What has May Day got to do with Haymarket Affair?

SAS Kirmani
New Update
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New Delhi: May Day commemorates with Haymarket Affair of May 4, 1886 in Chicago, United States of America (USA).


On this day, a massive strike erupted with 200,000 workers demanding an eight hours work a day. This peaceful protest took a tragic turn when a bomb exploded. The Haymarket Affair, as it is known, resulted in casualties of protesters as well as the police. This event triggered labour rights movements globally. 

May Day's origin can be traced back to ancient times, often associated with springtime celebrations and fertility rites. In ancient Rome, the festival of flora honoured the goddess of flowers and marked the arrival of spring. Similarly, Celtic and Germanic cultures had festivals like Beltane, celebrating the beginning of summer and agricultural fertility.

During medieval times in Europe, May Day became a popular spring festival with customs such as Maypole dancing, where people danced around a decorated pole often adorned with ribbons. It was a festive occasion symbolising renewal, growth, and the awakening of nature after winter.


In England, May Day festivities were widespread, featuring maypoles, floral decorations, morris dancing, and community gatherings. These celebrations were part of a rich tapestry of seasonal customs and traditions observed across villages and towns.This traditional festival of seasonal customs transformed into workers and labour movements.

In 1889, an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers, in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago (1886). Five years later, US President Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed a legislation to make Labour Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official US holiday in honour of workers. 

The first Labour Day in the United States was celebrated on first Tuesday of September. 


In Europe, May 1 was historically associated with rural pagan festivals but the original meaning of the day was gradually replaced by the modern association with the labour movement. 

In the Soviet Union, leaders embraced the new holiday, believing it would encourage workers in Europe and the United States to unite against capitalism. The day became a significant holiday in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern-bloc countries, with high-profile parades, including one in Moscow’s Red Square presided over by top government and Communist Party functionaries, celebrating the workers and showcasing Soviet military might. 

In Germany, Labour Day became an official holiday in 1933 after the rise of the Nazi Party. Ironically, Germany abolished free unions the day after establishing the holiday, virtually destroying the German labour movement.


In view of the fall of communist governments in eastern Europe in the late 20th century, large-scale May Day celebrations in that region declined. 

In other countries, May Day has been recognised as a public holiday, and it continues to be celebrated with picnics and parties while serving as the occasion for demonstrations and rallies in support of workers.

The first labour day was celebrated in India on May 1,1923, in Chennai, and organised by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan. 


Labour day has been considered a public holiday in India. Also known as International Workers' Day, May Day holds significant importance globally. The day is dedicated to honouring the contributions and achievements of workers across various industries and sectors. 

Having its roots in the labour movements of late 19th and early 20th centuries, the day commemorates the struggles and sacrifices of workers who fought for better conditions, fair wages, shorter workdays, and improved labour rights.

One of the central themes of the day is the advocacy for an eight-hour workday. This movement traces back to the demands of workers in late 1800s for a standard workday duration, leading to significant changes in labour laws and regulations. Apart from serving as a day of solidarity and unity among workers worldwide, it brings together labour unions, organisations, and workers' rights advocates to highlight ongoing issues, promote social justice, and support collective bargaining and empowerment.


It is observed in many countries around the world, often with parades, rallies, marches, and other public events. These activities raise awareness about labour rights, social and economic justice, and the importance of fair and equitable workplaces.

The advocacy and mobilisation efforts around the Labour Day have contributed to legislative changes and improvements in labour standards, including minimum wages, workplace safety regulations, anti-discrimination laws, and workers' rights protections.

Despite progress in labour rights, the day remains relevant as it highlights ongoing challenges such as income inequality, precarious employment, automation's impact on jobs, and the need for fair labour practices in the digital age.

Overall, Labour Day signifies the historical struggles of workers, celebrates their achievements, and emphasises the ongoing need for labour rights advocacy, social justice, and fair treatment to the workforce.