What is May Day – and Why Does It Still Matter?

May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is celebrated on May 1st each year in many countries around the world. The genesis of May Day can be traced back to the late 19th century when workers began to demand better working conditions and greater rights.

May Day has its origins in the United States in the late 19th century. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later became the American Federation of Labor, passed a resolution calling for an eight-hour workday. The resolution stated that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886…”. The resolution was widely supported by workers across the country, and on May 1, 1886, 80,000 workers marched in Chicago in the first modern May Day Parade calling for an “eight-hour day with no cut in pay”. In the following days, over 350,000 workers nationwide went on strike in support of the call.

The strikes were met with violence from police and hired strike-breakers, and several workers were killed. The most famous incident occurred on May 4, 1886, in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, where a bomb was thrown into a crowd of police officers during a rally, killing several officers and civilians. Eight anarchists were eventually convicted of the bombing, despite little evidence linking them to the crime.

Despite the violence and repression, the struggle for the eight-hour workday continued, and May 1 became a symbol of the workers’ fight for better working conditions and workers’ rights. In 1889, the International Socialist Congress declared May 1st as International Workers’ Day, to be celebrated annually around the world.

Throughout the 20th century, May Day became an important day for workers in Canada. It was a day to celebrate the achievements of the labour movement, to call attention to ongoing struggles, and to demand better working conditions and greater rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, May Day celebrations often focused on issues such as civil rights, anti-war activism, and environmentalism, as workers sought to link their struggles with broader social and political movements. In recent years, May Day celebrations have often focused on issues such as income inequality, precarious work, and the rights of migrant workers.

In our current climate, is it all too clear that the need for ongoing advocacy around worker’s issues is crucial. Unions and workers are speaking out about wages not keeping pace with costs of living, issues of harassment and bullying in the workplace, and increasing pressure on workers to do more with less. The COVID-19 pandemic only further served to shine a light on many of those chronic issues that workers have dealt with for years.

After three years of showing up to engage in the important and essential work that our society depends on, workers in industries across the country have reached their breaking point and are engaging in labour action to demand better treatment in the workplace and wages that match the rising inflation we are all grappling with. The current strike actions across the country serve as a reminder of the ongoing importance of unions in protecting workers’ interests and pushing for changes to policies for the benefit of all workers. They demonstrate the power of collective action and the need for workers to have a strong voice in the workplace.

This year Community Solidarity Manitoba, a coalition of organizations united to advocate for social justice issues, is organizing a May Day March and Rally. They are calling for the following policy changes to improve life for working people and all members of our society:

  • A livable wage
  • Healthcare for all
  • Paid sick days
  • Equal rights for gig workers
  • Changes to make it easier for workers to join a union

It is all too clear that the gaps in our society are widening. Changes will not be made unless we as a collective demand them. Consider joining OHC this May 1st, along with Community Solidarity Manitoba, at the May Day Rally to make your voice heard and work toward building a more just, equitable society for all.