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Peaceful picnics, labor clashes mark May Day

In this story: May 1, 1997
Web posted at: 2:46 p.m. EDT (1846 GMT)

(CNN) -- Much of the world recognizes May 1 as International Labor Day, a day for unions to push for better workplaces and for pro-labor governments to push for greater political power. This year, May Day gatherings ranged from violent clashes between rightist and leftist groups to a simple holiday celebration.


Record high unemployment was the focus for German labor unions, which staged dozens of rallies, especially in the eastern part of the country. Unemployment was 11.7 percent for the country in March, but 18.1 percent in the eastern states.

Lepen supporter

Also in eastern Germany, thousands of police were deployed to thwart clashes between radical rightist and leftist groups. Around 150 left-wing extremists in Leipzig hurled rocks and fireworks at police, who were trying to keep them apart from a small group of skinheads defying a ban on National Democratic Party of Germany rallies.

In France, some 5,000 National Front loyalists turned out for far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen's traditional May Day parade. The march through downtown Paris honors Joan of Arc, who drove the English out of France; this year it was broadened into a campaign for Front candidates in upcoming National Assembly elections. Leftist trade unions planned a march later in the day.

Poland's former Communist party, the Social Democrat party, joined 2,000 other leftist group members in the traditional May Day parade through Warsaw. But in another former Eastern bloc country, Yugoslavia, citizens rallied against President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, calling for "peace, bread and democracy."

Russia and former Soviet republics

When Russia was the Soviet Union, May 1 was the Day of Workers' Solidarity, a major date marked by huge processions of workers on Red Square. In the post-Soviet era, the date has evolved into more of a holiday -- still a tribute to workers, but with more domestic concerns like better wages, better working conditions and a better economy.

Turnout for rallies in Moscow was moderate by Russian standards and mostly made up of elderly die-hard Communists; many other Russians heeded President Boris Yeltsin's call to use the holiday to forget their problems for a few days. He suggested in his Thursday radio address that they go to the country and dig up their gardens.

Rallies held in the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Ukraine were also mostly made up of elderly people nostalgic for the Soviet past. Several hundred elderly Kazakhs gathered at a demonstration sponsored by the Workers' Movement group, where speakers denounced privatization of national industry.

At a similar rally in Kiev, about 4,000 mostly elderly Ukrainians protested the government's Western-oriented economic and international policies. The Ukrainian government owes pensioners and workers the equivalent of more than $1.5 billion in back pay.


In a region where communism still flourishes alongside some of the world's fastest growing capitalist economies, Asians marked May Day with everything from praise for proletarian heroes and union-sponsored picnics to a clash with police.

In China, crowds filled Beijing's Tiananmen Square at dawn to honor model workers and watch the daily flag raising. But there were no parades or rallies -- an indication of the reach of capitalist reforms and the party's fears that gatherings could degenerate into protests.

The traditional trappings of leftist labor demonstrations were evident in the Philippines, where the labor federation, the May One Movement, drew 10,000 people to a march on the presidential palace in Manila. The federation wants a 54 percent raise in the daily minimum wage to 285 pesos ($10.90).


More than 50,000 union workers belonging to the umbrella National Labor Congress waved Thai flags as they paraded to the field in front of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. Thai labor groups also want a raise in the minimum wage, 12 percent to 177 baht ($7.08) a day. Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, addressing the rally, promised government help in easing workers' hardships.

In Japan, some 2 million people attended rallies at about 1,000 locations, according to union estimates. Japan's workers are some of the world's highest paid, but they also put up with high housing and living expenses.


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