Taking a moment to look at where our various public holidays come from, helps us appreciate them more. Have you ever wondered how the eight-hour-shift rule came about? Did you know it’s related to Workers’ Day that we celebrate every 1st of May?

The History of Workers’ day

According to History.com the connection between May Day and labour rights started in the United States. In the 19th century during the Industrial Revolution, thousands of men, women and children died every year from poor working conditions and long hours.

In 1884, in order to discuss how best to fight the horrible conditions workers were subjected to, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (which would later become the American Federation of Labour, or AFL) held a convention in Chicago. From and after May 1, 1886, the FOTLU declared that “eight hours constitute a legal day’s work”.

In 1886, more than 300,000 workers (40,000 from Chicago alone) quit their jobs in 13,000 businesses across the country. Following this, more workers joined the strike, and the number of strikers grew to almost 100,000.

Two of the Second International’s most famous actions were the declaration of May Day as International Workers’ Day in 1889 and the declaration of International Women’s Day in 1910. The Second International, as Wikipedia.org explains, “was an organisation of socialist and labour parties formed on 14 July 1889 at two simultaneous Paris meetings, in which delegations from twenty countries participated”.

The History of Workers’ day in South Africa

According to an article by SAHO (South African History Online) May Day has been observed annually on 01 May since 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions decided that eight hours of work constituted a legal day’s work. The first South African May Day celebration was held in 1895.

SAHO claims that prior to the war, the Labour Party was the dominant voice of organised white labour in South Africa. War caused a rift within the party, impeding its growth. Following the Russian Revolution, May Day acquired a new significance internationally. In South Africa, Horatio Mbelle a black South African, was one of the speakers. White labour became more militant after the war, and May Day became an annual event, but it was focused on white labour rather than Black. Here in South Africa, the first public holiday for Workers’ Day started on the 1st of May 1995.

Other facts about May Day:

  • Every year thousands of singletons dance around a Maypole (Merriam Webster describes a maypole as a tall flower-wreathed pole that serves as a centre for May Day events) holding on to ribbons until they become entwined with their new loves! This is celebrated mostly in European countries
  • The Pagan name for May Day is Beltane, which means “Day of fire”, celebrating the coming of summer and fertility.
  • In earlier centuries people would often take the day off work to celebrate May Day, often without the support of their employer.
  • Many countries besides SA celebrate May Day around the world.

It’s always a good thing to take time and appreciate why things are the way they are, especially when we benefit from them. Imagine how hard people had to work before there was a workers’ day, if some of them ended up even dying. Their sacrifices, and that of those who fought for workers’ rights, made sure that today we are able to have humane working hours, and to stand up for other rights at work.

If you enjoyed this article, you may like May Day! May Day! here

Tell us: What would the world be like today if basic workers’ rights were not won for us?