Haiwang YUAN

International Labor Day had its roots in America during the 1800s, when unsafe conditions and 10 to 16 hour workdays for factory workers lead to the formation of labor unions and factory strikes.

The International Labor Day, known in China as the May First Labor Festival, or simply May First, is celebrated in previous and present Communist countries, although it originated in the United States.

International Labor Day is celebrated in China and many other countries on 1 May. The Chinese customarily call it Wuyi Laodong jie (May First Labor Festival) or simply Wuyi (May First). Ironically, the United States, where this international festival originated, celebrates its own Labor Day on the first Monday of September.

In the nineteenth century, working conditions in the industrial West were miserable. Workers labored from ten to sixteen hours a day. They struggled constantly to get their employers to sanction an eight-hour workday. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which later became the American Federation of Labor, resolved that from 1 May 1886 eight hours would constitute a legal day’s labor. That day more than 300,000 workers across the United States went on strike. On 3 May violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works, in Chicago, resulting in the death of six strikers at the hands of the police. The next day, while a protest against police brutality was going on at the Haymarket Square, a bomb exploded and killed a police sergeant. In response the police fired back, and a conflict between the two sides left seven policemen and four workers dead. Later four strike leaders were tried and hanged for the incident.

In August 1886 the Geneva Congress of the First International, led by Communist leaders in Europe, proposed that eight hours be the legal limit of a workday. In 1889 the restructured International, later known as the Second International, decided in Paris to set aside 1 May as a day when workers of the world gathered to fight for the eight-hour work day. In countries such as China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea, and those in the former Soviet Bloc, 1 May has since become an official holiday.

In the 1950s China celebrated the May First Labor Festival by staging an annual parade in Beijing and other major cities. Model workers were sometimes given the honor of standing among national leaders on the Tiananmen rostrum in recognition of their exemplary performance. This tradition of publicly awarding model workers as a part of the Labor Festival remains, though ceremonies vary as time changes. Today it usually takes the form of a meeting broadcast from the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where national leaders present plaques of awards to the best model workers selected from throughout the country.

In 1960 economic difficulties forced the government to give up expensive celebrations, such as the parade. During the early years of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), each May First became an occasion for Mao Zedong to inspect his Red Guards gathered in Tiananmen Square. The celebration usually culminated with a show of fireworks. In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, organized and spontaneous recreational activities were held, mostly in parks, to celebrate the Labor Festival.

In 1999 China created three week-long holidays, known as the Gold Weeks, to encourage tourism with the purpose of boosting the economy. They were the May First Labor Festival, National Day, and the Chinese New Year. While significantly adding to the national coffers, these Gold Weeks also strained transportation, caused damage to the natural environment, and created painful inconveniences for the crowding tourists. On 16 December 2007, China’s State Council called off the Gold Weeks of May and October, restoring them to one-day holidays.

Further Reading

Communist Party of Australia. (1928). May Day, International Labor Day: The workers’ challenge to capitalism. Sydney: Communist Party of Australia.

International Labour Research and Information Group. (1985). May Day: A history of International Labour Day. Cape Town, South Africa: International Labour Research and Information Group.

Liu Shaoqi. (1950). Liu Shaoqi zai Beijing qing zhu wu yi lao dong jie gan bu da hui shang de yan shuo [The speech of Liu Shaoqi in celebration of the Labor Festival among officers]. Guangzhou, China: Xin hua shu dian [New China Press].

Reinstein, B. (1910). International May Day and American Labor Day: A holiday expressing working class emancipation versus a holiday exalting labor’s chains. New York: National Executive Committee, Socialist Labor Party.

Source: Yuan, Haiwang. (2009). May First Labor Festival. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1430–1431. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

May First Labor Festival (W? Y? Guójì Láodòngjié ???????)|W? Y? Guójì Láodòngjié ??????? (May First Labor Festival)

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