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Understanding May Day

May 1, 2018 | Expert Insights

On May 1st, countries across the world celebrate and observe their version of the “International Labor Day.” A day marked to recognize the rights of a worker in the society, May Day is a public holiday in many countries.

In India it is also known as Antarrashtriya Shramik Diwas or Kamgar Din.


In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the 8-hour work day. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. It was also around this period when May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers' Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International (an organization of socialist and labour parties) to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. Incidentally, Labor Day, as it is celebrated in the US, takes place on the first Monday of September.

May Day arose when conditions of workers became insufferable and inhuman. Death and injury were commonplace at many work places. As early as the 1860's, working people agitated to shorten the workday without a cut in pay, but it wasn't until the late 1880's that organized labor was able to garner enough strength to declare the 8-hour workday. The need to recognize worker rights also arose due to rising popularity of socialism.  At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886."

The protest of October 1886

On May 1st, 1886, 300,000 and a half-million American workers went on strike in cities across the US. Chicago, which was where the majority of the revolution took place, witnessed nearly 40,000 people take to the streets to protest. On May 3, a strike at the McCormick Reaper plant in the city turned violent; the next day the violence continued to escalate. In the US, the eight-hour work day wasn't recognized until it was turned into law in 1916.


May Day or International Laborers Day is now celebrated or observed through celebrations, protests, strikes and commemorations around the world. It is especially considered an important holiday in communist nations like China. It is also an important day for a number of countries in Latin America and former Soviet Union colonies. In India, Labour Day is referred as Antarrashtriya Shramik Diwas or Kamgar Din.

In recent years, May Day has continued to play an important role in being a platform for workers around the world. In the US, on May 1st, 2006, nationwide immigration reform marches were conducted. In 2016, a number of protests that were held to commemorate May Day even resulted in clashes against the police. Violence in Istanbul resulted in the death of at least one protestor.

In the UK, May Day is generally a time for celebration. It is connected to ancient celebrations of spring. In England, traditional May Day celebrations include crowning a May Queen and dancing around a maypole. It has been a day of festivities throughout history and is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime and the fertility of the land and livestock.

The first celebrations of May Day in India can be traced back to 1923 when the day was commemorated in Chennai (then Madras). It was an initiative of the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan.


Our assessment is that even though May Day began as a day to strive for the rights of “blue collar” workers, it has now expanded to recognize the rights of millions of employees around the world. It is a day that commemorates the sacrifices made by pioneers who fought for liveable wages, humane conditions and considerate working hours for workers around the world. These efforts continue to take place in some form or the other to date.