Why Labour Day Is Celebrated On May 1st

Labour Day, or International Workers Day as it is known in some countries, is celebrated annually on May 1st to honour the achievements of workers and labourers. In modern times, many of us treat it as just another holiday – forgetting our predecessors fought hard, and sometimes lost their lives, so that we may enjoy better working conditions and rights today.

Image via needpix.com

Labour Day traces its origins to the late 19th century and the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The boom of the manufacturing industry, coupled with a lack of laws to protect employees, meant that the average American worker often worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week – sometimes in extremely unsafe or unsanitary environments – just to earn a basic living. Children were also exploited, as were the poor and immigrants. Over time, labour unions formed and began organising strikes and rallies to negotiate better hours, pay and working conditions.

A group of factory workers circa 1890. H.Armstrong Roberts / Classics Stock / Getty Images

1 May is significant as it commemorates the Haymarket affair of 1886, which began as a peaceful rally for workers striking for an eight-hour workday. The movement was massive and involved close to half a million workers all over the country, with the one in Chicago involving some 30,000 workers. Protests and demonstrations were held all across the city. The situation soon got out of hand when a group of workers on strike rushed barriers to confront strikebreakers (people who work despite a strike), and police guarding them fired into the crowd, killing two people. The next day, rallies resumed, and an unknown anarchist threw a dynamite bomb at members of the police force as they were attempting to disperse the meeting. The resulting gunfire saw seven police officers and four civilians dead, and dozens injured.

The event sparked an uproar not just in the States, but also made international headlines. Eight people were arrested on charges of anarchy, six of whom were German immigrants, which sparked widespread fear among the American public and general anti-immigrant sentiment. Four were hanged; another committed suicide in his jail cell while the rest were sentenced to prison. The deaths elevated the men to martyrdom, spawning even more protests across the world.

An 1886 engraving of the Haymarket Affair. – Image via public domain 

In retrospect, the trial was widely believed to have used the men and their status as immigrants as easy scapegoats, and that there was never any substantial evidence against them for the bomb-throwing – the actual culprit has never been found. 7 years later, the Illinois Governor would sign pardons for some of the men, and acknowledged that the failure to hold the police and guards responsible for their repeated use of lethal violence against striking workers as the spark that lit the fuse and led to such a tragic outcome.

The men’s deaths were not in vain, as in the face of such injustice and violence, it only served to stiffen the resolve of unions and workers’ associations all the more. Four years later, in 1889, a meeting was held to call for international demonstrations on the anniversary of the Chicago protests, to be held on May Day, and in 1904, there was finally a call from the International Socialist Congress to make it “mandatory upon the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on 1 May.” Companies would eventually start adopting better practices, but it wasn’t until 40 years later, in 1926, that Henry Ford finally mandated an eight hour, five day work week for workers, which forms the foundation of how we work today.

Today, Labour Day is observed on May 1 in most countries around the world, except (ironically) in the United States (and Canada), where it is celebrated in September, to distance itself from the Haymarket incident. It remains a prominent day for workers, and demonstrations are often held every year in some countries to voice demands for better pay or policies to help workers.

In this difficult time, I think it is even more imperative to honour the sacrifices that workers make, especially our front liners, in order to keep businesses running and provide essential services to the people. This one’s for all the healthcare professionals, the construction workers who build our homes and soaring skyscrapers, the postal service workers and delivery guys who get our parcels and food delivered to our homes, and everyone else who works and contributes to society in a meaningful way. No job is lesser than another – this day is for you.

Happy Labour Day!



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