What Is International Workers' Day?

international Workers' Day, also known as Labor Day or May Day, falls on May 1 and is a public holiday in over 80 countries. It is meant to celebrate the contributions of workers, promote their rights, and commemorate the labor movement.

While May Day is also a holiday to mark the arrival of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, it became associated with trade union activities in the late 19th century. Protest rallies and strikes take place around the world on this day, sometimes leading to clashes with police. The Catholic Church instituted the feast of Saint Joseph the Worker on May 1 in 1955.

Key Takeaways

  • International Workers' Day, or May Day, is a public holiday honoring workers around the world.
  • The roots of May Day can be found in Marxist economic thought, which prioritized the rights of the laboring class over that of the capitalist (business owner) class.
  • In the United States, Labor Day is instead observed in early September.

Understanding International Workers' Day

Although Americans celebrate Labor Day in September and associate it with barbecues rather than class struggles, International Workers' Day has strong links to events in the U.S.

In July 1889, Second International, a global organization of socialist parties and trade unions, established May 1 as International Workers' Day and planned protests demanding an eight-hour workday. May 1 was chosen because an American delegate said the American Federation of Labor had planned a demonstration on that day the following year. The Americans were commemorating the pivotal Haymarket Square Rally held in May 1886 in Chicago, U.S.

International Workers' Day wasn't intended to be an annual event, but due to its remarkable success in 1890, Second International made it one. Although it started with demands to reduce the number of hours of manual labor required of workers, it continued to be observed even after that goal was achieved in many major industrial nations.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm said Labor Day is "perhaps the only unquestionable dent made by a secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar."

Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1894, "As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past."

Labor Day in the U.S.

While much of the world observes a workers' holiday on May 1, the United States holds Labor Day on the first Monday in September. This was made a national holiday in 1894, following workers' rights movements in the U.S. in the decades leading up to its creation as an official federal holiday. The movement was fueled by labor unions and their members, especially in industrial sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, mining, textile makers, and construction workers.