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A Reflection on Labour Day

By Tiago Correia
Translated by Leonardo Fernandes

On the 1st of May, International Labour Day is celebrated. This date marks the commemoration of the economic and social feats of the workers, as well as remembering their undying struggles.

The holiday originated from the famous Chicago general strike held on May 1st, 1886. The so-called "Haymarket Affair" consisted of a labour movement in the city of Chicago, which sought to turn the city into the epicentre of the national movement for the 8-hour working day. At the beginning of the month, 35,000 workers resigned, and they were joined by tenths of thousands more in the following days. The days of meetings and parades from April 24th and the resignations since May 1st culminated, in the following days, in a suppressive backlash by the police – one such case resulted in the lobbying of a bomb at the police, instantly killing an agent, and which became known as the “Haymarket Bomb”. The police arrested hundreds of people, but it was impossible to determine the identity of the perpetrator. Despite the absence of evidence, eight anarchists were indicted and the jury, which was admittedly biased toward the defendants, was instructed to accept a narrative of conspiracy. All of them were convicted, four were executed, one committed suicide and the rest were pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld, citing trial’s lack of substance and fairness.

Inspired by the movement and by the campaign for reduced working hours, socialists and trade unionists globally called for the institutionalisation of the first day of May, or “May Day”, as the international holiday of the workers. A Few years after the uprising in Chicago, on the 14th of July of 1889, the celebration of this day was officialised, in Europe, in the International Workers Congress. In Portugal, the holiday started to be celebrated in 1890, but its commemoration was forbidden within the Estado Novo dictatorship. The holiday was reinstated in May of 1974, immediately after the Carnation Revolution.

The day marks the transnational struggle of the working classes and their social importance as the backbone of the production. However, the labour struggle continues despite its brief annual celebration and the momentary recognition of its importance. The long working hours, the uncertainty towards automation, reduced pay in the light of inflation, stagnating wages and reduced and insufficient purchasing power in the face of essential needs and housing markets are problems that still afflict the working classes.

Although we may find ourselves in the era of technology, digitalization and greater dissemination of assets, a lot of the hardships that afflicted the contemporary labourer to the advent of the Industrial Revolution still martyr the current worker, in a similar or updated manner. Even with all the facilitations of production, the workers are not emancipated from their obligations to production; they are not free to the enjoyment of leisure, as others are. Now, even the boundary that delineated the working from the personal and private environments has vanished, something boosted by the digitalisation and the dissemination of remote work.

In the advent of future Labour Days, we can only hope that they are finally recognised as the foundation of society. One can only yearn for the arrival of labour rights and benefits as a natural extension of the democratic dimensions, as the continuation of April that it is, that automation and the advent of artificial intelligence will relieve the workers and not compete with them; that the workers will have essential needs such as food, health, housing, higher education and leisure ensured and that the reduction of daily and weekly working hours will be guaranteed whenever possible.


“Haymarket and May Day.” 2019. 2019.

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