Written by Victoria Meddings

What is International Workers’ Day?

This past Sunday saw the celebration of International Workers’ Day, often known as Labour Day, or sometimes May Day, and is an International Day of Celebration to celebrate labourers and the working classes. It is promoted by the “International Labour Movement” and occurs on 1st May every year. The date was chosen in 1889, for political reasons, by the “Marxist International Socialist Congress” when they met in Paris; the date was chosen as a mark of remembrance for a series of national strikes in America, starting on 1st May, including the Haymarket Affair on 4th May 1886. 

The Marxist International Socialist Congress established the “Second International” as a successor to the original “International Workingmen’s Association”. Initially the cause was to demonstrate support of the working classes and their eight-hour day. Since 1904, all Social Democratic Parties and trade unions have encouraged their supporters to demonstrate on 1st May in support of worker’s rights and universal peace. Today, most people do not demonstrate; instead, there are parades or marches and public holidays to commemorate the date. Since 1890 May Day demonstrations have occurred in America, most of Europe, Chile and Peru; the event was formally recognised as an annual event in 1891.

In America and Canada, the day is known as Labour Day and is a public holiday that takes place in September; the date celebrated in America was first proposed in the 1880s. There is a lot of controversy as to who decided to celebrate Labour Day, however, most believe that Matthew Maguire first proposed a Labour Day celebration on the first Monday of September whilst serving as secretary of the Central Labour Union in New York; others believe that Peter J. McGuire, of the American Federation of Labour, proposed the idea, after visiting the annual labour festival in Toronto, Canada. In 1887 Oregon became the first US state to make Labour Day an official public holiday.

The Haymarket Affair and International Workers Day

On 4th May 1886, another general strike took place in Chicago, protesting for workers’ rights and the eight-hour day. Police were present to calmly disperse the crowd in support of the strike when an unidentified person threw a bomb into the crowd. In response, the police opened fire on the crowd in an attempt to detain the bomber. As a result of the bombing, seven police officers and four to eight civilians died, while sixty police officers and a hundred and fifteen civilians were injured in the chaos. 

After the bombing, many blamed the working classes and “sympathisers” for what had happened, with many being rounded-up, and four being executed by hanging. This was after they were all put on trial, which was later considered a grave miscarriage of justice. On 5th May in Wisconsin, another general strike was fired upon by the state militia, killing seven people. Among the dead were a schoolboy and a man feeding his chickens in his yard; neither were taking part in the strike. 

At the 1889 meeting of the first congress of the Second International, a proposal by Raymond Lavigne called for all international demonstrations to occur on the anniversary of the Haymarket Affair in 1890; this is why most countries commemorate International Workers Day on 1st May, to mark the start of these protests.

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