Picture This: May Day occupies the globe

Protesters in Seattle have nothing on the rest of the world

John Dyer By John Dyer

Derya Saglam, 28, during a May Day rally in Istanbul on May 1. She wasn't alone in choosing to don an image of Che Guevara to mark the occasion. (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

This year, May Day made headlines in the United States as Occupy Wall Street used the traditional holiday in honor of labor to stage protests against inequities in the global economy. Many of the protests turned violent.

Around the globe, meanwhile, others staged demonstrations that reflected a more traditional perspective on the first day of May, which has ancient origins as a festival day. Now it’s often celebrated as International Workers’ Day; the worker connotation started in the 1880s, when American labor used the date for massive rallies in favor of the eight-hour day. In countries where communism isn’t a dirty word, marchers proudly held aloft images of Argentine-cum-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, flags bearing the hammer and sickle and other time-honored leftist symbols.

That’s not to say other countries’ May Day demonstrations didn’t turn into agitation. In countries where the gap between the rich and poor yawns significantly wider than in the U.S., riot police sometimes were called out to respond to protesters’ calls for workers to unite.

In Revolution Square in Havana, Che appears again as Cubans celebrate May Day. (Reuters/Enrique De La Osa)

Similar communist themes cropped up throughout Latin America, where leftists have long protested against American and European exploitation of the region’s resources.

In Venezuela, where leftist President Hugo Chavez has benefitted politically from anti-American rhetoric, state employees on May 1 celebrated a new labor law that shortens the work week from 44 to 40 hours and increases workers’ severance payments. (Reuters/ Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

A protester on May Day waves a communist flag in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil in front of Se Cathedral. PCB stands for the Brazilian Communist Party, one of the oldest political organizations in the country. (Reuters)

May Day demonstrations throughout Europe also evoked the Cold War in their criticism of the world economic order. Counter-intuitively, many East Europeans, including younger people who weren’t even born at the time, now look back nostalgically at the communist era.

Communist supporters in Kiev rally on May Day in Ukraine. The banner reads “Their crisis,” an allusion to how many blame the capitalist West, not the developing world, for precipitating the global financial slowdown. (Reuters/Gleb Garanich)

In other parts of the world,  May Day turned confrontational. Often, the agitation took its cue from the Occupy Wall Street movement. Elsewhere, local concerns were center stage.

In Cali, Columbia, protesters vandalize a financial institution on May Day. (Reuters/Jaime Saldarriaga)

In Cali, Columbia, protesters vandalize a financial institution on May Day. (Reuters/Jaime Saldarriaga)

May Day protestors pelted riot policemen with paint balls in central Bogota, Columbia. (Reuters/Jose Miguel Gomez)

Protesters burn an effigy of President Benigno Aquino as thousands of workers rally in Manila in the Philippines on May Day. Aquino has rejected calls for salary increases, saying they might cause inflation. (Reuters/Cheryl Ravelo)

In France, where a heated presidential race is in full swing, local concerns almost entirely eclipsed May Day, at least from some people’s point of view.

In France, the far right National Front political party held a rally on May Day not only to celebrate labor, but also to commemorate Joan of Arc Day, which the party founded in 1988 to appeal to French nationalists. (Joan of Arc was martyred on May 30, 1431.) Here, National Front leader Marine Le Pen (daughter of party founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen) speaks in front of the Joan of Arc statue in Paris. (Reuters/Charles Platiau)