion, something never mentioned in official histories of that tragedy, he points out. They also developed their own independent media to advance and popularize their demands, The Citizen, launched in the same month.

The popular Forum also includes a panel of speakers dealing with practical questions and politics facing the community, Spoken Word by the acclaimed El Jones, labour poems, and the Halifax Media Co-op’s own Miles Howe performing protest songs.

May Day caps a spring-long upsurge of one protest after another in the province’s capital against an anti-social, anti-environment offensive by governments at all levels and big capital, as well as against the war against Libya.

Across Canada

Across Canada, May Day is being celebrated in all major cities, even including Prince George in northern British Columbia as well as in smaller communities such as Drumheller, Alberta.

But the main national event will unfold in a historic rally and march on Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital. 

The audacious call to take the worker’s cause to Parliament Hill was issued by the Hamilton Steelworkers, USW Local 1005, on their Day of Action, January 29th, attended by 10,000 workers.

In Hamilton, active and retired steelworkers of Local 1005 have been opposing the monopoly “right” of U.S. Steel to impose its phoney lockout since November of last year. To add insult to injury, U.S. Steel has been removing the coke required for production at Hamilton Works. Steelworkers will be joined by active workers and retirees from many other sectors of the economy from across Canada, as well as youth and students and other collectives, to voice their concern about the nation-wrecking of governments that serves monopoly right, not public right.

In their call, Local 1005 writes:

“How can any Canadian government worthy of the name stand idly by while a U.S. monopoly continues to have its way in callous disregard for the rights of Canadian workers and the very existence of Canada's steel industry? This is just one example of the nation-wrecking taking place in all sectors that has to be stopped.

“In the midst of an election campaign where workers and the vast majority of electors do not have a say in decision-making, and are treated as mere voting cattle, it is crucial that we take to Parliament Hill our demands in defence of our rights and against the theft of resources, the privatization of public services, closures of factories, layoffs, etc., and show our resolve to set a new direction for the economy.”

Then there’s Drumheller

One of the more poignant celebrations I came across is taking place over two days in the small community of Drumheller, Alberta, following a tradition of miners over the years.

Jay Russell of the Atlas Coal Mine said May Day holds a special place in the history of labour and especially miners. 

“May 1 has traditionally been a day of celebration across the world for workers, and of course miners in the Drumheller valley always commemorated May Day,” said Russell. “It is my understanding if May 1st landed on a school day, even though it wasn’t official, kids knew there would be a sports day, they knew there would be a march, all kinds of activity… there would even be the rare chance they would get an ice cream cone, they would skip school.

“We picked it because it is an important day for miners and their families.” 

He said since the advent of Labour Day in September, May Day was typically observed as a more serious day for union and labour issues, while Labour Day evolved into a family holiday.

Internationally, perhaps the largest May Day celebrations will be held in Havana, Cuba and Istanbul, Turkey. 


Havana’s Revolution Square will be the scene of the major event in the island socialist republic in the Caribbean.

The parade will take place just two weeks after more than half a million residents of Havana, on behalf of all Cubans, marched in honour of the 50th anniversary of the victory against imperialism at the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the proclamation of the socialist character of the revolution.

According to Granma International, “The parade on May 1st will be the occasion in which thousands of citizens from some 50 nations along with the Cubans will parade together; it will also be the time to support the economic and social policy recently adopted by the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba at the meetings held through April 16 to 19 in Havana.”

International participants include numerous trade unionists and activists from the Maritimes, such as Jim Gallant of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, who have been joining the festive celebrations on an annual basis. “It is the most remarkable sight, something not to be missed in any worker’s lifetime,” he told Media Co-op before departure.

“In addition,” reports the Cuban daily, “it will also be the rightful moment to claim the end of the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the U.S. for nearly half a century the United States, along with the immediate release of the five anti-terrorist fighters unjustly imprisoned in U.S. jails.

“It will also be a massive condemnation of the cynical statement of innocence of criminal Luis Posada Carriles, which proved once again the U.S. double standards in its supposed fight against terrorism.

“The historic journey will begin in the Revolution Square with the parade of a group of education representatives because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the literacy campaign that led Cuba to become the first illiteracy free Latin American country.

“As in the memorable parade of April 16th, the youth will play a central role in this celebration. A new generation’s group will close the massive march in a new demonstration that the future of the revolution is guaranteed.

“In Cuba the people will have many reasons to celebrate, which is demonstrated in the work of the revolution in important areas such as health and education.

“May 1st will once again be a day to celebrate and express to the world the Cuban people´s determination to defend the socialist character of the Cuban Revolution and its irreversible continuity.”


Turkish workers’ confederations and nongovernmental organizations have called for 1 million people to descend upon Istanbul’s Taksim Square on May 1.

“May Day celebrations will be held [at a time when] unemployment and poverty have become permanent and the [global financial crisis] has had a negative impact, when even the official figures have reached a level that cannot be hidden and those in political power have increased their pressure on social opposition,” a joint statement from a number of organizations said.

Noting the long hours that labourers are forced to work, the limited right to paid leave for many in the workforce and the low rates of unionization in Turkey, the joint statement said the country had become a “country of opportunity” for foreign investors.  

“Those in political power have been increasing their pressure, bans, arrests and isolating attacks against labor and any opposition [forces],” the unions and associations said in their joint statement, adding that recent constraints placed on the right to information were worrisome, as were recent attacks against freedom of expression.

United States

In 1886, workers in Chicago engaged in a general strike on May Day as they fought for an eight-hour workday. The 1st Congress of the Second International, celebrated in Paris in 1889, constituted May 1 as International Workers Day in commemoration of the struggle for the eight-hour day and the Haymarket Massacre of Chicago workers in 1886.

Immigrants were at the forefront of that movement.

In 2011, immigrants in the United States are again at the forefront of one of labour’s biggest battle in that country. In Wisconsin, immigrant rights groups are calling for mass rallies in Milwaukee and Madison on May Day.

“This year is a historic year in the alliance between organized labor and the immigrants rights movement,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera, said in an interview. The group has organized huge demonstrations on May Day over the last decade, culminating in 80,000 people in the streets in 2007, and 65,000 in 2010.

May Day falls in the midst of the Wisconsin uprising. For the past three months, workers have been protesting Governor Scott Walker’s rightwing agenda. An end to cuts in education and health care are central demands of the May Day march, along with support for unions and collective bargaining rights.

In Canada the current federal election concludes the following day amidst a media fixation with polls and “surges” for this or that party.

“For our part,” the Halifax May Day Committee underlined in a recent release, “we have no euphoria about May 2nd!”

With files from news agencies. The author is chair of the Halifax May Day Committee.

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Topics: Labour
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