A potted history of Labour Day


While May Day is traditionally associated with the struggle for workers’ rights in Europe it has its roots across the pond.

It was originally established to commemorate the infamous Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886

What began as a peaceful march in the city’s old Haymarket Square by workers demanding an eight-hour work day turned bloody when a protester threw a bomb at a policeman, killing him instantly.

In retaliation, police began firing wildly into the crowd, killing dozens of demonstrators and even a number of their own rank and file.

The incident led to a crackdown on workers’ movements across the US and a suppression of the so called radical press.

Though police arrested hundreds of people the bomb thrower was never identified.

In 1889, the first congress of the Second International [the original Socialist International], which was meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution, passed a resolution calling for demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago incident.

It was eventually recognised as an annual event at a later congress and the rest, as they say, is history.

The annual workers’ holiday was banned by the fascist governments of Portugal, Spain, Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

However, it became the most important public holiday in the former Soviet Union and its satellites, celebrated each year with elaborate parades and shows of military might.

In 1958, former US president Dwight D Eisenhower proclaimed May 1st to be Loyalty Day in the US in a not so subtle attempt to colonise the populist undertones of the original event.

In Ireland, the first Monday of May was declared a bank holiday by the then minister for public enterprise Ruairi Quinn in 1994 in honour of May Day.

Compared to other European countries, May Day demonstrations in Ireland have always been relatively small, even in the 1980s when the trade union movement was stronger and the left, arguably, more influential.

In more recent times, May Day demos here and elsewhere have been commandeered by anti-globalisation groups, including the Occupy movements.

This year, the Occupy Wall Street campaign and its associate groups in the US are using the annual rallies to kick start a month-long series of marches.