Labor Day - History of May 1

Labor Day - History of May 1

The 1st myit is not only the opportunity to offer a sprig of lily of the valley brings good luck, it is above all a day when we celebrate labor Day, in France and around the world. A holiday in most countries, little is known about its origins, made up of social demands and sometimes violent clashes. The origin of this holiday dates back to May 1, 1886: a strike was organized by American unions to limit the working day to 8 hours. Clashes between demonstrators and police will kill several people. Nowadays, this International Workers' Day is mainly animated by union parades.

Labor Day: the origins

At the start of the 19th century, the economy was booming, boosted by industrialization and technical progress. In return, the working conditions are particularly inhuman and deplorable. Men, women and children sometimes work up to 17 hours a day in workshops and factories, seven days a week, for miserable wages. Some philanthropists are stirred and ideas of social progress spread. In 1841, the ban on child labor was raised from 8 to 13 years old and in 1864, strikes were legalized in France, except for civil servants.

May 1 has its roots in the United States. In 1886, American unions, including the famous Knigths of Labor, rallied around a general strike call for the eight-hour working day. The date of May 1 was chosen because it is the "moving day", the day on which, in America, rental leases and employment contracts are renewed. This was a great aspiration for the working population. Almost 350,000 strikers stopped work amid general enthusiasm.

In Chicago, where social tension was particularly heightened, the strike did not end. Violent clashes pitted demonstrators and police forces in Haymarket Square. Shots were exchanged: there were six demonstrators killed and fifty wounded. The next day, a strong emotion invaded the city. A rally brings together more than 15,000 demonstrators. At the time of the dispersal, the police intervene. A bomb explodes: two policemen are killed. It is the beginning of a terrible massacre of which the exact number of victims is unknown. After a mock trial, six activists were sentenced to death. Those who were hanged in Chicago became true martyrs of the working class cause.

The International Socialist Congress, meeting on July 21, 1889 on the occasion of the centenary of the French Revolution, resolved to make May 1 an international day of social demands. His declaration is solemn: “A great international demonstration will be organized, so that in all countries and all cities at the same time, on the same day, the workers put the public authorities on notice to legally reduce the working day to eight hours. work and apply the other resolutions of the Paris Congress. Since a similar event has been decided for May 1, 1890 by the American Federation of Labor, this date is adopted for the international event.

May 1 in France

In France, May 1, 1890 did not achieve the success expected by the organizers. The following year, the Fourmies massacre identically reproduced the dramatic events of Chicago. In this small working-class city in the North, incidents broke out between strikers and non-strikers. The troops charge the demonstrators. Nine dead and around thirty seriously injured are lying on the town hall square. From then on, the May 1st demonstration has become an international working class tradition, most of the time generating violent clashes.

However, this popular pressure produced results: in France, the law on weekly rest was passed in 1906; that of the eight-hour day in 1919. The general strike of May 1, 1936 hails the victory of Popular Front. It precedes a great movement of strikes which resulted in the obtaining of the 40-hour week and the introduction of "paid holidays".

With, the arrival of Marshal Pétain to power, May 1, coinciding with Saint-Philippe, will be honored in 1941. He will benefit from a legal existence but the deep meaning of the day will be profoundly transformed by the Vichy regime. In 1947, the feast of May 1 became a legal feast, and a paid day off. This day is celebrated today in most industrialized countries except the United States. where Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September. The parades, more or less unitary depending on the year, are an opportunity for the May 1 demonstrators to recall their priority demands and to situate themselves in relation to government policy, in an atmosphere of "July 14 of labor".

Labor day nowadays

Nowadays, however, this day is no longer the privileged occasion to express one's demands, even if it is still an occasion to express oneself. Often, the workers' day has become the party itself. May 1 is an additional day off which is added to the other holidays and bridges of the month of May, far from the struggles and demands that have presided over its institution.

Bibliography on May 1

- The part of the dream: History of May 1st in France, by Danielle Tartakowsky. Hachette 2005.

- Feast days: Legal feasts and public holidays in contemporary France, by Jacqueline Lalouette. Tallandier 2010.


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