The history of International Workers' Day


01 May 2020

What is May Day?

International Workers' Day, also known as Workers' Day, Labour Day in some countries and May Day, is a celebration of labourers and the working classes, promoted by the international labour movement which occurs every year on 1 May. And this year as Covid-19 crosses our borders and we celebrate key workers in the UK and around the world, we must remember the history of May Day and continue to fight in solidarity for workers’ rights everywhere.  

 Its origins began in the United States in 1886 where workers across the country walked out of their jobs demanding an eight hour day. Later action was taken around the abolition of child labour, safer working conditions and the demand for what we now know as the weekend. At a time when working days could be from 10 to 16 hours, with many needlessly dying in dangerous conditions and life expectancy in some industries being as low as their early twenties, such demands must have seemed impossible. But united action made it possible and many of us in the West today benefit from these changes each working day.  

In some ways May Day started earlier than 1 May this year and with greater public recognition than usual. It began as coronavirus snuck  over borders and into people’s lives – whether as sufferers, workers or through news channels and social media. Coronavirus had arrived but so had a ‘new’ type of hero, the people usually overlooked - the nurses, the carers, the cleaners, the shop workers and the delivery drivers. The workers. And the masks of those usually painting themselves as society’s heroes - the big CEOs, big company directors - fell off. Suddenly they were not as important as the workers who delivered what mattered - health care and essential provisions - putting themselves at risk in the process. 

So we could see this May Day as one of the most poignant ones in decades. This pandemic has not only opened our eyes and provided an  opportunity to celebrate these key workers but it’s also magnified and highlighted the struggles that workers experience, from working conditions to pay.  In urban areas of the UK many key workers are also migrants or from working class minority backgrounds. These groups, many already living with low wages, precarious contracts, long hours and insecure housing, now face increased exposure to the virus, with inadequate protection. 

This May Day is a time to remember the importance of civil society groups in fighting for the rights of these workers as we continue to challenge the deep injustices and inequalities that workers in the UK and around the world are facing everyday. All around the world trade unions face challenges – from declining membership to death threats and assassinations. And it is at times like this that we see how important these groups are – as workers around the world are sent out to fight the impact of this virus without the correct equipment and the most vulnerable workers (in terms of pay and contracts) are asked to stay at home but not offered furlough protection due to their precarious ‘contracts’. The workers needed, and still need, a strong united voice to fight for their rights.  

How we can celebrate today

One of the best ways we can celebrate these workers is to support the organisations that support them – joining a union, being active in your union, starting a union. Joining initiatives that support unions abroad where union activists and members face discrimination. Holding your local councillors, MPs, and CEOs to account when they try to implement policies that will affect workers here in the UK and abroad. Challenging policies like the government’s Hostile Environment which denies migrants their basic human rights like housing and healthcare or employment law that allows zero hours contracts that leave workers without job security or a decent wage. There are many organisations that fight for workers’ rights in many different ways but they need more support. More support means more strength both nationally and internationally. Around the world workers have looked to civil society and to their unions to protect them, and ultimately all of us, from the devastating impact of coronavirus. An international pandemic requires a global solution and organisations representing workers around the world must be part of it. 

Yes, we can clap for the NHS and honour its fallen heroes. But we also need to join them, and the other workers, in their struggle for better pay and working conditions now and after this crisis. The origins of May Day remind us that these improvements don’t just happen but that with organisation and vision we can achieve what looks impossible.  


Photo: Johan Fantenberg/Flickr

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