International Workers’ Day

Last week was International Workers' Day, also known as Workers' Day, or Labour Day in some countries and often referred to as May Day. Celebrations on May 1st have had two, seemingly contradictory meanings in the US. On one hand, May Day is known for maypoles, flowers and welcoming Spring. On the other hand, it’s a day of worker solidarity and protest; though the U.S. observes its official Labor Day in September, many countries will celebrate Labour Day on the first of May. Since the late 19th century, May 1st has been an important part of European history. However, the holiday stems from a rich history of civic engagement, political unrest, and fighting for workers rights. It is a day to fight for the work life that you deserve and want as well as appreciate the workers’ rights you get if you are lucky. On this day, labour organizations and unions hold demonstrations in major cities around the globe.  It is a day that emphasizes that workers of the world must unite to achieve independence.

Holiday History

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For over 130 years, International Workers’ Day has been a world holiday, though it’s not formally recognized as such in the U.S. The day remains a flashpoint for labor action and for celebratory demonstrations of worker solidarity. The holiday is a celebration of labourers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labour movement which occurs every year on May Day (1 May), an ancient European spring festival.

The holiday has a violent start from a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration at Haymarket Square in Chicago. In 1886 beginning on 1 May, there was a general strike for the right to legally have an eight-hour workday. This strike gathered supporters which then drew police. The police acted to disperse the crowd when an unidentified person threw a bomb. The event lead to several police and civilian deaths and injuries. There was then a trial that lead to labour leaders and sympathizers executions. Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labour movements grew, a variety of days were chosen by trade unionists as a day to celebrate labour.  In the United States and Canada, a September holiday, called Labor or Labour Day, was first proposed in the 1880s. It became an official federal holiday in 1894, thirty US states officially celebrated Labor Day. Between 1889 and 1904 the holiday’s populatity grew globally and helped establish an eight-hour workday. Globally the eight-hour workday achieved legality between 1840 to 1915 depending on the country.

Currently, the holiday is celebrated in 17 African countries as a Labour or Workers’ Day.  There are 27 countries in Asia that celebrate a Workers’ Day or Labour Day. Australia and New Zealand also have a long history of celebrating Labour Day. Today, the majority of countries around the world celebrate a workers' day on 1 May.

International Workers’ Day 2019

A woman holds a colored flare as Union members take part in the annual May Day march in London. Leon Neal/Getty Images

A woman holds a colored flare as Union members take part in the annual May Day march in London. Leon Neal/Getty Images

This year bus drivers and housekeepers in Hong Kong rallied for a 44-hour workweek. Garment workers in Bangladesh demanded paid maternity leave. In the Philippines, workers marched for a higher minimum wage. However, some of the countries rallies were tame, but others had a messy, dramatic, and even violent rallies and protests. Riot police in Turkey, Russia, France, and Italy clashed with crowds of agitated protesters hundreds of whom were arrested.

Although this holiday is traditionally for liberal-leaning political groups there have been supporters of a right-wing political party, Third Way in Germany, making an effort in recent years to incorporate May Day in their rallying efforts.

This year high-profile US Democratic candidates for president expressed support on Twitter for South Carolina educators who have been organizing and, more broadly, for International Workers’ Day. This year, the RedforEd movement, a grassroots movement for US education, left a definitive mark on the holiday. With 10,000 educators protesting to demand smaller class sizes, higher pay, and reduced standardized testing.

Global Leadership

The Louis August Jonas Foundation would like to hear about how you are involved and engaged in leadership which serves your community.  Are you an alum who works at a school, is engaged with a charity, or part of an international group working to make an impact and improve the lives of your neighborhood?  We want to hear your stories of leadership and engagement where you live. Has Camp Rising Sun inspired you to be more active and engaged? Please, reach out to us at