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May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, is the traditional day for workers and the Labour Movement to celebrate their social and economic achievements. The day commemorates the general strikes which commenced across America on May 1, 1886. These strikes eventually resulted in the implementation of the eight-hour workday, one of Labour’s first and most important successes. Prior to this, workers (including children) were expected to work between 10 and 16 hours per day.
In the late nineteenth century, the working class was in constant struggle to gain the eight-hour workday. Working conditions were severe and it was quite common to work 10 to 16 hour days in unsafe conditions. Death and injury were commonplace at many workplaces. In the mid-1800’s, workers began campaigning to shorten the workday without a cut in pay. In 1886, the early labour movement gathered enough strength to declare the eight-hour workday without consent of employers.
At its national convention in Chicago in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (now the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886. On May 1, 1886, general strikes were called across America in support of the eight-hour day.
On May 1, 1886, over 300,000 workers across the United States walked off their jobs on history’s first May Day. In Chicago, 40,000 workers dropped their tools to join the strike.