International Workers’ Day – History and Significance for our working conditions, working hours and fair wages


On May 1st, International worker’s day is celebrated all over the world. The history and significance of the holiday dates back to the struggle for the 8-hour work day in the United States. However, this day is not just another day of remembrance – it is about much more: about everything that the labor movement has achieved, and what it is still fighting for. Many victories – from public health care, to fair wages and paid leave, to retirement insurance – are under threat again today. This is another reason why Labor Day is still significant in 2021.

All over the world, workers take to the streets on May Day. Yet the significance of International worker’s day is not about the parades, celebratory speeches and red flags, but about what they represent: The labor movement and its achievements. The political power of the working class has lifted billions of people out of misery and completely changed our world.


The significance of May 1st as a day for workers and their struggles goes back to a strike in 1886 Chicago and its bloody outcome. At that time, working conditions in the USA were catastrophic. A 12-hour work day was the norm, while pay was miserable. Businessmen, with the support of the state, cracked down on any kind of labor organization. The U.S. labor movement called for mass demonstrations and strikes on May 1, 1886. The goal was to introduce the 8-hour day.

One of these mass demonstrations took place at Chicago’s Haymarket. The demonstration developed into a strike lasting several days, to which the police responded with violence. When police stormed a peaceful gathering, an unknown man threw a bomb, instantly killing a policeman and injuring numerous police officers as well as demonstrators. More than 200 workers were injured in the ensuing skirmish, which has gone down in history as the Haymarket Affair. Seven police officers and more than 20 workers died. Seven workers who had organized the strike were sentenced to death. In the end, however, only their alleged leader, August Spies, was executed.

The meaning of International worker’s day goes back to the clash between workers and the police at the Haymarket in Chicago. The painting shows August Spies, the leader of the workers.

In memory of the Haymarket affair, labor movement rallies were held all over the world. Today, Labor Day is celebrated globally and is the only international holiday that has no religious meaning.


More than a hundred years later, people continue to take to the streets on May Day. Labor Day is about much more, about a life of justice and dignity for all. Long after the Haymarket affair, workers still lived in misery, had no rights and little to expect from life. Since then, a lot has changed. The labor movement has united to fight for a life of dignity. And a fair share of the world’s wealth.

A public health care system, fair wages, the right to vote, the 8-hour day, a decent pension after decades of work, all this was fought for in the history of the labor movement. What is often perceived as normal today was not simply offered to the people. Thousands had to lose their lives for it. But as trivial as these achievements sometimes seem to us, they are not set in stone. Neoliberals and conservatives are working to dismantle these institutions: Workers are getting less and less pay for their efforts, health care systems are being cut, and profit is being put above human lives.

All social achievements will remain only as long as we defend them against the conservatives and their rich patrons. And for that we need a strong workers’ movement, today, tomorrow and in a hundred years.

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The social democratic magazine covers current political events, both in Austria and in the rest of the world. We view society, state and economy from a progressive, emancipatory point of view. Kontrast casts the gaze of social justice on the world.


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