By Elton Gomes
May Day, or International Labour Day, is celebrated to keep in mind the efforts of the working class and labourers. In India, it is commemorated with an official holiday and often politicians take this opportunity to thank the working class, and the International Labour Organisations (ILO) conducts contests highlighting the importance of labour.
The history of May Day dates back to 1886 when Chicago workers protested for an eight-hour work shift. The protests marked the beginning of a generalised eight-hour work shift for employees. May Day is commemorated to celebrate the accomplishments of workers.
Here’s what happened
The incident at Haymarket Square
For a long time, labourers were forced to work for 16 hours a day under unsafe conditions. As workers began to form unions, they started campaigning for a shorter workday.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions chose May 1, 1886, to be the day when the eight-hour work day would become operational, and a general strike was organised.
Several thousand workers participated in the rallies that were held across America. Approximately 80,000 workers marched up to Michigan Avenue. However, the peaceful marches soon turned violent, as Chicago police killed workers at the McCormick Reaper Plant in Western and Blue Island Avenues.
On May 4, labour activists, union workers, and anarchists staged a rally at Haymarket Square. As the final speaker, Samuel Fielden, began delivering his speech, the crowds began to disperse and became more violent.
As the police intervened in breaking up the crowd, a homemade bomb was hurled in their path. One police officer was killed instantly, and six others were wounded. It remains unclear whether the police opened fire first, but gunfire ensued. Four civilians were killed, and within a span of two minutes, Haymarket Square was empty.
What this did to the US
America was forever tarnished by the bloodshed at Haymarket Square. Worried that May 1 would result in glorifying violence and chaos, President Grover Cleveland, in 1894, decided that the first weekend in September would be marked as a holiday for American workers. Currently, USA celebrates the first Monday of September as Labour Day.
The tendency to celebrate May Day, or Labour Day, on other dates can be seen in Australia as well. Dates across the first weeks of March, May, and October are commemorated as Labour Day, May Day, and Eight Hours Day in Australia.
Labour Day in India
India celebrated its first Labour Day in Chennai on May 1, 1923. The Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan were at the forefront of the celebrations.
“The Labour Kisan party introduced May Day celebrations in Madras. Comrade Singaravelar presided over the meeting. A resolution was passed, stating that the government should declare May Day as a holiday,” as reported in the 1923 edition of the Hindu.
The Hindu further reported that when a Communist government was formed in Kerala in 1957, the government declared May 1 as a holiday.
May 1 coincides with both ‘Maharashtra Day’ and ‘Gujarat Day’. May 1 was when both states gained statehood after the then state of Bombay was divided on the basis of language spoken by its inhabitants.
Why you should care
May Day holds importance simply because it reminds us of the sacrifices made so that humane working conditions are guaranteed to labourers worldwide. The day marks the beginning of the eight-hour workday – something which is perhaps becoming obsolete, but a definite requirement for the working class.
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