Labour Day - International Workers’ Day

21 Apr 2023 - Category: Blog /
laborday international

International Workers' Day, or Labor Day, is an annual international holiday celebrating the labourers and the working classes around the World. It is the occasion of important demonstrations organised by the Trade Union movement (or Labour movement).

Originally established as an annual strike day for the reduction of working hours, today, it is celebrated in many countries around the World on May 1st. In North America, it is officially celebrated on the first Monday in September. In the United Kingdom and Ireland, it is also known as May Day and is observed on the first Monday in May.

In the rest of the World, it is often (but not always) established as a legal holiday and sometimes associated with other festivities or popular traditions.

May Day is a bank holiday in the UK and coincides with International Workers' Day, also known as Labour Day. But what is it all about, and why do we have a day off?


The History of Labor Day

In the United States, during their congress of 1884, the American unions gave themselves two years to impose on the bosses a limit to the working day of eight hours. They choose to start their action on May 1st because many American companies begin their accounting year on that day, and contracts end on that day.

That is how, on May 1st, 1886, union pressure enabled approximately 200,000 workers to obtain an eight-hour day. Other workers, whose bosses had not accepted this demand, began a general strike. There were about 340,000 across the country.

On May 3rd, a demonstration killed three strikers from the McCormick Harvester company in Chicago. The next day a protest march took place, and in the evening, while the demonstration dispersed in Haymarket Square, there were only 200 demonstrators left facing as many police officers.

It was then that a bomb exploded in front of the police, killing one police officer. Seven others were killed in the fight that followed.

Following this attack, five anarchist trade unionists were sentenced to death; four were hung on Friday, November 11th, 1887 (known as Black Friday) despite the lack of evidence, the last having committed suicide in his cell. Three others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

On a stele on the Haymarket Martyrs' Monument in Forest Home Cemetery in Chicago are engraved the last words of one of the convicts, August Spies:  The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.

The Aftermath in the World :

Three years later, the Second Socialist International met in Paris for the centenary of the French Revolution and the Universal Exhibition.

On a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, they decided on July 20th, 1889, to make every May 1st a day of demonstration with the objective of reducing the working day to eight hours (i.e., 48 hours per week, Sunday alone being a holiday).

On May 1st, 1890, May Day was thus celebrated in most countries.

On May 1st, 1891, in Fourmies, in the North of France, the demonstration turned tragic: the police fired on the workers and left nine dead. With this new drama, May Day takes root in the tradition of the struggle of European workers.

In 1920, Bolshevik Russia decided that May Day would henceforth be a holiday and would become the legal holiday for workers. Its example was followed in most other countries.

In 1955, Pius XII instituted the feast of Saint Joseph the Craftsman, intended to be celebrated on May 1st of each year, to highlight Joseph's patronage of workers and craftsmen.

What is May Day?

In the UK and Ireland, May Day, or the first Monday in May, only became a bank holiday in 1978 (1994 in Ireland), but its origins as a day of celebration go back over two thousand years!

Fine, but what is May Day? Historically, it comes from the Celtic Beltane festival and the German Walpurgis Night.

It roughly falls between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, and the Celts celebrated it as the first day of summer.

With the advent of Christianity, May Day hung on as one of the few holidays not associated with religion.

In Britain, the day was marked by communities coming together to celebrate with village fetes and other gatherings.

One of the most symbolic traditions would be to erect a maypole with ribbons attached, which people and, more often, children would hold on to while dancing around it.

Local girls would compete to be named the May Queen in honour of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring.

The elected girl would wear a white dress and a crown of flowers and would be the one to walk at the front of the May Day parade.

How is Labour Day Celebrated Around the World?

Labour Day is celebrated all over the World. Like the UK, some countries have chosen to make it a holiday. However, this is not the case everywhere.


In Australia, some socialist or communist unions parade on May 1st. But Labour Day is officially commemorated on other dates:

  • ● March 4th in Western Australia.
  • ● March 11th in the state of Victoria.
  • ● May 6th in Queensland and the Northern Territory,.
  • ● October 7th in Canberra, New South Wales (Sydney), and South Australia.

South America :

Latin America (including Brazil) commemorates Labour Day with a holiday on May 1st.

In Mexico, in the state of Sinaloa, May 1st marks the summer festival with the end of the harvest of tomatoes and other agricultural products.

In Paraguay, in 2002, the head of state tried to replace May Day with the first Monday in May (in the British way). But public opinion rejected this reform. On May 1st, people continue to celebrate the worker's day, el día del trabajador. On this day, the bosses invite their employees to share an asado (a kind of barbecue).

In Colombia, Labour Day is a national public holiday, which means that most businesses and public institutions are closed for the day. The first Labor Day celebration in Colombia took place on May 1st, 1890, and was organised by the Workers' Circle of Bogotá. In recent years, there has been increased attention to the rights of informal workers, such as street vendors and domestic workers, on Labor Day.

In Brazil, Labor Day on May 1st is known as Dia do Trabalhador or Dia do Trabalho. It is a national holiday and is celebrated with parades, demonstrations, and other events organised by trade unions, political parties, and other organisations advocating for workers' rights. One of the unique traditions of Labor Day in Brazil is the tradition of Queima de Judas or Burning of Judas in Portuguese.


Labour Day began to be celebrated in 1920 during the colonial era. Banned during the Suharto regime, it is now celebrated on May 1st by the unions but is still not a public holiday.


In Germany, May 1st is referred to as Tag der Arbeit meaning Day of Work. May 1st is a public holiday in Germany, and a red carnation is often worn in the buttonhole as a sign of recognition to the militants of the Second International.


Labor Day in France is known as Fête du Travail or Fête des Travailleurs. It is a public holiday and is celebrated with parades, demonstrations, and other events organised by trade unions and political parties. One of the unique traditions of Labor Day in France is the tradition of offering lilies of the valley flowers, known as Muguet in French, to loved ones as a symbol of good luck and solidarity.


May 1st is also a holiday in Italy, and concerts are held in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome.


In Spain, the Día del Trabajador or Primero de Mayo is observed as Labor Day on May 1st. The significance of this day in Spain lies in its historical significance, symbolising the struggles and achievements of workers in their pursuit of fair labour practices and improved working conditions. It is a time for solidarity and celebration, as well as reflection on the importance of labour rights in society.


May Day, or Vappu, is celebrated as Labour Day, Student Day, and Spring Day in Finland.

On the eve of May Day, people are out partying, especially students wearing funny boilersuits. On May Day, people flock onto the streets, enjoy brunch at a restaurant or have a picnic, and it is a day to spend with friends.

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