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On May 4th 1890, working people masses in Leeds came together to celebrate International Workers Day for the first time ever, campaigning for the eight-hour working day like working people did around the world on the call of the Socialist (2nd) International from its 1899 conference in Paris. The date was to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago, executed and scapegoated after a bomb was detonated at a workers rally campaigning both for the 8 hour day and against police murders of workers the previous day.

Iain Dalton, Leeds Socialist Party

The same day, over 100,000 demonstrated in London at a demonstration organised by Eleanor Marx and the newly formed Gas and General Labourer’s Union (GGLU). The Committee for the Eight Hours Working Day which they formed had seven platforms alone in Hyde Park. Frederick Engels commented “There can be no doubt about that: on May 4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army. And that is an epoch-making fact.”

Their fellow socialists and GGLU members in Leeds managed a similar feat, with even the Conservative Yorkshire Post saying 5,000 attended (though later commenting on very large numbers of bystanders). If the alternate 30-40,000 figure, according to the Liberal Leeds Mercury, is to be believed, it was a proportionately even bigger affair than London. Either way, the Mercury reported that “the open space in front of the Town Hall was crowded to excess” whilst the Post stated that the march included not one, but four brass bands and was so large that the rally speakers were delayed by an hour as they waited for the end of the march to reach its terminus.

The march, like in London, was swelled by the ranks of ‘new unionism’ the newly organised workers in semi-skilled and unskilled work like those in the GGLU, but also tailors and tailoresses, particularly from the growing Jewish community. The Jewish Slipper Trade Society marched with a giant cloth slipper borne at their head. The Yorkshire Post also lists “…ironworkers, sanitary workers, malsters (people who make malt – ID), and dyers labourer’s.” Several groups marched from the union offices or other meeting points to Victoria Square itself.

Today the Leeds TUC led May Day march is generally a much smaller affair, although in the year running up to the 1 million strong November 30th public sector strike over pensions the demonstration was larger. At that time, the craft snobbishness of the leadership of the Leeds Trades Council meant they shunned the new unions, and they had to establish a Yorkshire Labour Council to organise the march, a body that later dissolved as the new unionists won over established trades councils or established their own.

Whilst the May Day march starts at the same place today, rather than returning to Victoria Gardens as we do today, the march wound along some of the city centres main thoroughfares Park Row, Boar Lane and Briggate to eventually end at Vicar’s Croft, where the outdoor market now stands.

One of the smallest, but most significant, groups on the march was that of the Socialist League of Tom Maguire and others who had helped not only organise the march, but assisted in the establishment of the new unions. Vicar’s Croft was the place they had regularly held outdoor meetings, and it was there they had met and then helped organise a short and successful strike of building labourers in July 1889 which kicked off New Unionism in Leeds. Reports clash as to whether they or the Jewish Tailors led the parade, but the Yorkshire Post comments “The Socialists were distinguished by their red flag, surmounted by the cap of liberty, and by their efforts to add a vocal accompaniment to the playing of the “Marseillaise”.”

The rally at the end clearly hadn’t been prepared for so many people, it started an hour late and there were only two “…small and somewhat rickety platforms distinguished by the red flags of the Socialists and the banners of the various societies represented…” The Yorkshire Post reporter continues, “Only those persons, however, who managed… to get in the immediate front of these platforms were able to hear with any degree what was being said by the eight hour advocates… one half of the assembly had perforce to content themselves with forming into separate groups to discuss the question at issue in a semi-private fashion…”

Yet despite these difficulties, both platforms moved and voted on a resolution on the eight hour day, the text of which was as follows

“That 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.”

It is striking how relevant, albeit in a somewhat different fashion, the question of the eight hour working day is today, in a situation where many people or on much shorter working hours than they need or would want due to zero-hour and other short-hour contracts. This is a question the trade union movement is beginning to face-up to, especially with the pioneering work being done by the Baker’s, Food and Allied Workers Union in the Fast Food industry alongside groups such as Youth Fight for Jobs.

Interestingly, the Yorkshire Post article concludes by mentioning the police presence “The proceedings were orderly in character, and the services of but four police constables sufficied…” Yet today, protesters can often meet much tougher restrictions from the police on authorities on our right to demonstrate. Not only has Leeds City Council placed an exhibition on Victoria Gardens covering up most of the space including the area in front of the Art Gallery steps where the march usually hears speakers (despite the space being booked for the march almost a year in advance), but the police have demanded a £1,000 ‘donation’ towards the costs of policing the march. In London some demonstrators have faced demands that they hire ‘event management companies’ to steward events at a cost of £5,000, potentially pricing many working class organisations out of holding demonstrations altogether. Our movement must fight these attempts to deny our democratic right to demonstrate our grievances.

Join the Leeds TUC May Day demonstration
Saturday 2nd May 2015
11.30am, Victoria Gardens (outside Leeds Art Gallery & Central Library), Leeds

References

Lapides, K. (ed) Marx and Engels on the Trade Union Movement
Yorkshire Post, Monday 5th May, pg5 ‘Meeting in Leeds’
Leeds Mercury, Monday 5th May, p5

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