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International Labour Day: Revisiting how century-old struggle has comtemporary relevance

International Labour Day: Labour Day or May Day is celebrated in various ways around the world. In some countries, it is an official public holiday, while in others, it is observed as a day of protest or solidarity. 

While most professionals today work for eight hours a day, very few people know how the idea of working for these many hours came into effect and the struggle behind it. This is the story of May Day, popularly known as Labour Day. While the date of observation of the day varies in different countries, most nations mark the Monday, closest to May 1 as Labour Day.

It is celebrated in many countries around the world to commemorate the contributions of workers to society. The holiday has its roots in the labour union movement, which emerged in the late 19th century in response to poor working conditions and exploitation of workers.

How International Labour Day started to be observed

There are many incidences which contributed to the Labour Day being observed on this day.
H.W. Lee’s chapter, The First of May: The International Labour Day (1900), published in the book Contemporary Thought on Nineteenth Century Socialism explains that in 1889, the first of May was declared as International Labour Day in Paris, marking a coordinated global demonstration of solidarity among the working classes. This day is celebrated universally by workers worldwide, who use it as an opportunity to send fraternal greetings to their fellow workers in all countries. The May-Day observance traditionally featured a May-pole dance, which was a central feature of the festivities. One of the London parishes is named after the May-pole, which used to tower over the steeple of its church in the past.
According to Lee, since its formation, the First of May Celebration Committee has consistently and persistently promoted the socialist principles that form the foundation of Labour Day celebrations. As a class that depends on the sale of their labour power to capitalists, workers have no interest in the promotion of wars between nations. This has been a key tenet of the Labor Day movement since its inception.

The origins of Labour Day can also be traced back to the Haymarket Riot, which occurred in Chicago in 1886. The riot was a result of the labour union’s demand for an eight-hour workday, which was not yet an established norm at the time. On May 1, 1886, tens of thousands of workers across the United States went on strike, demanding an eight-hour workday and better working conditions. The protests continued for several days until May 4, when a bomb was thrown at police officers during a rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The incident led to a violent clash between the police and the protesters, resulting in several deaths.
Following the Haymarket Riot, labour unions and socialist parties around the world began commemorating May 1 as a day to honour the labour movement and workers’ rights. The first official celebration of May Day as a holiday took place in 1890, and it has since become a global phenomenon.

History of the eight-hour workday

The concept of the eight-hour workday has its roots in the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this period, many factory workers toiled for long hours in harsh conditions, often working 12-16 hours a day. The labour movement emerged in response to these conditions, with workers organizing to demand better working conditions, fair wages, and shorter workdays.

One of the most significant victories of the labour movement was the establishment of the eight-hour workday. The movement for an eight-hour workday gained traction in the late 19th century, after the Haymarket Riots. In 1868, the first legislation regarding the eight-hour workday was passed in the United States, but it was not enforced. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a national eight-hour workday and a 40-hour workweek in the United States. The legislation mandated that employers pay overtime for any hours worked beyond 40 hours per week, with the working week being of 5 days.

How the eight-hour workday changed lives of workers

The implementation of the eight-hour workday had a profound impact on workers’ lives. It gave them more time for leisure, rest, and family, which was crucial for their physical and mental health. It also allowed workers to participate in civic activities, such as voting and community organizing, which helped strengthen democracy.

Moreover, the eight-hour workday led to improvements in workers’ productivity and quality of work. Studies have shown that workers who work longer hours are more prone to errors, accidents, and burnout. By giving workers more time for rest and leisure, employers can improve their employee’s overall well-being and work performance.

Labour Day or May Day is celebrated in various ways around the world. In some countries, it is an official public holiday, while in others, it is observed as a day of protest or solidarity. The legacy of the eight-hour workday continues to shape the modern workplace, and it remains a vital pillar of workers’ rights today.

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