Labor Day – Why is it celebrated on May 1?

We explain what Labor Day is, why it is commemorated on May 1 and what were the events that occurred in May 1886.

Labor Day
Labor Day commemorates the fight for the 8-hour workday.

What is Labor Day?

It is known as International Labor Day, International Workers’ Day or May Day to a International public holiday, which commemorates the struggle of the labor movement world in favor of better living and working conditions. It is celebrated every year on May 1st.

Labor Day is a national holiday in most of the countries of the world, much used by protest movements and labor organizations to carry out demonstrations, rallies and other protest events.

Its establishment in the calendar took place in 1889, during the Socialist Workers’ Congress of the Second International, which was held in Paris at the time. It was chosen that day had as its purpose pay tribute to the “Chicago Martyrs” of the Haymarket Revolt of 1886.

Although this commemoration is common in many countries of the world, in others of Anglo-Saxon tradition, it is chosen instead to celebrate the Laboy Day (“Labor Day”) on the first Monday in September of each year, since the end of the 19th century.

The reason for this different date is that the US president at the time, Grover Cleveland, feared that assuming May 1 as the date would give more influence to the international communist and anarchist movements in his country. In these countries the commemoration of May 1 is known as May Day (“May Day”).

History of Labor Day

To tell the story of Labor Day, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the United States was a country in full and frenzied industrialization. Chicago was the second most populous city in the country and exerted a continuing attraction on unemployed ranchers and immigrants from other countries, seeking to integrate into the newly created working class.

At the time, the workers fulfilled exhausting days of 12 to 18 hours of work, who not only consumed most of their day, but left little time for other types of activities, even for rest. There that from 1829 the labor movements began the struggle for a new day, more humane: eight hours of work, eight hours of rest and eight hours of leisure.

In some laws, there was already a ban on 18-hour workdays, “except in cases of necessity,” which fined any employer who forced their employees to work such a shift with 25 dollars.

In fact, under pressure from the American Federation of Labor, of anarchist or socialist origins, many of the US provincial governments implemented maximum working hours of between 8 and 10 hours, but always leaving clauses of exceptionality that allowed their increase to 14 and 18 hours. This was due to the Ingersoll Act enacted by President Andrew Jackson.

Considering their expectations and demands mocked, about 200,000 workers went on strike, on Saturday, May 1, 1886. The protests continued on May 2 and 3, especially in Chicago, a city where the availability of labor meant that workers were subjected to even worse working conditions.

In this context, the Helmans agricultural machinery factory was the only one in operation in the city. He did this by hiring scabs to replace his traditional workers, who had been on strike since February, in opposition to the employer’s decision to subtract the cost of building a church from their wages.

The fight between strikebreakers and protesters was immediate, and on May 2 the police violently interrupted the strike, murdering 6 and wounding dozens.

But the protests continued, and on May 4, 1886, they were centralized in Haymarket Square in Chicago. Around 20,000 people were in the square, in which an act of protest took place between 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. But in view of the fact that at the end of that hour the protesters did not disperse on their own account, 180 police officers decided to attack them.

Then, one of the protesters threw an explosive device at the police, killing one of the officers, which was responded to by the police with fire at their discretion.

The exact number of murdered by the police is unknown until today, to which are added those detained, beaten, tortured and accused of murder, in a trial years later described as illegitimate and malicious, in which three workers were sentenced to prison and another five to death. The sentences were carried out in November 1887.

The eight-hour workday was finally achieved in 1886, thanks to the massive organization of labor activists and trade unions. This marked a before and after in the history of the labor movement, and that is why in 1889 the day of the start of the protests was consecrated as International Workers’ Day.