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What is and why do we celebrate International Workers’ Day?

Do you know how much International Workers' Day has impacted your working hours and rights?


Today is International Workers’ Day; a day that is celebrated across the world (sometimes referred to as Workers’ Day, Labour Day or May Day). The origins of the day came from the Haymarket affair – a bombing that happened in Chicago on 4th May 1886, whilst there was a labour demonstration.

Celebrating International Workers’ Day became a tradition during the 19th century, when trade unions were on the rise and people started fighting for their working rights. Nowadays, workers have many unions that they can join and are entitled to many more rights than ever before. However, this wasn’t always the case and people had to fight for their rights.

History of the Haymarket affair

In 1884, the Federation of Organised Trades and Labor Union (later becoming known as the American Federation of Labor) announced that as of the 1st May 1886 “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor”. 

On 1st May 1886, all across the United States over 300,000 workers walked out of their jobs as the first May Day celebration. More workers engaged in the strikes, with almost 100,000 in Chicago walking out of their jobs – these protests still remained peaceful.

Two days later, on 3rd May 1886, violence broke out between the police and workers at the McCormick Reaper Works. For six months prior, armed Pinkerton agents and the police harassed steelworkers as they picketed. Near the McCormick plant during a speech, 200 protesters joined the steelworkers on the picket line, where they retaliated to the police, who were beating them with clubs, by throwing rocks at the police. The police then started shooting the protesters, with at least 2 strikers killed.

On the 4th May 1886, the public were very angry about the events that had happened and held a meeting, which was called by anarchists. Due to the short notice and bad weather, not many people turned up; however 3000 people did, including the Mayor of Chicago. Towards the end of the speech, 2 detectives ran to a large group of police and exclaimed that the speaker was using inflammatory language. The speech was ending and people were leaving as the police got to Haymarket Square (where the speech had been held). However, somebody (to this day, who this person was remains a mystery) threw a bomb at a group of police, who then responded by firing at the crowd. It is thought that the gunfire killed 8 people and wounded a further 40.


So, this year make sure you celebrate your working rights, because people have died for the 8 hour working days that we all (still) complain about!

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