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May Day 2019: The Blood-soaked History Behind Eight-hour Workday

The 8-hour workday that has now become a standard labour practice worldwide owes its origin to bloody protests for addressing workers’ dismal plight due to long working hours and condtions in the United States.

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Updated:May 1, 2019, 7:16 AM IST
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May Day 2019: The Blood-soaked History Behind Eight-hour Workday
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May Day 2019 | The eight-hour workday that is now considered a standard labour practice worldwide has a blood-soaked history behind it.

May Day or International Workers' Day is marked by rallies around the world on May 1. Many countries including India observe May Day as a public holiday.

But what’s the story behind the day and why is it observed?

Well, the 8-hour workday that has now become a standard labour practice worldwide owes its origin to bloody protests for addressing workers’ dismal plight due to long working hours and condtions in the United States.

Workers had started agitating for a shortened workday as early as the 1860s but it was mid 1880s that the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada chose May 1, 1886, to mark the first day on which an eight-hour workday would go into effect.

When that day arrived, thousands of American workers went on a well-coordinated and largely nonviolent strike.

Two days later, workers in Chicago, an epicenter of the strike, tried to confront “strikebreakers” at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. At least two workers were killed in police firing.

On May 4, seven police officers and at least four civilians were killed as a grenade was thrown at police personnel trying disperse the protesting workers in Chicago's Haymarket Square.

Eight “anarchists” arrested by the police arrested were convicted of conspiracy; seven were sentenced to death and one to 15 years imprisonment. While four were hanged, one committed suicide and two others had their sentences commuted to life in prison.

The ‘Haymarket affair’ lent impetus to the labour movement and. Subsequently, in 1989, the Second International— an international organisation for workers and socialists— declared May 1 as International Workers' Day.

The eight-hour work day wasn't recognised in the US until it was turned into law in 1916, following years of strikes and protests by workers.

The following year, four days after the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian monarchy, the eight-hour workday was introduced in the country by official decree.
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