This is what you did not know about Labour's Day

This is what you did not know about Labour's Day

As we settle down to a relaxing and long weekend, have you wondered how did Labour's Day even come about? Is it just something that existed in the modern day for strenuous workers to take a day off?

Did you know that a similar celebration used to exist way back during the roman times, but back then it was called May Day. May Day on May 1 is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday. it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the celebrations that the day includes.

In the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for Labours' Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. Labours' Day, also known as International Workers' Day in some places, may also be referred to as "May Day", but it is a different celebration from the traditional May Day. The history of May Day and Labours' day is intricately intertwined within the general struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

The father of Labours' Day

Who is the father of labour day?
Image courtesy of dol.gov

More than 100 years after the first Labours' Day observance, there is still some doubt as to who first proposed the holiday for workers. Some records show that Peter J. McGuire, general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and a cofounder of the American Federation of Labour, was first in suggesting a day to honor those "who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold."

But Peter McGuire's place in Labours' Day history has not gone unchallenged. Many believe that Matthew Maguire, a machinist, not Peter McGuire, founded the holiday. Recent research seems to support the contention that Matthew Maguire, later the secretary of Local 344 of the International Association of Machinists in Paterson, N.J., proposed the holiday in 1882 while serving as secretary of the Central Labour Union in New York.

The revolution

There are reports of early Labour Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada, in 1872 and in Boston in 1878. The first Labours' Day in Australia was celebrated in 1856. According to the research of Jonathan Grossman, however, the American Labour Day holiday grew out of the parade and picnic of the Central labour Union of New York City on September 5, 1882.

labour day new york 1882

On Tuesday, Sept. 5, 1882, about ten thousand workers took an unpaid day off and marched around Union Square in support of the holiday and celebrating labour’s international cause. It became an annual event that spread to other cities and states as the movement for a national labour Day grew. Over the next decade, thirty states recognized labour Day as a legal holiday so that workers would not have to lose pay in order to celebrate their achievements.

Legal limitation of the working day was an important part of labour’s achievements. Even before the Civil War, the ten-hour day movement had made significant gains. With the rise of industrial capitalism after the Civil War, the eight hour day movement began in earnest. In his chapter on “The Working Day” in Capital, Marx wrote:

Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California.

Responding to working class agitation, Congress passed an eight hour day law in 1868. Federal authorities did not enforce it, however, so labour activists such as McGuire and his friend, Samuel Gompers, realized that it would only be enforced by direct action from the workers themselves.

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In 1884, at McGuire’s urging, the national conference of the Federation of Organized Trades and labour Unions, the organizational forerunner of the American Federation of labour (AFL), passed a resolution establishing May 1, 1886, as the day on which the workers themselves would institute the eight-hour day. May Day was already a day with deep historical roots and rituals such as the May Pole dating back to the Middle Ages. It was a day when workers would make their demands. The modern May Day dates from this action by the American labour movement.

The first May Day was a huge success, According to one source, “In all, the May 1 actions involved 340,000 working people. Of these, 150,000 won shorter hours without striking; 190,000 struck, and 42,000 of the strikers improved their conditions.”

labour day observance

The largest of the May Day demonstrations was in Chicago, where 80,000 workers went on strike, with another 45,000 in New York and 32,000 in Cincinnati. One of the largest strikes was in Chicago at the McCormick Reaper Works, where Pinkerton agents and the police harassed and beat locked-out steelworkers as they picketed. On May 3, the police attacked, killing at least two workers and wounding many more. The next day, a rally was called for Haymarket Square in Chicago to support the strikers and oppose police brutality.

labour day parade

The rally itself was peaceful, attended by families with children and the Mayor of Chicago himself. But as the crowd was dispersing, the police attacked. A bomb was thrown—no one to this day knows who threw it—and police began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd, killing several civilians and wounding forty more. One officer was killed by the bomb and several more died from their own gun fire. 

The first labours' Day on May 1, 1890 was a success, with demonstrations in all the major European cities, including London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Brussels, Budapest, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Vienna, and Amsterdam, as well as in Cuba, Peru, and Chile, and in cities throughout the United States. In Chicago and New York, slogans included:

  • Abolish Wage Slavery,
  • No More Bosses—Wage Slavery Must Go.
  • The 8-hour day is the next step in the labour Movement, The Socialist CommonWealth is the Final Aim. 

Fast forward to modern times, labour Day is not just a day to celebrate the accomplishments of workers; for some people, it is also a day to talk about their concerns and to discuss ways to get better working conditions and salaries. How do you celebrate the day that acknowledges your contribution to the economy? 

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