Today (May 1) is May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day and as Labour Day in different parts of the world. It is an occasion that commemorates the contributions of workers and the historic labour movement.
While observed as an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival, May 1 became associated with the labour movement in the late 19th century, after trade unions and socialist groups designated it as a day in support of workers.
It was decided to do so in memory of the Haymarket affair of 1886, in Chicago in the United States, in which a peaceful rally in support of workers led to a violent clash with the police, leading to the deaths of 4 civilians and 7 police officers.
Many of the agitationists, who were protesting workers’ rights violations, straining work hours, poor working conditions, low wages and child labour, were arrested and served terms of life imprisonment, death sentences, etc., and those who died were hailed as “Haymarket Martyrs”. The incident is believed to have given the workers’ movement a great impetus.
The US recognised Labor Day as a federal holiday in 1894, where it continues to be celebrated every year on the first Monday of September. Soon, Canada also adopted the practice.
In 1889, The Second International, an organisation created by socialist and labour parties, declared that May 1 would be commemorated as International Workers’ Day from then on.
Finally in 1916, the US began to recognise eight-hour work timings after years of protests and uprisings.
In 1904, the International Socialist Congress at Amsterdam called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace,” and made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”
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After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the celebration was embraced by the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc nations during the Cold War– becoming a national holiday in many of them. Parades were a part of the celebration– the one at Moscow’s Red Square was attended by top Communists leaders, and displayed Soviet military might.
In India, May Day was first celebrated on May 1, 1923, after the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan initiated and Comrade Singaravelar (Singaravelu Chettiar) helmed the celebrations. In two meetings — one at Triplicane beach and the second at the beach opposite Madras High Court — the Comrade, known for being one of the leaders of Self Respect movement in the Madras Presidency and for his fight for the rights of backward classes, passed a resolution stating the government should allow everybody a national holiday on Labour Day.
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