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History of Labour Day

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

On Saturday the 1st of May 2021, we will be celebrating Labour Day here in Hong Kong. Schools and (many) businesses will be closed and people will be free to spend the day with their loved ones, relaxing and enjoying their time off.

Everybody loves a public holiday, but it’s important to acknowledge why these important dates are being observed, so that we can understand the history, traditions and reasons behind them.

As we prepare our students for their great foray into the working world, it’s important for them understand how the actions of those before them, contribute to their lives today. This is why we value learning about the ‘why’ behind holidays like Labour Day.


The History

Labour Day is celebrated all over the world but it originated in Chicago USA, after an important event known as the 'Haymarket Affair'.

On May 3rd 1988, there was an altercation between workers and the police during a strike at McCormick Reaper Works. One worker was killed by the police while several others were wounded. According to History.com, August Spies, a German immigrant had been giving a speech to striking workers not far from the McCormick Reaper Works factory, and had seen the police open fire on the workers. He was extremely angry and immediately wrote a leaflet to share his sentiments and encourage workers to protest the police brutality. Word spread and an outdoor rally was planned at Haymarket Square for the following day.

The next day, May 4th 1886, frustrated by the events of the previous day and their current conditions, Chicago workers gathered to strike and raise awareness around the rights of workers - especially their rights to an eight-hour work day. At the time, some workers were being forced to work 10 – 12 hours per day, sometimes even more.

What began as a peaceful rally in support of workers, turned into a devastating tragedy. As the police tried to break up the strike, tensions began to mount. A man (who remains unknown), threw a dynamite bomb at the police. The bomb blasted along with the gunfire that followed, "resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; dozens of others were wounded." – Wikipedia.com. Eight radical labour activists were convicted in connection with the bombing, despite the fact that there was not enough evidence to support their convictions.

While the events of the day were viewed as a setback for the organised labour movement in America, the convicted men were held up as martyrs by many. The Haymarket Affair became a symbol for countries around the world, representing the struggle for the rights of workers.

Labour Day in Hong Kong