International Workers’ Day 2021: Why Do We Celebrate Labour Day?

The Link Between May Day, International Workers’ Day & Labour Day

May Day is originally a public holiday in many European countries, celebrated on either the first day or the first Monday of the month of May. It is a seasonal holiday, celebrating the beginning of spring.

In the late 1800s, the average American in manufacturing worked over 10 hours long, seven days a week. Working conditions were abysmal, with both children and adults working under unsanitary conditions without proper ventilation and inadequate breaks.  During a labour demonstration on 4th May 1886 for an eight-hour working day, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, an unknown assailant threw a dynamite bomb at the police who were trying to disperse the crowd. The police then responded by opening fire on the protestants, resulting in the deaths and injury of many police officers and civilians. The consequences of this rally were the basis for which the American Association of Labour chose May Day as the date for International Workers’ Day in 1889, to commemorate the Haymarket massacre, and to remember the efforts of the people who lost their lives in the pursuit of better working conditions for all. This day was not a public holiday, it was only observed. This is why International Workers’ Day or Labour Day is sometimes referred to as May Day, although the motives behind the celebrations are different.

19th Century Workers After International Workers’ Day

International Workers’ Day became a day celebrated in the United States on the first of May to commemorate the struggles and achievements of the labour movement and workers. The trade unions and labour associations organised protests and parades to show the public the strength and solidarity of the trade and labour organisations, all aimed at promoting the economic and social well-being of workers. Five years later, on June 28th 1894, the United States finally passed an act to make Labour Day a legal holiday. However, the day for its celebration was on the first Monday of September. Many countries followed suit and legalised the International Workers’ or Labour holiday, but stuck to celebrating it on the first day of May.

Labour Day and Trade Unions in Africa Today

Today, Labour Day has almost lost its significance as a celebration to honor the struggles and gains of workers and laborer’s. For most people, it is a day off like any other holiday, and for countries like the United States and Canada, people seize the opportunity to have some fun just before summer ends, the weather turns cold, and school starts up.

The holiday was meant to address the problem of long working hours without time off. Although this problem seems to have been solved ages ago, it is slowly creeping back in. This time, not just for informal workers, but for skilled white-collar workers as well. People work all the time without taking a break or a vacation. More so now that the world is more globalised, even when they do take a vacation, they are constantly connected to work via their computers, phones, or electronic devices. The outbreak of COVID-19 has exacerbated this issue. Since most work is done virtually, people do stay home, but cannot take the time off work that they need. Workers should not just take the day off, but should remember the reason they have that day off in the first place and make use of it.

Trade unions in Africa should also use Labour Day as an opportunity to express their loyalty and continued interest in defending and promoting workers’ rights. The Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) is committed to this, despite the Covid-19 pandemic which may not permit us and our affiliates to celebrate with parades and such. OATUU will always remember the true reason for Labour Day, and will not relent in the continuous struggle to protect, defend and promote the rights of African workers.

Sheryl E. A. Acquah

Head Economist and Educator