Origins of International Workers’ Day

Today, workers around the world commemorate the International Workers’ Day which celebrates the social, economic and political achievements of the international labor movement.

For most, this would be a holiday and an extended weekend here in the Philippines. It’s quite saddening that most do not know the history of Labor Day. The holiday celebrations we take today, in the years past and in the years to come have become something remote and to some extent run counter to essence, meaning and history of Labor day.

It all began 123 years ago, on May 4, 1886 with the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, Illinois, USA. Wikipedia briefly describes it as:

a disturbance that took place on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago, and began as a rally in support of striking workers. An unknown person threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an unknown number of civilians. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were tried for murder. Four were put to death, and one committed suicide in prison.

While the whole article is a good read and trip down the hallowed history of the labor movement, here’s a short documentary film providing an overview and some historians’ insights into the Haymarket affair:

Part 2

Part 3

Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest.

This was the result of the labor movement’s struggle to make the 8-hour working day a standard for all working men and women. It had origins in the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life and imposed long hours and poor working conditions. With working conditions unregulated, the health, welfare and morale of working people suffered. The exploitation of child labour was common. The working day could range from 10 to 16 hours for six days a week. (Wikipedia, 8-hour day)

Though many consider the Haymarket affair a setback for the labor movement, it has become a central inspiration for the succeeding labor struggles throughout the world. Even today, in poor countries, many labor movements pay homage and tribute to the events of the Haymarket affair, its labor leaders and many thousands of working men and women who struggled for better working conditions and workers’ rights.

Labor day in the Philippines

Here in the Philippines, Labor Day has always been marked by large workers’ demonstrations, parades and rallies that serve not only to commemorate the International Workers’ Day, but more so to press on for the demands of social justice, better working conditions and better respect for workers’ rights.

The Philippine labor movement has a colorful and illustrious history of struggle that traces its routes to many of historical events that has shaped the past, present and future of the country.

WikiPilipinas has a short overview of this history;

Labor Day in the Philippines was first celebrated in 1903, when the Philippines was still under U.S. rule. That year, more than a hundred thousand workers organized by the Union Obrero Democratica de Filipinas (UODF) marched to Malacañang on the first of May to demand better working conditions. The American colonial government was alarmed. The Philippine Constabulary, composed of Americans and Filipinos, raided the printing press of UODF and arrested its president, Dominador Gomez, for illegal assembly and sedition.

Ten years later, on May 1, 1913, Congreso Obrero de Filipinas was organized. Led by Herminigildo Cruz, it fought for an eight-hour working day, abolition of child labor, just labor standards for women, and liability of capitalists.
Since then, Labor Day in the Philippines has been commemorated not only with parades and celebrations, but also with rallies and demonstrations of the labor sector.

On May 1, 2001, “EDSA III” or “People Power 3” took place; it differed from EDSA One and EDSA Dos in that the main participants were the masa—the supporters of impeached president Joseph Estrada– against newly installed president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It started as a demonstration that became a political revolt and degenerated into a riot that left in its wake torched vehicles and garbage along portions of EDSA and Mendiola.

For its share, the Department of Labor and Employment has a lengthier timeline of Philippine Labor’s history of which an excerpt is shared below, reinforcing what I said earlier that the labor movement has a deep and intimate connection with the overall history of the Philippines.


The establishment of guilds planted the earliest seeds of the labor movement. These were secret organizations for the mutual aid and benefit of workers. The first guild emerged in the arsenals and shipyards of Cavite and were soon found in tobacco factories, printing houses and other various trades and occupations. Among the earliest guilds were the Gremio de Obrero de Sampaloc, Gremio de Escultores del Barrio Sta. Cruz, Gremio de Carpinteros and Gremio de Impresores y Litograficos.

1872, January

Workers and soldiers at an arsenal in Cavite mutinied against the Spanish colonizers. Supported by workers and Filipino clergymen, it resulted in the execution of Fathers Gomez, Burgos and Zamora (GOMBURZA), which signaled the beginning of early workers’ protests.

The first workers’ mass action was conducted by members of Gremios deI Empresores when they walked out of a government printing press in San Fernando, Pampanga on account of abuse and maltreatment by Spanish foremen and for purposes of seeking better terms and conditions of work and higher wages.


Andres Bonifacio established the Katipunan, the core of the first nationalist and workers’ revolution in Asia.

Even today, the history and essence of Labor Day carries more relevancy and importance now that the world is facing tough economic times, our country is struggling to progress and the majority of our people are still living in poverty, while the few elite are basking in riches and power.

How we celebrate or conduct ourselves this Labor Day is our reaction to the colorful, glorious and meaningful history of the labor movement, and is a reflection of our attitudes towards our working fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts, even our selves.

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