It’s Mayday, and this year is shaping up to be one to remember. So far 2012 is turning out to be just as tumultuous as 2011 with Canada now witnessing the international battles over debt and austerity first hand. If last year was characterized by 21st century radicalism, though, this year seems to be more focused on reconnecting with the 19th and 20th century roots of those ideas. As far as radical history goes, no other day of the year matches the First of May as a celebration of struggle, both in terms of what’s been gained and as a reminder of what it’s cost us. Across the continent and around the globe, today’s plans are some of the most ambitious in at least a generation. Given everything we’ve seen in the past few years, it’s about time.

Mayday strikes, protests and celebrations date back to at least 1889, out of international outrage over the deaths of a group of Chicago anarchists now known as the Haymarket Martyrs. At the dawn of the North American labour movement, in the struggle to shorten the workday to eight hours, demonstrations were held in May of 1886. After a number of “incendiary” speeches from organizers calling for revolution, police charged and opened fire. A bloody battle ensued leaving dozens wounded on both sides as some demonstrators shot back and somebody threw a bomb into police lines. The bomber’s identity was never discovered, and debates continue today over who it really was (some suggest one of the anarchists, others like Howard Zinn suspect an agent provocateur). Despite not having a bomber, a group of organizers and speakers were brought to trial on “conspiracy” charges on the basis of their anarchist views. Four men (August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer) were hung, two had their sentences “commuted” to life in prison (Samuel Fielden and Michael Schwab) and another committed suicide on the eve of his execution (Louis Lingg). The backlash that followed saw a massive rise in popular support for the labour movement and radical ideas in general, seeing the first strikes by 1890, commemorated yearly and soon spreading around the globe.

Why is this relevant today? Aside from the fact that these kinds of “conspiracy” trials continue to this day (as Toronto’s G20 showed us), struggles like the fight for the eight hour workday are far from over. Now, like then, battles over “simple” issues like hours, wages and pensions reflected far larger questions about society and the economy. Through strikes, protests and often deadly conflicts, these movements slowly won most of the rights we know today (pensions, weekends, the right to vote etc) in conflicts that never really ended.

What makes this May such a turning point isn’t just how widespread austerity is at this point (as Canadians now know all too well), it’s the way cracks are now appearing in the armour of this global behemoth. In recent weeks “austerity” plans have began to fall apart as Sarkozy lost the first round of French elections and the Dutch government fell apart over budget talks. France and Greece are both holding elections later this week, with a significant chance that despised pro-austerity incumbents will be tossed. Britain and Spain have now both slipped back into official “recession” status. Even Canada is now witnessing a shrinking GDP. The ugly, ultimate unspoken truth of austerity is that it has no mandate, either politically or economically, and both are now becoming clear.

Austerity draws a line in the sand. Harper did this in a very public way with his last budget, placing students and pensioners, workers, environmentalists, First Nations and northerners directly in the line of fire. There was a time when it wasn’t so easy to explain how all these issues were connected, but this recent offensive makes things very clear.. Couple it with Harper’s other recent initiatives, to expand prisons, arrest immigrants, monitor the internet and very possibly to rig the last election, and most of the Canadian populace has some serious reasons to fear him. This is happening at all levels with Premiers like McGuinty and Charest and Mayors like Rob Ford, and it’s happening from coast to coast. Canada, of course, is only the latest victim, along with many others like America and most of Europe. Austerity may be everywhere, but so is the fightback.

Today’s protests have already begun. New York and London already have large crowds in the streets, soon to be followed by Washington, Los Angeles, Toronto and many others. A large part of the continent has called for a general strike today by local Occupy groups and others. Hamilton is holding marches both downtown and in the the industrial sector, with food and festivities afterward. Downtown, people will be gathering in Beasley Park starting at 2pm, with a march through the core leaving then returning for food and music in the park around four or five. The Steelworkers’ 1005 local (Stelco) is marching from their hall in a loop to plants like Stelco and Steelcar then returning to their hall for a BBQ. Both have been planned in solidarity, and there ought to be a fair bit of traffic between the two from most I’ve talked to.

M1 Committee Homepage – organizers of today’s downtown actions
USW 1005 Homepage
International live coverage – Guardian.co.uk

Happy May Day everyone. See ya in the streets.

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