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May Day: How May 1st became "Labor Day"

Status: 04/30/2021 5:15 p.m.

In 1919, May 1st, once a day of strike for the working class, becomes a German public holiday for the first time. "Labor Day" has its origins in the USA. In 2020, for the first time in its history, the DGB renounced large rallies due to Corona.

by Irene Altenmüller

A holiday for the labor movement - this idea did not meet with enthusiasm among all parties in the Weimar National Assembly in 1919. The members of the assembly agree to dedicate May 1, 1919 "to the idea of ​​world peace, the League of Nations and international worker protection" and pass a corresponding law. The 1st of May is a public holiday in 1919. There is no majority for the proposal to introduce Labor Day as a public holiday indefinitely. Since bourgeois and conservative groups speak out against the new holiday, only a few countries keep it in the following years - including Braunschweig and Lübeck.

"Labor Day" has its origins in the USA

At the "Haymarket Riot" in Chicago in 1886, workers' strikes ended in bloody clashes.

It is no coincidence that the National Assembly has designated May 1st as "Labor Day". Since 1890 this day has been considered the "day of struggle of the labor movement" in Germany and Europe. The real origin, however, lies in the USA: On May 1, 1886, around 400,000 workers strike in several cities and demand the introduction of an eight-hour day. Violent clashes broke out in Chicago on May 3rd and 4th as part of the strikes. In the course of the so-called Haymarket Riot, several demonstrators as well as police officers die. Eight strike organizers are charged and executed.

VIDEO: Labor Day May 1st - a historical overview (11 min)

In 1889, at the Second International Workers 'Congress in Paris, unions and workers' parties decided to call an international demonstration on May 1st in memory of the victims of Chicago. Here, too, the central demands are the eight-hour day, as well as higher wages and better working conditions.

AUDIO: World Knowledge: May 1st (4 min)

From 1890 demonstrations and strikes in Germany on May 1st

A year later, on May 1st, strikes, demonstrations and the so-called Maize walks take place in Germany to fight for workers' rights. Around 100,000 people take part. In October 1890 the SPD decided to make May 1st Labor Day. From now on there will be strikes and demonstrations every year on May 1st. Employers respond with lockouts and layoffs. May 1st is becoming the symbolic day of class struggle.

1933: Nazis take over "Labor Day"

From 1933 the Nazis tried to reinterpret May 1st - and organized marches like here in the Berlin Lustgarten.

As "National Labor Day", the National Socialists reintroduced May 1st as a public holiday shortly after they came to power in 1933 - with full wages paid. It is an attempt to use the day of the struggle for one's own propaganda, to co-opt the labor movement and to disempower the trade unions. As early as May 2, thugs from the SA stormed the union offices, officials were arrested and the unions were brought into line. From now on, May 1st serves as a state-decreed holiday for marches and parades.

Military parades in the east, union rallies in the west

After the Second World War, it is the Allied Control Council that in April 1946 confirms the day as a public holiday. Soon the May Day celebrations are developing differently in East and West. While in the east they are organized by the state and staged with military parades, in the west the trade unions in particular use May 1st for political rallies, which are often combined with cultural events.

VIDEO: May 1st in East and West (27 min)

From the 1980s on, there were increasing violent clashes between autonomous groups and the police, especially in Berlin and Hamburg. With targeted actions to de-escalate, such as family celebrations, the almost traditional riots on May 1st have now been contained.

Public holiday in many countries

In many cities, the unions usually call for demonstrations on May 1st - each year with a different motto.

"Labor Day" is now a public holiday in many countries around the world. While May 1st has prevailed in Europe, "Labor Day" is celebrated in September in the USA. It also takes place on other days in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. As a day of struggle for workers' rights, however, "Labor Day" has lost its importance. For many, it is now primarily a welcome day off from work.

Corona: "Labor Day" initially without major DGB rallies

In the course of the corona pandemic, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) did not call for rallies and demonstrations on streets and squares for the first time in its history. Instead, there were small symbolic actions and online streams and videos were used to draw attention to the rights and concerns of employees.

May 1st of this year has the motto "Solidarity is the future". The German Trade Union Federation is planning a mix of online and on-site rallies in 2021. Lower Saxony's Prime Minister Stephan Weil appears at a rally in Hildesheim.

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THE! | 05/01/2021 | 6:45 p.m.