Monday, May 4, 2009

May Day - Rêve Générale

On the first of May most of the world steps out to show solidarity for their fellow workers. In France it is a national holiday and B and I decided to join our fellow Parisians and join the parade. There were thousands of people on the street, mostly sporting stickers on their backs saying "Rêve Générale" (meaning 'general dream' a play on the expression 'greve générale' a national strike), or "Casse-toi pov'con" (meaning get lost you poor asshole, a direct quote from Sarkozy directed at a fellow french man), or "Vive la Greve" (this one found on the back of a young political activist. They start young in France.)

There were people of all ages at the event, lot's of activists, students, and teachers, a fair number of politicians like the socialist mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë, but very few bourgeois, surprise surprise.

We also saw a lot of police everywhere in riot gear. This is one thing I've noticed about Paris. It is crawling with cops. On bikes, on foot, in the métro, at the Eiffel Tower, hanging out in their vans at Les Invalides, and from what I am told blending into crowds incognito. There is an army of police in Paris, and frankly I'm caught in between being reassured and threatened by the sight of them all. I will say though that if there is a riot I would rather there be some force trying to contain the violence than see rampant destruction.

As we walked around and saw all the different groups and unions being represented I found myself wondering about the origins of May Day as part of the labour movement. The first of May has been traditionally associated with many a western pagan and later Christian tradition to welcome the coming of spring. But it wasn't until the 1886 Haymarket Affair that May Day took on a distinctive labour connotation.

In Chicago on May 4th of 1886 there was a rally to support creating the 8 hour work day as standard (the common work day prior was from 10 to 16 hours a week for 6 days of the week) having been intially proposed by the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions in October of 1884. What started out as a peaceful rally ended up as a blody riot with many civilians and some policemen dead in the streets. This resulted in a setback for the 8 hour work day movement but the American Federation of Labour was undaunted. In 1889 the AFL president sent a letter to the First congress of the Second International meeting in Paris explaining their situation and proposed an international movement to implement the 8 hour workday for all labourers around the world. It was then that that an international response was created with a call to strike on May 1st for better hours and to commemorate those who died as a result of the Haymarket Affair.

Growing up in Canada and living in the United States I did not get any sense that Labour Day was all that important other than a holiday. There are no parades marking the origins of why the date is to be observed, no explanations in the media, no enthusiasm from anywhere. Is it because anything remotely socialist is frowned upon? Are unions and populist gatherings considered irrelevant or overly utopian in a capitalist society? Are North Americans afraid to show solidarity for each other? B's grandfathers were socialists and anarcho-syndicalists of which he is proud of and remembers by participating in May Day. And clearly I saw that same sort of pride in those on the streets this past Friday.

Even unions for sex workers!

Doing brisk business at the merguez/kebab stand. I know that vendors selling muguet are not taxed on May Day, I'm wondering if the same applies to these folks too?...

B found this nice bill lying about in the street. Makes a nice complement to our bouquet of muguet, choice flower of communists, anarchists, socialists and unionists the world over.

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