International Workers’ Day

Posted 1 May 2021
Social Mobility and Class Rep, Cas, tells us about International Workers' Day.
Social Mobility and Class Rep, Cas, tells us about International Workers' Day.

International workers’ day, or more commonly known as May day, is the celebration of the working classes and labourers. It occurs every 1st May and results in the first Monday of May being a public holiday in many countries. It was chosen by the Marxist International Socialist Congress upon meeting in Paris in 1889 following the eight-hour workday movement in Chicago.

Eight-hour workday, or 40-hour week, was a social movement to regulate the length of the working day which can be dated back to the industrial revolution, but any proposed laws always had loopholes and promoted child labour/worker exploitation. In terms of Chicago, it began when between three hundred thousand and half a million workers conducted strikes throughout the US due to the eight-hour day with no cut in pay: with Chicago at the centre of this movement, agitation by worker’s led to the passage of the first state-wide eight-hour workday law in Illinois in 1867. The law was set to go into effect on 1st May of that year, but employers disregarded the regulation leading to the eight-hour workday strikes. Workers were exhausted by 12-18 hours of work, six days a week and demanded a workday limit of eight hours.

“Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.”

These strikes were peaceful until Police clashed with strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory. On the 3rd May the police killed one worker and injured several protesting. In response anarchist workers called a mass protest in Haymarket Square on 4th May where roughly 3000 people converged to listen to speakers. An unidentified individual threw a bomb resulting in open fire from the police which became known as the Haymarket Massacre. This open fire killed an estimated 12 people including a school student as well as a civilian feeding his livestock, although the exact number is unknown. Eight anarchists involved were charged, although some were not involved in the Haymarket Square incident. Seven were sentenced to death while the eighth was given 15 years in prison. Following this, four were executed and another committed suicide to avoid this sentence. The remaining three prisoners were later pardoned and released. The event led to the deaths of seven police officers, at least 39 civilians as well as the injury of 115 civilians and 60 police officers. In 1888, the American Federation of Labour called another general strike on 1st May 1890, to again demand an eight-hour workday. After receiving a letter from President Samuel Gompers, the Second International of the world’s Socialists meeting in Paris in 1889 backed the call, designating 1st May as a universal international workers’ day, citing the legacy of the Haymarket Massacre.

This movement is often still celebrated with many taking to the streets as a traditional protest in which workers stand in solidarity. In 2006, more than 500,000 took to the streets demanding rights for immigrants and undocumented workers in one of the largest demonstrations in Chicago’s modern history. It is thanks to these protests and movements that we have as many rights as we do and nowadays, it is estimated the average worker works 8.8 hours a day. We continue to celebrate and honour these historical days to not forget where our rights were won and to be aware of our history.

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