May, first Its origin, its meaning, its fights

02 maio 2016 . 17:09

Read chapters 1 and 2 of the book by José Luiz Del Roio

Chapter 1



The May First is intimately linked to the fight for the limit of eight hours of work daily. In the Classic Antiquity, the base of production was slavery. The philosophic, artistic and scientific knowledges of the Greek civilization of the Roman achievements had, as support, the effort and sacrifice of a mass of individuals transformed in machines. By the way, the Greek philosopher Plato said that there were three kinds of tools: the mutes, as the hammer, the ones that munge, as the ox and the ones that talk – the slaves. It is evident that in such regime the captives were obliged to work until the complete depletion. With the disaggregation of the Roman Empire in the Century 5 of our age, it ended the massive slavery.

In the European Middle age, the thick of the labor happen in the field and it is conditioned by the sun light and the seasons. During Spring and Summer, they came to plow the earth until seventeen hours in one only workload; but in winter, when the days are shorter, they hardly can extend to a number bigger than seven hours. It is also valid to the fatigues of the artisans in the city, thereby, the existence was regulated by the maximum of labor possible during six days of the week, and the Sunday was dedicated to practices devoted to the minimum of rest necessary, in order to, monotonously, may restart, after, the routine of always. Sometimes, during the year, this insipidity was broken only by some festivities of religious character. Of course, this description of the everyday do not exemplify the life of the nobles, who spent their time among hunting and wars.


The first character we know to divide the day in three periods – eight hours to work, eight hours to works of piety and eight hours for rest – was king Alfredo of England, who reigned in the end of Century 9. Unfortunately, this division of time of the pious and methodic sovereign earned only for himself, not for his subjects.

During all the long passage of the Feudalism to the Capitalism it will occur many revolts of farmers and artisans – these precursor of the labor class – for fairer conditions of life. One of the most significant involves the textile workers of Florence, Italy, in 1378, when led by one of them, Michele di Lando, they came to dominate the city for two months. Among their claims, it is the reduction of the time of labor. But the Florence oligarchy, after the initial fright, manage to suffocate the movement – and all continued the same. Still in Italy, in the city of Lucca, the learners who work with the artisans made a demonstration asking for the fix of one minimum wage and smaller time of labor. This day was the May First of 1531 – only one historic coincidence.

In 1579, the emperor Filipe II, of Spain promulgates a decree of limitation of labor of the miners to eight hours. The same governor, in 1593, signs a new decree, ordering that other sectors may shorten their time of service. It says like this: “The workers of fortifications and factories will occupy eight hours by day, four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon; the hours will be distributed by the engineers according to the most convenient occasion, to avoid to the workers the heat of the sun and allow they maintain their health without missing the duties”.


These determinations of Filipe are interesting, not only for being the first regulations of eight hours which is known, but because they may be also valid for Brazil. It is only to remember that, between 1580 and 1649 Portugal, from which we were colony, was part of the Spanish empire. This way we discover that in Brazil, almost four hundred years ago, it already existed a rule which limited the labor to eight hours. What a wonderful!

Behind those laws, it was also the concern of the Crown with that, if the exploration and mortality of the autochthonous population continue, in the same rhythm, in short time it would not have more labor. It is only to quote an example. Modern demographers calculate that, in the beginning of 1500 – time in that arrived the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors – it lived in Mexico approximately forty million people, and in the Inca empire, in the Andes, almost fifteen million. However, in the end of the century, the Mexican Indian population was reduced to three million and a half and the Andes to other much. In the Brazil of this time, the numbers of the genocide are relatively smaller, only because the native population was smaller and it was dispersed in a very large area. To overcome this difficulty of arms, it starts the infamous traffic of black slaves come from Africa.

Although baptized by force by the Catholic Church – therefore considered owners of soul -, the Africans are treated as a tool that breasts. And they have to work until exhaustion to quickly pay the capital in they invested and provide profits. After they may die. And it is not too much to say that the laws of Filipe II, beyond not worth for the slaves, they remain dead letter in the majority of the cases.

It also deserves mention the Jesuitical resolutions, which existed, between the Centuries 17 and 18, in the regions where currently are Paraguay, the north of Argentina and the west of Paraná, in which the aborigines, although living in a regime of half-slavery, worked only six hours.

The fight for the eight hours, as all the social movements which emerge in History, was preceded by utopias and modest phenomena which announced it. In 1677, the French diplomat Denis Vieras published a fantastic book named L’Histoire des Sevarambes about a society in which labor is obligatory for all during eight hours a day. Curiously, this fictional story is developed in Brazilian lands.

Even better made the Italian Frei Tommaso Campanella, some decades before when he wrote the A Cidade do Sol (The City of the Sun) – the solar, its inhabitants, worked only four hours. For this kind of ideas, Campanella was imprisoned by the Inquisition and remained in the jails twenty-seven years.


Already in the time of Enlightenment, the French philosopher Helvetius, in the work named Of Men (1769) says: “There is in the majority of Countries two classes of citizens – the ones who miss the indispensable, and the others to whom is left the superfluous. The first manage to minimize their privations only with intense labor. This is a fatigue for all and for some a torture. The second class live in abundancy, but is distressed in boredom… What to do to create happiness? Diminish the wealthy of some increasing the others; create an environment, in which the poor can supply abundantly his needs and his family’s?

As we see, Helvetius, despite very well intentioned, is wrong when he thinks that the rich die of boredom and because of that are unhappy. Besides, it does not tell us how it would be possible to share, as it proposes, the wealthy with the poorer. Anyway, it is one of the theoretical precursors of the workload reduction.

It is in this time, between the half and the end of the Century 18, that the labor class starts to appear. It happens in England. And it is not for less, because it was in its safes that it had broken out the biggest part of the huge profits of the slave traffic came from the depredation that Spanish and Portuguese made in the American continent and also of the direct colony exploration made by the own English. This accumulation of capital, plus the new discoveries in the field of technique boosted the so called “first industrial revolution”.

It is first developed in the textile branch. Before, the clothes were woven in the homes in rudimentary wires. Now the worker will leave his home and will go until the factory to produce with big number of people in the same situation.


The conditions of life are terrible – extremely low wages, none stability and the excess of labor that come from the field, eager to find jobs. The hours of work come to sixteen hours daily, in an environment impossible for health, with rigorous control and fines. Let us see the case of the factory Tyldesley, in Manchester: “(…) they work fourteen hours to twenty and nine degrees of temperature, in a wet environment, with doors and windows closed. It is not allowed to drink water for not to lose time”. In a poster pined on the wall, among many prohibitions and threats, it is found these: “It will pay fine who open a window, who wash oneself during the shift, who whistle, who turn on the light by gas too early etc.”.

When he goes out of the task, the worker comes back exhausted to a miserable and infects house, where he finds his family poor. He cannot even change the clothes in which he sweat all they, because he does not have it. Leisure, instruction, happiness, this is something which the worker does not have forces even to dream about. For him, living is not dying.

Even more terrible is the traffic of children. The capital, with its avarice, objectives only obtaining more profits, exploring the children labor which receives and consume less. The minors are obliged to effort the same number of hours that the majors, or, worse than that, enter in the mines, in very narrow galleries to give passage to a grown up and pull mineral coal wagons. This way described such situation the French doctor A. Guépin, in the beginning of the Century 19: “The children start to work since the day they can increase in some pennies the wages of their families. It is a pity to see them, pale, swollen, anemic, with reddish and blear eyes, as if they were of another race. The truth is that is occurs a selection. The most vigorous fruits develop, but there are many which fall from the tree. After twenty years old, or it is in the height of the forces, or it is dead. And the result is that the workers cannot make that it grows, in average, neither the fourth part of their children”.

What for continue telling the horrors of the beginning of the industrialization, two hundred years ago, in England or France, if in Brazil of the end of the Century 20 the big and small cities stains of favelas and flooded? Here, thousands of minors with age inferior to thirteen years old mutilate every year in the sugarcane cut. Almost fifteen million of then have their eyes marked by the fear of spending the night hungry – and it is the biggest terror that a child may suffer. There are million the fathers of family who could not get an occupation or a piece of land; and the majority of who get a job receive such miserable wages that, to stretch them, they labor endless extra hours.


Let us get back to the sequence of our history. In Europe, the concentration of workers approximated and united them. The common sufferings and the individual rages merge in magmas of collective revolts. The labor movement is born. It takes body the fight of labor against capital.

As expression of this frame, it comes up a group of intellectuals who effort to make theories and make proposals to change it. The most important thinkers are the “utopic socialists”. Saint Simon (1760-1825), Charles Fourier (1792-1837) and Robert Owen (1771-1858). This last, English industrial, knew well the system of production. In 1817, in the work with the significant title of Catechism, he exposes the reasons of the eight hours workload. Let us see which are they:

“1). Because this is the longest length that the human species – taking in consideration the average vigor and giving to the weak the same right to existence of the strong – may support continuing in good health, intelligent and happy;

2). Because the modern discoveries of chemistry and mechanic eliminate the needs of bigger physical effort;

3). Because eight hours of labor and good organization may create superabundance of wealthy for all;

4). Because no one has the right to demand of their similar the quantity of effort superior to the required by society, simply to enrich at the expense of the poor;

5). Because the true interest of each one of the human beings is that all have health, intelligence, happiness and wealthy.”

Unfortunately, he was the only industrial to think like this, at that time.

Chapter two


In 1819, the English workers begin their demonstrations of protest against the injustices, more or less organized. They concentrate in Saint Peter Square, in Manchester, main industrial city at that time. The chief of the government was the reactionary General Wellington who commanded the victory over Napoleon in the Waterloo battle. His behavior was typical: shoots the cannons over the demonstrators causing a massacre. And, to remember more the “battle” of the great military, people named the episode of Peterloo.

Despite all, the movement had a little success: the approval of a law which circumscribes the labor of the minors between nine and sixteen years old to twelve hours.

Some years after, in 1824, although with many restrictions, the trade unions are recognized (literally, unions, associations of employees), thereby, the syndicates. The effort goes on with incommensurable sacrifices, among assassinations, deportations and condemnations. Even this way, the beginner union structure manages to make strikes in several cities, demanding the eight hours workload. Important mark, because it signs the first wall in the history of this claim.

They manage with this to advance in another small step. All the minors of nine to sixteen years old should work “only” nine hours.

Such precedent caused bustle. Deputies of the Parliament were exhausted shouting against the “revolution” which was taking England. The bosses made lock out demanding that children worked at least ten hours, because they said that their profits would decrease in an unsustainable way in point it means the end of industry.

From this moment, the English labor movement, with the combats to improve the life conditions, started to enlarge the series of claims of general political character, such as the universal secret vote and the social reforms. And, in 1847, they finally obtain the law which determinates the limit of the workload for adults fixed in ten hours, which starts to be officially in force from May First, 1848. Here that our date appears again.

Another interesting Country for our report is France, because it is there that it created a big number of workers and the classes struggle developed acutely. The first work nucleus had subaltern actuation during the French Revolution which started in 1789. However, it is necessary to remind that the group of revolutionaries which is formed in the end of the Century 18 around François Babeuf, known as Graco, and Filippo Buonarroti, while the revolution, consolidated, already passed to the rigid control of the bourgeoisie.


In 1796, Babeuf releases the “Manifest of the Commoners”, in which denies that through private property it may be reached the equality among citizens, and preaches the socialization of the production assets, with the distribution of the products according to the needs of workers. The organization of Babeuf was repressed and he, with other companions was sent to guillotine. It is of this “conspiracy of commons”, thereby, ordinary people, equal among themselves, that it is born the political term “communism”.

Buonarroti will manage to scape and he will come to have long and adventurous life fighting for the born proletariat in several European Countries. Let us remind a writing of his, of 1828, about the hours of labor: “It would exist more freedom in a Country where all worked from three to four hours a day than where four fifths of the population are obliged to work ten or twelve hours, for the last fifth swims in voluptuousness and fell in the idleness”.

With the defeat of Napoleon, in 1815 it will be restored the monarchic absolutist government, and the political power will come back to the hands of the noble, fact that become the process of industrialization much slower. With the revolution “of the three glorious days”, in July of 1830, the bourgeoisie takes back the reins of the State and the capitalism will have big boost.

Constituted the new regime, the workers, who had already left many of them in the barricades, full of hopes, made already in August marches claiming for the reduction of labor to eleven hours daily. The blacksmiths start, after the typographic, followed by other categories. They make an undersigned where “with much order, respect and shyness” they appeal “to the representatives of the nation to understand that our needs are everyday, just as it is our work”.

To a movement so pacific and moderate as this of workers full of illusions, the response of the government is hard: “The workers’ meetings are in themselves a big disorder. They alarm the calm inhabitants and cause the employees loss of time and work”. It is followed by a list of sanctions to who persists in the “agitation”. In December, the bourgeois Parliament declares: “We are surprised that the workers who combated in the memorable battles of July with so much courage and abnegation decide now to damage the freedom so need to the development of our industry”. In this note it becomes clear what bourgeoisie thinks about freedom: permission of exploring and increase the profits in the expense of the crescent workers’ misery – and these, if protest, are accused of liberticides.

Ill-fated the chimeras, the fight becomes harder, although disorganized. In the city of Bordeaux, in the May First of 1831, the sawmills destroy the new mechanic saws and a general break-break is verified in several districts.

During the month of November of 1831, in Lyon, thousands of workers, with the collaboration of some segments of the national guard, rise in weapons and occupy the city. It is in this period that it starts to appear in France the first workers’ associations.


Almost one decade after, in 1840, an imposing strike with more than one hundred thousand participants shakes France. The basic complain is the workload reduction to ten hours. The bourgeoisie stays, for the first time, really concerned, and the grandfathers of the contemporary “big press” thunder injuries. In September 6th, newspapers as Le Capitole and Le Constitutionnel insinuate that the strike movement is sponsored by the gold of… Russia. It may seem a joke, but it is not. They evidently do not refer to the Russia of the Soviets, which would appear much time latter, but do of the Russian empire of the czars. As we see, the point is old. When the labor class move, the reaction see through these actions only the foreign gold and dangerous agitators. In the same time, the publication Le Droit says: “Not without reason, the public opinion presumed that the insurrectional movement of workers would be made of agitators. In this morning, it was locked an individual who had passwords to be distributed in addresses where it may search wine and food, and also having in dispose certain amount of gold”.

However, it was still not this time that it was obtained a victory. But it would come soon, for the combative category of the graphics who reaches the regulation of the ten hours in 1843.

The bourgeois authoritarian regime deepens in corruption. The financial oligarchy drains the wealthy of the nation; – there is a marasmus which poisons the paralyze slowly in all activities. The winter of 1846 to 1847 was extremely hard and a big crisis reaches agriculture in all western Europe. It is missed food in many houses. The republicans acquire new adepts at each day. The industrial bourgeoisie shows discontent. The most frequent form that the political meetings happens are the banquets in public squares. The authorities decide to prohibit one of these meetings in the twenty-two of February of 1848, in Paris. Immediately streets, alleys, and avenues of the city are full of barricades raised in a rush by students and workers. The repressive forces are cramped in all the parts, and in the twenty-four, the kind abandons the capital, born a provisory republican government.

Paris becomes totally dominated by the proletariat. The writer Tocqueville registered: “It was an extraordinary and terrible fact to see, in the hands of those who had nothing, all this huge city full of wealthy”.

The provisory ministry promulgated a series of laws, as the abolition of the death penalty for political crimes; the men universal suffrage; the end of slavery in the colonies; the convocation of a constituent assembly; and the workload reduction. In Paris, the workload starts to be of ten hours and in the provinces, of eleven hours for all the categories.

The power may be divided between liberal chains representative of the bourgeoisie and socialists’ representative of the proletariat. The workers’ participation in the revolution is fundamentally from Paris, do not having roots in a farmer world intensively controlled by a reactionary clergy. Besides, the bourgeois class counts with a political experience still very superior to their antagonists. This way, when the constituent elections happens, the liberals achieve margin of vote superior to the socialists. The new cabinet, composed only of moderate tendencies, reinforces immediately the national guard with elements of their trust – and starts to eliminate the revolutionaries’ achievements.


The workers come back again to the barricades, but this time the capitalist forces were prepared. They decree full power to the chief of the army, the general Cavaignac. Three thousand workers are shot and more than four thousand deported. This hard blow breaks the backbone of the revolution. The “red danger” is away. In September of 1848, the time of work is increased in one hour, thereby, eleven for Paris and twelve for the provinces. Such situation would prevail this way for many centuries.

From the barricades of Paris, the revolution soon spread for almost all Europe, shaking thrones, scaring tyrants. Even in the faraway Brazil the echoes came. Democrats greeted it with joy. Although the social-economic situation was very diverse, in the “Praieira” rebellion of Pernambuco many identified with the European revolutionaries. It was these fights for freedom and the workers’ manumission that created conditions for the development of the socialists’ doctrines.


Besides the already quoted utopic socialists, new combatant theoretical appeared. They are much to be mentioned here. We will remember only some of them. Louis Blanc (1811-1882), reformist socialist, who dreamed with the possibility of a society in which there was solidary production without antagonisms between bosses and employees. August Blanqui (1805-1871), extraordinary figure of revolutionary, follower of Babeuf, willed the achievement of power by the proletariat proposing as method of action the organization of small groups and conspiracies. Wilhem Weitling (1808-1871), equalitarian spirit, preached a socialism similar to the primitive Christianism. Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1965), theorized about a social ideal of the cooperative kind, federalist and decentralized.


The figures of giants who will mark the history of the world and labor movement will be Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), both German, although had lived and fight in several Countries of the old continent, mainly in England. They are the authors of the famous Communist Manifest, published in London in February of 1848 to serve of program to the Communists League. According to them, “to change society it is need to act over the social relations over practice intervention, guided by scientific theory”. And it will be this scientific theory that they will leave as legacy for humanity.

After the period of 1848 to 1849, the majority of the revolutionary leaders’ refugees in England or Switzerland, where, around sometimes violent debates, they continue to give body to ideas and political elaborations for the proletariat. While this the factories continue to increase and the structures of the labor classes, almost always repressed, develop slowly.


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