Why is May 1st Labor Day? Origins, history and meaning of the anniversary

The First of May it's workers' day, recognized almost all over the world and celebrated with parades, concerts and events of various kinds. The celebration aims to remember the battles of the past for workers' rights and support the current claims.

The origins of the celebration date back At the end of the nineteenth century: on May 4, 1887, four workers were sentenced to death in Chicago following clashes with the police during a demonstration to extend the eight working hours throughout the United States (granted in Illinois on May 1 of the same month).

To honor their memory, socialist parties around the world established May Day dedicated to struggles for work. In the space of a few years, the anniversary has been recognized by the governments of many countries as National holiday and today it is celebrated almost all over the world. May Day has no direct connection with the May Daythe spring festival that has already existed for many centuries, but has in a certain sense replaced it.

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What is Labor Day

May 1st is the day dedicated in many countries around the world to the celebration of work and workers. Over the course of the day, the trade unions and other political groups they promote initiatives and demonstrations for the affirmation of workers' rights. In Italy the best known event is the “Concertone” organized in Romein Piazza San Giovanni Laterano, by the three main trade union confederations: CGIL, CISL and UIL.

The Concertone in 2007 (credits Alessio Damato)
The Concertone in 2007. Credits: Alessio Damato.

In some countries, Labor Day is celebrated in a different date. In the United States, for example, Labor Day is not celebrated on May 1st, which instead falls on the first Monday in September, as established by a law issued in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland.

Red - national holiday, green national holiday other day, yellow May 1st national holiday for other reasons, grey, no celebration (credits Lord Belbury
Red: May 1st is a national holiday. Green: There is a National Labor Day, but on a different day. Yellow; May 1st is a holiday for other reasons. Grey: no celebration. Credits: Lord Belbury.

The Haymarket Square riot and how May Day was born

The origins of May Day are to be found in labor movement in the United States, although the date is not a holiday in the country. During the Second Industrial Revolution, workers put forward a demand: the working day should last eight hours and not be longer, as it had been until then. The eight-hour request was accepted by the employers of Chicago in 1866 and went into effect in the State of Illinois on May 1 of the following year.

The trade union organizations, including i Knights of Labor (Knights of Labor), took action to ensure that the legislation was extended throughout the United States and on May 1, 1886 they organized a all-out national strike to support the request. The strike also took place in Chicago, where violent clashes broke out between strikers and police on May 4. In Haymarket squarea bomb was thrown from the procession of workers at the officers, who responded by shooting into the crowd. Four anarchists they were accused of throwing the bomb and hanged in 1887 after a show trial.

The Haymarket Square clashes
The Haymarket Square clashes.

In 1890 the Second Internationalthe organization that brought together socialist parties from all over the world, decided to dedicate the day of May 1st to the memory of “martyrs of Haymarket Square”, as the four hanged workers were renamed. The celebration of the anniversary was established in all socialist organizations and was accepted by the governments of many countries as a national holiday.

May Day from the end of the nineteenth century to today

Already at the end of the 19th century, May Day gave rise to large street demonstrations in many countries. The celebration also established itself in Italy and in 1890 the government agreed to recognize it as National holiday. After World War I, the celebration of Labor Day spread to new countriesbut in Italy it was abolished by the fascist regime, which in 1924 replaced it with the Christmas holiday in Rome (21 April).

In our country, May 1st was recognized as a national holiday again only in [1945after the fall of the regime. On one occasion, the celebration had a tragic outcome: on May 1, 1947, a group of mafiosi shot at workers who were celebrating the day in Portella delle Ginestrenear Palermo, killing fourteen people.

After the Second World War, Workers' Day was established almost all over the world. In the Soviet Union and socialist countries it was celebrated with large military parades, in the presence of the highest political leaders. Also there Church recognized the anniversary: ​​in 1955 Pope Pius XII established that May 1st should be celebrated Saint Joseph the Worker.

Calendimaggio and connections with Labor Day

Labor Day has to a certain extent replaced the celebrations that in many ancient cultures were organized towards the beginning of May to celebrate the arrival of the beautiful season. In the Roman world, for example, the first day of May (at the time called the Kalends of May) was celebrated goddess Floraprotector of trees.

The goddess Flora painted by Titian
The goddess Flora painted by Titian.

The celebration of spring, known as May Day, has remained alive for many centuries and is still celebrated in some places today. Since the end of the nineteenth century, however, there has been May Calendimage replaced by Labor Day, with which it has no direct connections (as we have seen, the date of May 1st to celebrate the work was chosen for other reasons). However, the fact of “grafting” on an ancient tradition has facilitated the affirmation of Workers' Day.


May Day. Workers' Struggles, International Solidarity, Political Aspirations May Day Stories, 2020