How Vienna Does Labor Day (And We Should Too!)

In the U.S., May 1st is the first day of May—and that’s all it is. In fact, if you polled Americans, I would bet that a very small minority would have any idea what May 1st means in the rest of the world. Labor Day in the U.S. is safely quarantined in September, where it can in no way join with labor movements elsewhere to create any kind of actual advocacy, and is associated primarily with barbecues (family over solidarity) and end-of-season-sales (everybody in service industries works on Labor Day).

Vienna, however, is a socialist city in a country with a long history of socialism (as well as fascism, of course, which only makes the resonance of socialism stronger) on a continent with an endemic tradition of socialist activism. If you think anyone expects to go shopping here on May Day, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day, otherwise known as the true Labor Day, you can think again. Everything is closed, everything is red for the day, and the public presence of the SPÖ, otherwise known as the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, otherwise known as the Austrian Social Democratic Party, is ascendant.

Invited by friends who are party members and functionaries, I successfully infiltrated the annual massive May Day parade and waved a flag, carried a balloon, and shared a cheese-filled sausage, all in the name of international labor rights. Below is my photojournal.

The first thing to know is that Vienna is structured by its districts — 23 of them. On May Day, all of the districts gather and march, loosely organized under sectional banners, toward the Ringstrasse, which circles the city center and along which one finds the major structures of government. Eventually the parade passes by the Parliament (not to mention the former Habsburg court and even the Opera) on its way to its final destination, the Rathaus, or town hall, where the Mayor and other government functionaries await on a viewing stand.

Here, our particular troop is under way as representatives of the 5th district, called Margareten (full disclosure: none of us actually lives in the 5th, but one of our party is a High Ranking Official in the SPÖ for the 5th, so in the name of Solidarity, we were all Margaretens for a day).

My people: Section 19 from the 5th district, Margareten. Bunt statt Braun = Color not Brown (brown being the color of fascism, i.e. brownshirts).
My people: Section 19 from the 5th district, Margareten. Bunt statt Braun = Color not Brown (brown being the color of fascism, i.e. brownshirts).

Our route led through the crowded streets of the 5th, eventually passing by the Naschmarkt, or giant food market.

Allow me to present my comrades, who include professional employees of the SPÖ, as well as folks who have been out all night partying (I name no names).

 

Red is a jolly color for happy workers.
Red is a jolly color for happy workers.

 

In general, as we headed toward the Wienzeile (nice scenic route we had), there was a celebratory air, fueled in part by the first “pause,” a stop at a little bar that, in solidarity, fortified the marchers with a spread of free bread, meats, sweets, and, of course, the worker’s elixir, vodka.

 

Speaking of solidarity, along the way one sees its signs (literally):

From the windows spectators watch, occasionally with banners.
From the windows spectators watch, occasionally with banners.

Eventually, we arrive at the Ring, and hang a left at the historic Opera.

Freedom. Equality. Justice. Solidarity.
Freedom. Equality. Justice. Solidarity.

As we march along, we pass other districts waiting to make the turn onto the Ring:

At the Ring, the different districts wait at the end of the feeder streets they marched in on, waiting their turn to join the massive procession making its way toward the Rathaus. Here, "No More Privatization!" Drumming passes the time.
At the Ring, the different districts stop at the end of the feeder streets they marched in on, waiting their turn to join the massive procession making its way toward the Rathaus. Here, “No More Privatization!” Exuberant drumming passes the time.

Each group has its own drummers and musicians, and cultivates a distinct identity:

The banner says they fight for Vienna, and for justice. Behind it, Capoeira dudes go like crazy.
The banner says they work for Vienna, and fight for justice. Behind it, Capoeira dudes go like crazy.

I got a huge kick out of this unconventional juxtaposition:

Traditional brass band with dirndl-wearing women marches happily along in front of the "Adoption Rights for Homosexuals!" banner. Love it.
Traditional uniformed brass band with dirndl-wearing women marches happily along in front of the “Adoption Rights for Homosexuals!” banner. Love it.

As we go, we pass many of Vienna’s public landmarks, including the Parliament:

In front, Wien's red W, with an invitation for the Nazis to get out of Parliament. In the background, Parliament.
In front, Wien’s red W, with an invitation for the Nazis to get out of Parliament. In the background, Parliament.

Eventually — so very eventually — we arrive at the Rathaus simultaneous with the districts coming in the opposite direction (the Ring is a circle, after all). We alternate turning into the Rathausplatz, where a giant crowd cheers from behind barricades, and the mayor awaits on a viewing stand:

Eventually we arrived at the Rathaus (the town hall), where a giant crowd stood cheering. "We fight for a just Austria!"
The crowd in front of the Rathaus (the town hall). The sign reads, “We fight for a just Austria!”

The view from behind our banner:

A marcher's view of the Rathausplatz.
A marcher’s view of the Rathausplatz.

I have to say, I love this picture. Thanks to whoever handed me a flag just in time:

No one could have suspected that this jolly SPÖ flag-waver is in fact a capitalist American under cover. Disguise courtesy of my 10-euro "designer" sunglasses.
No one could have suspected that this jolly SPÖ flag-waver is in fact a capitalist American under cover. Disguise courtesy of my 10-euro “designer” sunglasses.

After passing through the Rathausplatz we were disgorged back onto the Ring, where we had the opportunity to view a few of the districts still waiting to make their way in. Like these guys:

Alsergrund is the 9th district, here arriving at the Rathaus.
Alsergrund is the 9th district, here arriving at the Rathaus with a truly quality banner.

Or my favorites, these guys:

These two horses stood very quietly in line—directly in front of the Guys on Bikes. They waited their turn, and then very pleasantly walked up and made the turn into the mad crowd at the Rathaus, with the motorcycle contingent revving and honking right behind them, and the crowd going nuts. Amazing.
These two horses stood very quietly in line—directly in front of a swarm of motorcyclists (pictured next). They waited their turn, and then smoothly walked up and made the turn into the mad crowd at the Rathaus, with the motorcycle contingent revving and honking right behind them, and the crowd going nuts. Amazing. I would have taken either one of them home in a heartbeat.

Directly behind them, this contingent:

They belong to no district. They are free men, riding their bikes for a free society, freely revving their engines and tooting their horns.
They belong to no district. They are free men, riding their bikes for a free society, freely revving their engines and tooting their horns. In freedom.

Yikes. And it wouldn’t be Vienna if wine did not make a significant appearance:

This is the Heurigen Express, the faux train that takes tourists up to the wineries in the hills above town, and brings their drunk asses back down again. If they only knew that it is a front for the radical socialist politics of the 19th district!
This is the Heurigen Express, the faux train that takes tourists up to the wineries in the hills above town, and rolls their drunk asses back down again. If they only knew that it is a front for the radical socialist politics of (I think) the 19th district!

After you leave the Rathausplatz, directly across the Ring is the “Red Market,” that is, a pop-up outdoor cafe for drinking giant quantities of beer and wine — and liberally populated by firefighters, who are a prominent presence at May Day festivities:

Because firefighters have for over a century been a bastion of leftist politics and workers' rights, they are very publicly represented at all May Day festivities. Later, in the Prater, a large contingent showed off several firetrucks and firefighting equipment to enthralled children. Start 'em young, guys!
Because firefighters have for over a century been a bastion of leftist, anti-fascist politics and workers’ rights, they are very publicly represented at all May Day festivities. Later, in the Prater, a large contingent showed off several firetrucks and firefighting equipment to enthralled children. Start ‘em young, guys!

Later in the day, the festivities move over to the Prater, Vienna’s giant public park, where there is music, food, more drinks, and balloons for the kids:

After the parade, all of Vienna goes to the Prater, where there is live music, food, plenty of beer....
After the parade, all of Vienna goes to the Prater, where there is live music, food, plenty of beer….

 

...and BALLOONS! Because nothing inculcates a new generation into radical politics like a bright red helium balloon.
…and BALLOONS! Because nothing inculcates a new generation into radical politics like a bright red helium balloon.

May Day. It’s my kind of holiday.

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3 Responses to How Vienna Does Labor Day (And We Should Too!)

  1. Judi says:

    But even if shops are closed, so many people are working! Selling food, drinks, and filling helium balloons. Even the Mayor is “at work?”

    • Lisa says:

      The funny thing is that I knew you were going to make this comment! But actually, I wouldn’t be so sure about your conclusion here. Of course, in a modern society there are always a few people working; there were ambulances out and about, for instance, and the police as well. Still, the stands seemed to be staffed by party volunteers, not workers; it’s different to volunteer to help out than to have to go make a financial decision that you’re so desperate you’re willing to work on a holiday. And there were relatively few stands for the size of the gatherings — nothing like you would find in the US surrounding a holiday parade, in any way shape or form. You’ve never seen an American city’s businesses shut down like this place does on May Day, considering how many people are out and about. It’s pretty striking in comparison to our sad excuse for Labor Day.

  2. Sabine says:

    …even creepier than fascism is the fact that it was called National Socialism, which does indeed make the socialism more urgent. Go rotes Wien! Labor is differently conceived in the US, isn’t it?

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