May Day in the City of London: Local Labour History and the Pursuit of Worker Health

May Day, or International Workers’ Day, celebrated on the 1st of May, holds a significant place in the global calendar. It serves as a platform for advocating the health and well-being of working people through essential rights like fair wages, reasonable working hours, and improved working conditions.

The roots of May Day as a workers’ holiday can be found in the United States, where the fight for an eight-hour workday became a focal point for labour activists in the late 1800s. One pivotal event in this struggle was the Haymarket affair of 1886 in Chicago, where a peaceful labour rally demanding an eight-hour workday turned violent when a bomb was thrown, resulting in casualties among both police officers and demonstrators. The exact circumstances of who threw the bomb and why remain unclear to this day, but the event led to a crackdown on labour and immigrant communities in Chicago and beyond. This incident galvanised the labour movement and led to widespread protests and strikes across the country. Since then, May Day has been observed as a day of solidarity by workers’ organisations around the globe.

Across the UK, local neighbourhoods, cultural organisations and community groups often organise their own May Day festivals featuring live music, food stalls, children’s activities, and other family-friendly entertainment such as street performances and art installations. These festivities provide an opportunity for residents to come together, celebrate the arrival of spring, and enjoy a sense of community spirit. 

The City of London is no exception, and is itself part of May Day’s rich history. From the 1500s, the City of London was a centre of commerce and industry, where workers laboured in factories, warehouses, and financial institutions. Immigrant workers from across the globe, including Irish dockworkers, Jewish tailors, and Caribbean seafarers, played pivotal roles in the labour movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From the dockworkers of the East End to the clerks of the financial district, workers from all walks of life joined together in solidarity to champion their rights. Amidst the bustling streets and towering skyscrapers, their collective action laid the groundwork for the labour rights and protections we enjoy today.

For example, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, dockworkers in the Port of London, including those in the City, were at the forefront of struggles for healthier working conditions. They faced dangerous extreme health and safety hazards, long hours, and low pay. The 1889 London Dock Strike saw tens of thousands of workers walk off the job, leading to significant concessions from employers and laying the groundwork for improved conditions for dockers in the centuries to come. Similarly, in the late 19th century, East London, including parts of the City, was home to a large population of immigrant garment workers, particularly Jewish tailors. These workers endured poverty wages, dangerously long hours, and unsanitary and oppressive working conditions in sweatshops and small workshops. In 1889, thousands of tailors went on strike demanding better working conditions. The strike, which lasted for several weeks, gained widespread attention and ultimately led to healthier working conditions in the local garment industry.

Whether you’re interested in reflecting on how far we’ve come with regards to building healthier workplaces and workforces, or you’re just excited to enjoy a bank holiday, there are plenty of events to choose from this May Day across London. Find out more here. 

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