May Day is an international workers holiday that celebrates the achievements of the labour movement, most notably the eight-hour working day. May Day is commonly observed through labour unions’ organization of mass demonstrations and parades on the first of May.
The beginnings of May Day as a workers holiday lie in the 19th century struggle for a shorter working day. May Day was already celebrated as a peoples holiday, first in the pre-Christian era as the pagan rite of Beltane and later as a secular festival. During the 1880’s in the United States, labour unions organized a number of strikes aimed at implementing an eight-hour day by May 1, 1886. This led most notably to the Chicago Haymarket Massacre on May 4 of that year.
May 1 was officially proposed as the international workers holiday at the first congress of the Second International in 1889, in solidarity with the renewed call by the American Federation of Labour for a general strike on May 1, 1890, to fight for the eight-hour day. It is also thought to have been partially a commemoration of the Haymarket Anarchist Martyrs.
May Day is commonly celebrated in towns and cities around the world, as well as being an officially recognized (state-sanctioned) holiday in over 80 countries. Mass participation in May Day is more common in Europe and in countries with a significant Socialist or Marxist tradition in parts of Africa, East Asia, and Latin America. It is much less recognized in North America, where Labour Day celebrations take place on September 1; however, the political Left and social justice movements in Canada and the United States still celebrate the first of May.
Foner, Philip (1986) “The First May Day and the Haymarket Affair”. May Day: A Short History of the International Workers’ Holiday, 1886-1986. New York: International Publishers