May 1st: A day’s history to celebrate work without working!

Appeared in 1886 in Chicago (USA), Labour Day was adopted by many countries, where it is generally celebrated on May 1st. Around the world different ways of celebrating work and workers.

The origins

In 1886, American unions called for a strike on May 1, the day of renewal of employment contracts to demand the eight hours of daily work. More than 300,000 workers leave their factories across the country.

On May 3, incidents broke out in Chicago, one of the centres of the protest, where several strikers were killed by the police. The next day, a bomb bursts among the police at the end of an anarchist rally. The police reply by shooting at the crowd seven policemen and several protesters are dead.

Eight anarchists are sentenced for the attack, four of whom are hanged. They will be rehabilitated by justice in 1893.

In 1889, the constituent congress of the Second International decided to organize on a fixed date, from May 1, 1890, an international workers’ demonstration to demand the eight-hour day and honour the dead of Chicago.

Variable dates

May 1st is a holiday in at least 107 countries worldwide, representing at least 67% of the world’s population.

The Netherlands, Israel and the countries of the Arabian Peninsula are among the few states that do not celebrate work and workers.

Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom celebrate this day on May 7, New Zealand on the fourth Monday in October. The United States, like Canada, devotes the first Monday of September.

Japan, Afghanistan, Iran and some Indian states, if they celebrate Labour Day on May 1 – in a highly regulated version in Iran – are among the few not to enjoy a day off.

In Lithuania, its status is debated and this non-working day could be called into question.

Celebrations and events

In most countries, there are events organized by trade unions and political parties and festive gatherings.

In Finland, it’s a day of student parties and family picnics, in a carnival atmosphere. In Italy, a big concert is held in Rome every year.

In France or Belgium, the first of May is an opportunity to buy a sprig of lily of the valley. In Austria, we celebrate the May tree.

But the symbolism most shared during the Workers’ Day is that related to communism, including the sickle and the hammer and more generally the colour red. It is found in Bangladesh, Pakistan, several Balkan countries, Macedonia, and Honduras.


In Burma, Libya and Syria no public demonstration is organized.

In Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan, if this day is celebrated and a holiday, the demonstrations are nonetheless repressed by the government. In Istanbul, a demonstration on Taksim Square is held every year, although it has been forbidden to gather there since 2013.

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