Day of the Worker: the evolution of a historic celebration

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Every May Day much of the world celebrates a day of vindication of the social and labour rights of workers. But what were the events that gave rise to this celebration and how has it changed throughout history?

Origin of 1 May

At the end of the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, workers were constantly struggling to improve their rights. The appalling conditions faced by the workers, especially in certain industries such as steel or textiles, were dangerously close to slavery. It was quite common to work between 12 and 16 hours a day and the accident rate was so high that death and serious injuries were commonplace in many companies.

The main demand of the working class was the shortening of the working day without this implying a reduction of their salary. At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Trade Unions and Organised Trades (which would later become the American Federation of Labour), proclaimed, “Eight hours will constitute a legal working day as of 1 May, 1886”. The following year, they reiterated their proclamation declaring there would be support in the form of strikes and demonstrations, since many businessmen still failed to consent to this improvement in working conditions.

Thus, in 1886, more than 300,000 workers across the United States exercised their right to strike at the first 1 May celebration in history. In Chicago, the second largest city in the USA in terms of population and the epicentre of the workers’ struggle, the day was massively followed.

Faced with the employers’ refusal to negotiate and in an increasingly bitter climate, on 3 May, violence erupted outside the McCormick agricultural machinery factory, the only one still working in the city. The police responded to the demonstrators’ throwing of stones with indiscriminate shooting. At least two workers were killed and many were arrested or injured.

Some of the leaders of the revolt, with the journalist and anarchist militant August Spies at the forefront, called a public meeting for the next day in Haymarket Square to protest against the police brutality. When Spies’s speech ended, while the police were dispersing the already diminished crowd, a bomb of unknown origin was thrown at the agents. The shots against the crowd came immediately. The exact number of civilians killed or injured was never determined. It is known that seven policemen lost their lives, some from their own colleagues’ shooting.

Of the dozens of protesters arrested, eight were found guilty of the bombing, although nothing could be proved against them. Three were sentenced to life imprisonment and forced labour and five to death. On November 11, 1887, after many failed appeals, Albert Parsons, Johann Most, George Engel and August Spies were hung from the gallows. Louis Lingg committed suicide in his cell the night before.

Since then, the five have been known as the Chicago Martyrs and it is in their memory that this historic day was first celebrated. The Second Socialist International, meeting in Paris in 1889, declared that 1 May would be an international holiday for workers, a day of protest for eight hours of work and universal peace. It was the most logical way to keep alive the memory of the Haymarket revolt and to honour the struggle of its victims.

History of 1 May

The historical evolution of the first of May is very different and has been subject to each country’s political and social changes. Generally, in the first years after its proclamation there were clashes between protesters and police, such as those that occurred in Paris in 1891 and 1906, which resulted in nine deaths and 600 detainees among those demanding the reduction of working hours.

Gradually, the date was established as an international holiday. In 1919 the famous strike of La Canadiense took place in Barcelona, ​​a success of the workers’ movement that achieved the approval of the Decree of the eight-hour working day throughout the Spanish state. Thus, Spain became the first European country to enact this historic claim.

With the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and later that of Franco, the demonstrations of 1 May were first banned and later turned into a display in which groups of workers did gymnastic exercises in front of the caudillo. This was until the arrival of democracy, and the establishment of 1 May as the Day of the Worker from 1977.

The date has had a special significance in many countries. During the second half of the 20th century, the socialist nations of Europe and Asia turned May Day into a day of great popular demonstrations and military parades. In the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and China, the official celebrations were a demonstration of strength of the communist regimes.

In countries such as Turkey, terrible moments have been experienced, such as those of 1977, when the Taksim Square massacre took place on 1 May in which 36 protesters were killed by unidentified shooters.

Ironically, in the US, where the celebration originated, 1 May is not a holiday. Here they celebrate Labour Day on the first Monday of September, although in recent years different groups have continued to use the symbolic date for their demands. In 2006, for example, the Day Without Immigrants was held, a strike in which more than one million people participated, mostly legal and illegal Hispanic immigrants, in protest against the toughening of the immigration law.

Today, 1 May has multiple meanings, although in general terms it is the day when unions and workers demand improvements in their working conditions. For some it is still a day of vindication of their rights. For others, it is a holiday in which to enjoy leisure or to welcome in the spring, as in England.

In any case, it is clear that history has much to teach us yet. That is why it is important to remember the Chicago Martyrs and all the people who suffered reprisals for claiming the rights we enjoy today.

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