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International Labour Day: May Day

To consider the origins of Labour Day.

by Claire Rose

Suitable for Key Stage 4/5


To consider the origins of Labour Day.

Preparation and materials


  1. On 1 May, over 80 countries celebrate a national holiday known as May Day, or Labour Day. On the May Day holiday in the UK (this year it’s on Monday 7 May), we enjoy the first warm days of summer, picnic in the park, visit friends, or even go to the beach.

    But why does this holiday exist? What do we mean by ‘labour’, and why do we have a bank holiday to commemorate it?
  2. With the coming of the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century, huge numbers of people moved from the countryside, where many of them had worked on farms or owned their own land, into the cities, where they found jobs. They worked in the newly opened factories which were springing up across the country, particularly in the industrial cities of the north and Midlands, cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.

    At this time there were few laws to protect these workers, or ‘labourers’, and many of them worked long hours, six days a week, for very low pay. Facing up to these harsh conditions, workers began to organize themselves into groups, or unions, so they could campaign together for better conditions.

    It is thanks to these campaigns that we have a two-day weekend, an eight-hour working day, paid holidays, and paid maternity and paternity leave. But achieving these changes wasn’t easy, and workers often turned to demonstrations and even strikes to make their voices heard and achieve change.
  3. A demonstration by workers took place in Chicago on Tuesday 4 May 1886 in support of strikers calling for the enforcement of an eight-hour working day (there was no limit to working hours in the USA at that time). But things went badly wrong. An anonymous person threw a dynamite bomb at the police standing by. In the confusion the police fired back into the crowd of demonstrators, and eight policemen and an unknown number of demonstrators were killed.

    Known as the Haymarket Riot, as it took place in Haymarket Square, this tragic day left the labour movement and the unions in the USA unsure how to react and go forward with their campaigns.

    Two years later, American unions organized a demonstration on 1 May to commemorate those who had died in the Haymarket Riot, and to restart their campaign for the eight-hour working day. They invited labour organizations all over the world to support them.

    The event was a huge success, with workers marching together in America, Europe and as far afield as Chile and Cuba.

    In 1891 this day was named Labour Day, and it was adopted as an annual event worldwide.
  4. Since then, 1 May has been a key focal point for demonstrators, particularly for left-wing movements such as socialism and communism. In communist states such as China and Russia, there are often military parades on May Day.

    In the UK we have seen anti-capitalist protestors take to the streets in major cities, and recently this resulted in a statue of Winston Churchill being adorned with a grass Mohawk hairstyle.
  5. In the British Isles the first day of May has long been regarded as the start of summer. For many centuries, long before the nineteenth-century industrial revolution, there has been a tradition on 1 May of celebrating the coming summer – of dancing round maypoles and making merry.

    These ancient country traditions have not been lost: they still take place in many parts of the UK. With the addition of the Labour Day anniversary, the May Day holiday is made more inclusive.
  6. Labour Day exists to remind us of the struggle of workers over the past 150 years to ensure the good conditions and rights that we have access to today. May Day is an important and unique holiday in the UK calendar.

Time for reflection

Imagine school with no breaks or lunch hour.

Imagine working in a factory for up to twelve hours, with only toilet (comfort) breaks, and those supervised.

Imagine not having weekends off.

Lord God,
we are thankful for those who gained for us the right to a work–life balance
that means we can flourish as individuals.
May we be grateful for holidays
and remember they were not always there for everyone.


‘Lord of all hopefulness’ (Come and Praise, 52)

Publication date: May 2012   (Vol.14 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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