The History of May 1 and the Labor Movement

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For some people, Labor Day is simply another holiday (much better if it falls on a long weekend so people can start planning for LaBoracayor Labor Union if they really want to be on the nose about it). For millions of workers, unionists, students, and activists all over the world though, the First of May takes on a more solemn meaning. 

Here, a closer look at the history of May 1, International Workers’ Day, and why some people call it “Workers’ Christmas.”

May 1 History

Although the concept of work has been around for as long as civilizations have existed, it was during the industrial age that the relationship between labor and the products they create began. The 18th and 19th centuries introduced new ideas and technologies that revealed cracks in the foundation of the prevailing feudal system. Bankers and tradesmen slowly acquired more wealth, creating factories which greatly outpaced any individual craftsman.

Meanwhile, liberal ideas questioned the role of the monarchy and proposed that all men have inalienable rights and are created equal. Power ultimately shifted from owning land to owning capital. In the countryside, new agricultural technologies and techniques led to a rapid increase in production in farms, making large sections of peasants redundant and unemployed. Faced with no prospects and attracted to the allure of life in the city, the industrial age ushered in a new stage of society: capitalism.

“To be a proletarian is not to be poor, it is to be a commodity”

Life for workers in the beginning of the industrial age can only be described as hell on Earth. The drive for profit led capitalists to exploit workers in all aspects, from shoddy working conditions to barely livable wages and everything in between. Workers had nothing but their ability to work and relied on that to live. Capitalists had nothing on their minds but profit margins.


One of the first things that workers did in the early industrial age was to form mutual associations and groups, which eventually became one of their most powerful tools: the union. Unions fought hard for better working conditions and better pay, chief of which was the fight for an eight-hour work day. 

Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will

Working hours back then ranged anywhere from 10 to 16 hours, with no regard for safety or age restrictions. Workers from Australia fought for an eight-hour work day as early as 1856, with struggles in other countries following suit thanks to the International Workingmen’s Association.

By 1884, the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously declared that the eight-hour work day should be standard, effective May 1, 1886. American workers celebrated the decision and began to prepare a general strike.

That day, thousands of workers went on strike and held rallies throughout the United States. In Chicago, the movement’s center, 30 to 40 thousand workers mobilized with calls for an “eight-hour work day with no cut in pay.” The peaceful protests however turned bloody when police fired on a crowd of strikers on May 3, killing one and injuring six. 

The next day, a protest in Haymarket Square ended in violence when a bomb exploded, killing a police officer. In response, the police acted with brutality and made sweeping arrests of labor leaders and suspected anarchists.

The Haymarket Square affair ended in tragedy. The waves of May 1, 1886 echoed throughout the workers of the world. By 1890, workers from other countries started staging their own May 1 protests to fight for their rights.

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From May One to Mayo Uno

The militant waves of the labor movement also reached Philippine shores. Workers had been organized in gremios (guilds) and cofradias (associations) as early as 1851, while the first workers’ strike was staged by a gremio of printers in San Fernando, Pampanga in 1872. By 1899, the country’s first trade union, the Union de Litografos y Impresores de Filipinas (UILF) was organized in the San Fernando printing plant of La Independencia, a paper edited by Antonio Luna.

The turn of the century revolutionized unionism. The ilustrado Isabelo de los Reyes returned from exile in Spain in 1901, bringing with him the works of socialist writers like Karl Marx, Joseph Proudhon, and Mikhail Bakunin, among others. He quickly set about working on unionism, communicating with labor leaders to form the country’s first labor federation: the Union Obrera Democratica (UOD), in 1902.

True and Militant Unionism

The UOD was nothing like the earlier gremios and the UILF. Adopting the principles of Friedrich Engels’ Life and Works of Karl Marx and Errico Malatesta’s The Farmers, it connected workers’ economic problems of subpar wages and horrible working conditions to a political solution: A true change in the labor system must happen for workers to gain their freedom.


The UOD demanded improvements in working conditions and assistance to workers’ families and children, but beyond that, it demanded that the system which keeps labor oppressive and exploitative must change: U.S. imperialism and colonialism must go.

It staged multiple protests and strikes for increased wages and better conditions in 1902, leading to its largest demonstration on May 1, 1903. Led by Dr. Dominador Gomez, the now-renamed Union Obrera Democratica Filipina directed over 100,000 workers and unionists to march on Malacañang and demand that May 1 be celebrated as a holiday. This was the first Labor Day celebration in the Philippines, which resulted in arrests and Gomez to be branded as subversive.

Uring Manggagawa, Hukbong Mapagpalaya

The fight did not end there. By 1913, the colonial government had declared May 1 an official holiday and 36 labor unions convened in Manila in celebration of Labor Day. Since then, workers from all over the country took to the streets on Labor Day to call for better working conditions and end labor exploitation.

Forged by militant tradition, the working class had awoken. It was the working class who broke the silence of Martial Law in 1975 with the La Tondena general strike, leading to wider unrest and the courage to speak out against the dictator.

Today, workers are more than prepared to fight their rights. The strikes at Toyota (2001), Nestle (2002), Asia Brewery (2015), NutriAsia (2018), and Sumifru (ongoing), among hundreds of others, serve to remind capitalists that the working class is fighting for more than fair wages and regular employment; it is also fighting to end class exploitation in all forms.

The history of May 1 continues. This year, the Philippine labor movement celebrates 116 years of fighting for workers’ rights and militant unionism, while calling for freedom from foreign interest, exploitative capital, and corrupt government. As thousands march in celebration of International Workers’ Day on May 1, let’s not forget the victories and the sacrifices that the nation’s workers have made throughout the years.



Ang Landas Tungong Mayo Uno. Southern Tagalog Education for Workers’ Advocacy, Research, and Development (2019).

Oliveros, B. May 1st, a History of Struggle. Bulatlat.

Chase, E. The Brief Origins of May Day. International Workers of the World.

Saulo, A. Communism in the Philippines. Ateneo de Manila University Press.

Pimentel, B. Never mind EDSA: Remember the battles before the uprising.

Salamat, M. (May 20, 2015) Tanduay workers on strike. Bulatlat.

Olea, Ronalyn (January 18, 2012). Ten years of boycotting Nestle, and counting. Bulatlat.

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Justin Umali
Justin is left-handed, left-leaning, and best left in a cool, damp place. He listens to Vampire Weekend when he's down and Car Seat Headrest when he's not. He usually writes about Philippine history and politics, and believes that you cannot change the world without understanding it first.
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