Why Do So Many Countries Celebrate Labour Day in May?

By Nova BarelaLast Updated May 1, 2021 3:42:09 PM ET
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For most of the world outside of the United States, Labour Day — a slightly different spelling than we’re accustomed to in the U.S. — takes place on May 1 every year, not during the first weekend of September. Some other countries also call it May Day or International Workers' Day, but the celebration commemorates the same concept. Every May 1, people around the world celebrate with political demonstrations, often organized by labor unions and socialist groups, to honor the working class and the struggles they’ve undergone to achieve today's labor rights and push for improvements in workers' rights. But how did the holiday get its start, and what’s the significance of May? As it turns out, Labour Day is multifaceted in meaning and represents some vital history.

The Early Days of Workers’ Rights in Australia Inspired the Holiday

Before the 19th century, nothing that we’d think of today as workers' rights actually existed. Toiling for a grueling 14 or even 16 hours a day was the norm. It wasn't until the early 1830s that the first labor unions were formed in Australia. These were associations of skilled laborers: shearers, stonemasons, cabinet-makers, shipwrights and plasterers. Much like today, wealthy employers and the government were against early labor unions.

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However, these groups still fought for better working conditions by striking and demanding shorter working hours for each day. In 1844, they initiated the Early Closing Movement, in which they fought to reduce the length of the workday from 14 to 12 hours.

It was, in part, the circumstances in Australia at the time that helped with labor unions' early success. In the late 1700s, Australia’s workforce was primarily made up of convict laborers arriving from England. By 1840, transportation of convicts to the New South Wales colony came to a halt, and by 1847, the Anti-Transportation League — a group that was against the relocation of convicted criminals from Britain to the Australian colony — had formed. Just a few years later in 1852, they successfully ended convict transportation to Australia's east coast.

With no new forced laborers arriving, and with other residents venturing to North America to participate in the gold rushes there, the New South Wales colony faced labor shortages throughout the 1850s. Additionally, many laborers left to work in Australia’s own then-recently opened goldfields. This demand for labor gave workers and unions more bargaining advantage as they fought for shorter hours and better working conditions.

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On April 21, 1856, Melbourne stonemasons walked off their jobs and went on strike after their employers refused to listen to their demands for fewer working hours each day. The employers had no choice but to negotiate, eventually leading to an agreement. The stonemasons achieved what they were fighting for: an eight-hour-maximum workday.

The Haymarket Affair in Chicago Built More Momentum

Despite the victories of the stonemasons in Melbourne, the struggle for workers' rights continued around the world for many years. In the 19th century, working conditions in the United States were so horrific that writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London wrote novels bringing attention to the abysmal working conditions of laborers. It was not uncommon that they worked up to 16 hours a day in unsafe conditions.

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While workers began to put up a fight for shorter working hours by the 1860s, it wasn't until two decades later that labor unions began specifically demanding an eight-hour workday. Their employers wouldn’t budge, so laborers took it upon themselves to make the change. May 1, 1886, was the day the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions decided the eight-hour workday would go into effect and become the standard for all laborers.

By way of union organizing, a general strike involving hundreds of thousands of laborers rallied and protested across the U.S. In Chicago alone, as many as 40,000 workers took to the streets, walking out on their jobs to join marches. While most of the protesting was peaceful, by May 3, violence had begun to erupt when some workers surrounded strikebreakers trying to leave a factory. This led police to fire shots into the crowd, killing several people.

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Labor activists and union workers held a rally in Haymarket Square on May 4 to express their outrage. Again, the demonstration began peacefully but later escalated to violence while a British socialist named Samuel Fielden was speaking. As police tried to break up the crowd, someone lobbed a homemade bomb at them. One officer died immediately, and six others were mortally wounded. Gunfire between police and demonstrators ensued.

Multiple police officers and demonstrators died as a result of what became known as the Haymarket Affair or Haymarket Riot. An additional 60 police officers were hurt, along with dozens of demonstrators. The official number of demonstrators wounded is unknown, as many forewent medical treatment in fear of being arrested afterward for their participation in the riot.

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How Did Labour Day Become an Official Holiday?

May 1 became the official International Workers' Day in 1889 during the first International Socialist Congress in Paris. Three years after the Haymarket Affair, this day was chosen in remembrance of the event between striking workers and police in Chicago.

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As a result of violent protests continuing in subsequent years throughout the United States, the International Socialist Congress of 1904 declared that May Day would no longer be a workday. The group called on all trade unions and Social-Democratic Party organizations to demonstrate on May 1 until a maximum eight-hour workday became law.

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This limit didn't officially come into practice for many workers until 1938, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, requiring those who worked more than 40 hours per week to be paid overtime wages. It also established a minimum wage, youth employment standards and recordkeeping.

Workers' rights have never ceased to be a global issue, and workers’ voices will always deserve dignity. To reflect both workers’ progress and the continued need to fight for standards and fairness, much of the world still recognizes International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, on May 1.

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Why Does the United States Celebrate Labor Day in September?

May 1 became the official date to commemorate workers internationally because that date honored a far-reaching strike that took place in the United States. Therefore, it may seem strange that the U.S. doesn't celebrate its Labor Day on May 1, instead marking it on the first Monday in September. But, there’s a reason for this.

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Despite spurring progress for workers, the Haymarket Affair was difficult for many Americans to process because of the violent ways police officers handled the events that May. To complicate things further, public trials of eight "anarchist activists" followed the riot, and they were found guilty of murdering the police officer who died immediately when the bomb was thrown into the crowd that day. The judge sentenced seven of them to death, and one was given 15 years in jail. However, their supposed involvement in the bombing was never proven, thus making the Haymarket Affair a contentious event for Americans to memorialize.

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As such, May 1 wasn’t seen as a time of celebration for many people in the U.S. even before it became the official international Labour Day. To try to minimize the chances of glorifying violence that happened during the Haymarket Affair, and to prevent further violence or sympathy with socialism, President Grover Cleveland established Labor Day in the United States as the first weekend in September in 1894.

Still, demonstrations continue to occur on May Day in the U.S., and countries around the world mark the occasion with a public holiday. Whether a country calls it Labour Day, Workers’ Day or another name, its purpose remains the same: to uplift workers, recognize their struggle and celebrate labor movements that strove tirelessly to secure basic human rights.

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