May Day was never meant to be a day to honor labor. It was meant to be a time of joy for celebrating nature as the first blossoms of spring appeared.
We know that among the Romans there were the so-called Floral Games (Floralia) that last five days from April 28 to May 3. The Celtics had a festival called Beltein that was associated with sun worship rather than flowers. The British took May Day to much greater heights during the Middle Ages as everybody went out to gather flowers. A young girl would be chosen Queen of the May to preside over the festivities. Most distinctively a very tall pole would be erected and wreathes of flowers would be attached and around which people would dance all day. But this is far from how May 1st became Labor Day.
Workers around the world celebrate May 1 as Labor Day but not the United States. There the celebration is not until the first Monday in September, deliberately decided upon so as not to associate the occasion with leftist-leaning unions.
The very first labor movement occurred in Australia in 1856 when workers wanted to reduce their work hours to eight. In the U.S. the first instance was a parade in 1882 put on by the Knights of Labor. Eventually all of the states came to agree that the occasion should be in September; however, in Europe and elsewhere May 1 is the day of celebration. This custom started in 1890, one year after French workers joined together as labor unions in what is termed the Second International, that was strongly affected by what happened in the United States.
But why is Labor Day in September in the United States and Canada? Well, it seems to have come from an incident that happened in 1886 in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. At the time workers were striking at a factory and a rally was scheduled to support the workers. Plus two years earlier labor unions had decided to call a general strike on May 1, the day when an eight-hour workday was to be instituted. The police were called in to disperse the meeting but someone threw a bomb at the police. Eight officers died as a result of the bomb blast and the gunfire that broke out and an unknown number of others also died. Eight anarchists were tried for murder and sentenced to death and one committed suicide in prison.
The Haymarket massacre occurred on May 4 but is considered to have influenced the origin of international May Day. The trial and subsequent executions received international attention and although it is still unknown who actually threw the bomb, the affair is remembered even today and considered the start of the modern organized labor movement around the world. It also gave violent birth to May 1 as a Labor Day.
Labor Day in Turkey
Celebrating Labor Day in Turkey began in 1909 but not especially among the Turks. The first workers to demonstrate were predominately Bulgarians and Serbians and a few Turks but not in Istanbul, in Skopje in today’s Macedonia. The first demonstration in Istanbul took place in 1912 and in spite of the rather violent birth of May 1 as Labor Day elsewhere, these first meetings served as a means of handing out pamphlets.
Events in Istanbul in 1920 and 1921 grew significantly larger than before with many workers taking the day off to demonstrate their solidarity from factories and government positions. But there still was no violence.
Nor was there any in 1922 although thousands marched from Sultanahmet to the Pangaltı area of the city. Ankara also was the scene of demonstrations but no violence. Now the government and in particular members of the Republican People’s Party, the only political party at the time, began to believe that such demonstrations shouldn’t be held and May 1 shouldn’t be the Workers’ Holiday. In 1924 and 1925, May 1 became the Spring Holiday as the government tried to get people to forget about a "Workers’ Holiday." The situation remained more or less the same until the 1970s when the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions, or DİSK, began to press for rights and freedoms on behalf of workers. Not only was there pressure to have May 1 declared an official holiday, but also Taksim Square in Istanbul became the target for workers engaged in protest about rights, freedoms and general labor conditions. There had been for some time growing violence among many sectors of Turkish life ranging from students to workers. At the same time the police were not trained to effectively deal with this violence. In spite of the attempts by the courts, members of DİSK and other labor unions were able to celebrate May 1 in 1976.
The following year however ended in violence. Crowds Ğ estimates run as high as 500,000 Ğ had gathered in Taksim Square to listen to speeches. Instead what they heard were shots fired into the crowd from nearby buildings like the Intercontinental Hotel and the Water Administration. In the ensuing stampede, 28 people were either trampled to death or suffocated, five were shot and one was run over by a police personnel carrier. Others say that 36 people died. Four hundred and seventy people were arrested but no one ever solved the mystery of who was shooting from the roofs. That was the end of Taksim Square as a goal unless special permission was granted by the Istanbul Governor’s Office.
Of course the various attempts to bar any ceremonies at Taksim Square merely made the place even more desirable in which to gather people for a special occasion. The military takeover in 1980 ensured that there was much less of a chance to hold a demonstration in Taksim because no meeting of more than ten people could be allowed anywhere without special permission. Unfortunately in 1989 a young man lost his life when a large group of demonstrators tried to reach Taksim Square from the wide boulevard that leads there from Tarlabaşı.
The marble monument in the middle of the square is a reminder of Turkey’s War of Independence and over the decades it has served as a focal point reminding its viewers of the tremendous effort it took to free the country from foreign invaders. To lay wreaths in front of it is almost obligatory. Eventually a solution was worked out so that limited numbers of labor union leaders could bring wreaths as a symbolic gesture. Of course this hardly satisfied everybody. DISK and other labor unions in the meantime have pressed for May 1 to be declared an official holiday and this year they got what they wished for including the right to hold a small meeting in Taksim Square.
DİSK even went as far as President Abdullah Gül to discuss the issue of having May 1 declared an official holiday. An agreement was made with the government that as the day was to be declared an official holiday, the number of those people who would be in Taksim Square would not exceed 4,000 although it seems there were some 5,000 people there.
DİSK Chairman Süleyman Çelebi said they bargained for this and the group in Taksim would include representatives of 70 organizations although it would have been great if as many as 100,000 people could have come. But this was a result of a 30-year struggle and an attempt to rid May 1 of the remembrance of the unfortunate occurrences that had happened in the past.
If there was anything clear from the pictures in the international media, the media was not interested in showing the meeting that was held without incident but was much more interested in the clashes between the police and those intent on entering Taksim Square with their red neckerchiefs and rocks in hand. Perhaps they didn’t see the young people in the side streets laughing and joking as they picked up rocks to throw at the police.
May 1 had a violent birth but there’s no reason why the violence needs to continue.