May 1 is more than just a day for drinking beer

Local celebration promises to be more festive – and less violent – than the 1886 affair in Chicago

Many of the thousands of beer drinkers gathering in Fælledparken on the first of May this Sunday afternoon will have no idea they’re there because of something that happened in the United States over a hundred years ago.

The idea for a workers’ day started in Australia in 1856, but May 1 became International Workers’ Day only after the 1886 Haymarket massacre in the United States. A nationwide general strike beginning on May 1 called for an eight-hour working day. Police shot four striking workers at a machine plant in Chicago, and a protest was held on May 4 at Haymarket Square. A still-unknown person threw dynamite at police, and cops opened fire, injuring up to 200 and killing an unknown number.


Eight anarchists were arrested – seven of whom were sentenced to death after a show trial. Even prosecutors conceded none of the eight had thrown the bomb. Two sentences were commuted on appeal, one prisoner killed himself with a cigar bomb the night before his execution, and four were publicly hanged. The most famous was August Spies, a 31-year-old German immigrant whose only crime was being a charismatic anarchist speaker.


Millions of people in more than 80 countries now celebrate May Day. Ironically, the United States doesn’t recognise it, having dubbed May 1 ‘Americanisation Day’ in 1921, then ‘Loyalty Day’ in 1958, and ‘Law Day’ in 1953. In Copenhagen, thousands of people always turn up at Fælledparken for an afternoon of speeches from the parties of the left.


Before that, there will be a couple of marches to Fælledparken. The Social Democrats, frontrunners for this year’s national election, will meet at 10:30am at the Workers’ Museum on Ronersgade for speeches and songs (including a speech by Copenhagen Mayor Frank Jensen), before meeting outside the museum at noon to march to the main celebration at Fælledparken.


“Some people say there’s nothing more to fight for, but I think there’s still plenty of things to fight for,” said Lars Midtiby, the general secretary of the Social Democrats, in an interview with The Copenhagen Post. “The two main issues are how to get through the economic crisis and at the same time develop welfare.”


“We have lost very many jobs over the past few years,” added Nanna Grabe, a student volunteer with the Social Democrats. “We want to create new jobs in the private sector by investing in infrastructure and renovating schools and public buildings.”


To the left of the Social Democrats in the spectrum of political parties is the Red-Green Alliance, or Enhedslisten (meaning Unity List). They boast only 5,700 members, but that’s 1,000 more than last year, according to national secretary Patrick Kristiansen.


The Red-Green Alliance will meet at 10:30am at Blågårds Plads in Nørrebro for speeches from Johannes Smith Nielsson, one of the party’s MPs, Anders Olesen, a member of the carpenters’ union, and Rasmus Weber of the Socialist Youth Front. The big issue for the Red-Green Alliance is fighting the government’s effort to raise the retirement age, Kristiansen said. At noon, they’ll march to Fælledparken.


Kristiansen chalks up his party’s growing popularity to “growing dissatisfaction with the government and its welfare cuts”. Overall the Danish labour movement has declined from 1.3 million workers a decade ago to about 1 million today, according to Henning Prelle, the chief of archives at the Danish Labour Museum.


Prelle notes that 20 or 30 years ago, the parties had separate demonstrations, because Communists and Social Democrats weren’t talking to each other. “Now they get along better,” he said.


Though membership is down, unions still have a cause, said Prelle. “They’re fighting for better wages, a better society. You can always find something to fight for.” And even if you’re never heard of the Haymarket Massacre, you can do what most people who go to Faelledparken do. As Prelle put it: “You drink a lot of beer and so on.”