What is the story of the working day

German Trade Union Confederation

In 1890, millions of working people in Europe and the USA celebrated "World Labor Day" at the same time for the first time. We show history, data and facts about Labor Day in Germany.


DGB livestream for Labor Day 2021

Solidarity is the future: The DGB's livestream on Labor Day from May 1, 2021

Have another look at our live stream on May 1st, 2021. With a colorful, political and musical program for Labor Day, in keeping with our May 2021 motto: Solidarity is the future.

Born in the USA

On the 100th anniversary of the storm on the Bastille, 400 delegates from socialist parties and trade unions from numerous countries met on July 14, 1889 for an international congress in Paris. As was customary at congresses back then, those gathered produced a lot of printed paper, including a resolution by the French Raymond Felix Lavigne, in which it said:

"A large international manifestation is to be organized for a certain time, in such a way that at the same time in all cities on a certain day the workers ask the public authorities to set the working day at eight hours (...). In In view of the fact that such a rally has already been decided by the American Workers' Union (...) for May 1, 1890, this date is assumed to be the day of the international rally. "

At first there was no mention of a repetition or even institutionalization as a holiday. But it seemed like a tacit agreement that the labor movements of most countries would assume it nonetheless. Why did the American unions choose May 1st?

May poster 1956

Reduction of working hours

The prehistory began at the end of the Civil War in 1865, when the American trade unions first asked for the introduction of the eight-hour day. Until the 1860s, most US companies had working hours of eleven to 13 hours, only then were they able to establish the ten-hour day as the standard working time. It was almost another twenty years before they began in 1884 the general and binding enforcement of eight-hour working hours per day. They decided to conduct a general strike for several days on May 1, 1886. The focus was not yet on the date, but on the requirement.

The reason for choosing a date was a completely banal one and not very suitable for creating myths: May 1st was traditionally considered a "moving day" in the USA, the deadline for concluding or canceling contracts, often associated with changing jobs and homes. The eight-hour day should be included in the new contracts. On May 1, 1886, around 400,000 employees from 11,000 companies in the USA went on strike, but the eight-hour day could only really be enforced for 20,000 workers. The events in Chicago overshadowed this modest success. The rally at the local Haymarket ended in disaster. According to the police, anarchists threw a bomb on the officers present, killing seven police officers. Four anarchist labor leaders were sentenced to death and hanged, although no involvement in the attack could be proven.

The bloody incident could only temporarily interrupt the fight for the eight-hour day. In December 1888, the union delegates gathered in St. Louis, including numerous immigrants of German origin, declared that they would again hold strikes and rallies on May 1, 1890. The movement was not limited to the United States; in the same year, for example, the French trade unions also called for the introduction of the eight-hour day.

May 1st in the German Empire (1890-1918)

The decision of the Paris Congress to conduct the fight for the eight-hour day as an international action fell in the middle of the largest wave of strikes that the German Reich had experienced up to then. By December 1889, 18 unions had declared their intention to strike next May 1st. These declarations were not without controversy. In the German Empire, the tendency to strike was rather low compared to other countries. That had to do not only with the weakness of the trade unions or the cooler temperament of the German Michel. When the May celebration was being prepared, the Socialist Law was still in force in Germany. The Social Democratic Party, to which many trade unionists were close, was admitted to the Reichstag elections, but as an organization it was banned. While Chairman August Bebel was giving speeches in the Reichstag, the party newspaper Vorwärts had to be smuggled across the border wrapped in Swiss cheese.

The employers' associations threatened lockouts, layoffs and black lists in the event of strikes on May 1st. Anyone who found it no longer had to look for work in their area. Only a few entrepreneurs, such as the manufacturer Heinrich Freese or Ernst Abbe (Zeiss Jena), who introduced May 1st as a paid (initially half) public holiday in 1900, tried to achieve social balance and de-escalation of the class conflict. They did not take the rest of work on May 1st very seriously or even celebrated with them.

DGB a May child

Despite the threat of sanctions, around 100,000 workers took part in strikes, demonstrations and so-called "Maize walks" in Germany on May 1, 1890. The regional focus was Berlin and Dresden, but also Hamburg, where there was a particularly bitter labor dispute with at times 20,000 participants. The clashes dragged on there until late summer. That was only possible because the unions gradually gave up the activities in all other places in order to be able to concentrate on Hamburg.

They did succeed in securing the right of association. The demand for a nine-hour day, which is modest by international standards, could not, however, be enforced. As in most other capitalist countries, the standard working time was ten hours at first. A "by-product" of the strike, however, resulted from the experience of joint action. It persuaded the representatives of the trade unions to found an umbrella organization, which came into being in 1890 as the "General Commission of the Trade Unions of Germany" under the leadership of Carl Legiens: the birth of the German Trade Union Confederation.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD), which had just been re-admitted, decided at its Halle party congress in October 1890 to introduce May 1st as a permanent "workers' holiday". In order to take the lead from the provocation, she wanted to refrain from taking a break from work where there were obstacles in her way. The party and the trade unions made the call for a strike dependent on the economic situation of the respective company. Where it was not possible, parades and celebrations were to take place outdoors on the first Sunday in May.

with the First World War the Socialist International broke up. Like its sister parties in most other countries, the SPD opted for their fatherland and against wage movements and May rallies. The resulting conflicts disrupted family relationships in the labor movement. German social democracy also collapsed. After the end of the war there were two social democratic and one communist parties (KPD), whose forerunners, the Spartakusbund, opposed the war and had been calling for strikes and May demonstrations again since 1916.

May 1st loses its innocence (1919-1932)

The fate of May 1st and the eight-hour day in the Weimar Republic was as changeable as its history. The Council of People's Representatives, a provisional revolutionary government made up of the SPD and the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) in office since November 1918, decreed one of the first official acts to reduce working hours to eight hours a day. In April 1919, the National Assembly declared May 1st a public holiday. However, the law was limited to May 1, 1919, the later regulation was to be integrated into an international solution and take place after the conclusion of peace and the adoption of the constitution.

Attempts by the General German Trade Union Federation (ADGB) and the SPD to make Labor Day a public holiday beyond 1919 were unsuccessful. Only in the states of Braunschweig, Lübeck, Saxony and Schaumburg-Lippe did it exist after 1922. The bourgeois parties argued that the holiday of a single social group could not be universally binding on society as a whole. For this reason, during the negotiations in the National Assembly in 1919, the SPD pleaded for the proletariat's day of struggle to be turned into a general public holiday in order, according to Reich Minister Eduard David (SPD), to document its will for class reconciliation. Many entrepreneurs still saw May celebrations as a provocation. So the class struggle slogans in the "employer", the central organ of the employers' associations, fell on fertile ground: "In the republic, too, May 1st applies to the propaganda of overthrow, the elimination of private property and the establishment of the proletarian dictatorship Surrender to Marxism. " (Quoted from Schuster 1991, p. 63.)

"Blood May" 1929

In the labor movement itself, the question of whether and how to celebrate May Day was very controversial. The Christian trade unions, represented with their own interdenominational umbrella organization since the beginning of the 20th century, rejected the "Marxist army show". Otherwise, however, they were hardly less willing to strike and actively advocated the interests of the workers in matters of working time and occupational safety. The split in the socialist labor movement also resulted in the "split" of its highest holiday. While the communists accentuated the fighting character more strongly, the social democrats celebrated it more as a feast day.

May 1, 1929, marked a sad climax in the conflict between the SPD and KPD. Karl Zörgiebel, the Social Democratic Police President of Berlin, had banned demonstrations in the city because of feared unrest. The KPD ignored the ban and organized demonstrations that resulted in wild shootings. 28 people were killed, including completely bystanders. The day went down in history as "Blutmai" and symbolizes the deep disruption of the labor movement in the Weimar Republic. But it was going to get worse.

"National Labor Day" (1933-1945)

Black Friday, the New York stock market crash of October 1929, dragged the German economy deep into the abyss. By 1932 an unemployed army of over six million people had developed. This corresponded to an unemployment rate of at the top 33 percent - against the background of an inadequately developed unemployment insurance. The foundations of parliamentary democracy had already been undermined in 1930, since so-called "presidential cabinets" appointed by the Reich President were able to rule over the parliamentary majorities on the basis of emergency decrees.

The unions, almost 44 percent of their members were unemployed, saw themselves on the defensive. Their board members wanted to offer themselves to the Hitler cabinet as apolitical professional associations to represent exclusively professional interests. However, he mistrusted them. He didn't need her either, but he did need her membership base. The National Socialists gave top priority to the integration of workers into the National Socialist "Volksgemeinschaft", and the May Day celebrations in 1933 played a key role in this. In mid-April 1933 Goebbels noted in "Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei": "May 1st we will make a grandiose demonstration of the German people's will. On May 2nd the trade union houses will be occupied. Harmonization in this area too (...). It may be a row for a few days, but then they're ours. " In April 1933 Hitler declared May 1st a "national labor holiday".

Tragic misjudgment

In their internal assessments of the situation at the beginning of the Nazi regime, the union leaderships assumed that something similar was now to be expected as under the Socialist Act. They still believed that, as apolitical professional organizations, they could navigate their associations through what was generally assumed to be a short period of NSDAP rule. "Protective custody" and prison sentences were expected, some of them were already in force and trade unionists were also affected: a tragic misjudgment, as became apparent on May 2nd. Hitler had the unions smashed, their houses occupied by SA and SS troops and numerous functionaries arrested.

In contrast to its earlier protagonists, May 1st survived the Hitler era no doubt because it served the regime as an excellent backdrop for parades, marches and performance shows of German industry. The National Socialists did not invent the pathetic staging of mass appearances, but they did develop what Walter Benjamin called the aestheticization of political power to unimagined climaxes. The usurpation of the old holiday of the workers' movement was very extensive, but the National Socialists never succeeded in it completely. Until 1945, May 1st was repeatedly the occasion for actions by opposition members. They went public with symbolic and often daring actions. In the summer of 1933, strangers felled the oak that Hitler had planted on May 1st on Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin.

Celebrating between rubble (1946-1948)

In 1945 the first free May celebrations in 13 years were held in some of the places already occupied by the Allied forces, organized by surviving Social Democrats, Communists and trade unionists. But there was still fighting in many places, and the Wehrmacht had not yet surrendered. These celebrations only took place on a small scale, because most of the Germans had other things in mind than demonstrations or even strikes, which the occupiers would not have allowed anyway. They struggled to survive, starved and lived among rubble.

In April 1946 the Allied Control Council confirmed May 1st as a public holiday. Nevertheless, the occupying powers still did not trust the Germans one hundred percent, so by order of the American military administration, flags and banners were not allowed to be carried during the parades. The Free German Trade Union Federation (FDGB) in the Soviet zone had it easier, but in one point all May removals in Germany were similar and corresponded to the image that the reporter for the Weser-Kurier noticed at the Bremen May demonstration: men in the age groups between twenty and forty were almost entirely absent. Those who were not dead or wounded were either prisoners of war or wandered across Germany in search of their relatives.

Break between east and west

The development in East and West soon went in very different directions, as the May rallies in Berlin in 1946 clearly showed. In April, the SPD in the western zones of the divided city successfully opposed the forced unification with the KPD to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). It organized its own demonstrations in the districts of Spandau, Neukölln and Schöneberg, as an alternative to the overall Berlin event, which was very much dominated by the SED.

Nevertheless, many Berliners had not yet given up hope of being able to hold joint rallies again soon. Many Germans still hoped for the possibility of a nationwide development. In the spring of 1948, however, it was finally clear that there would no longer be such a thing. The formerly allied victorious powers USA and USSR had become enemies in the "Cold War" and included their respective zones of occupation firmly in their own area of ​​the alliance.

May 1st in the GDR (1949-1989)

"Proposal for May Day: The leadership pulls past the people" chanted dissatisfied GDR citizens more than ten years ago. Not long before that, on May 1, 1989, half of the GDR was still on its feet and marched in front of the leadership. Erich Honecker waved back in a good mood and asked young pioneers to present him with bouquets of flowers and homemade items.

Since the first constitution of the GDR was passed in 1949, May 1st has been a public holiday guaranteed by the state and is no longer part of a counterculture and counter-public. On May 1, 1951, people moved from East Berlin's Lustgarten to the former Schlossplatz, which had since been renamed to the names of Marx and Engels and from then on became the central rally area. Unlike in western Germany, Labor Day became a state-prescribed ritual with which the leadership also sought to improve its legitimacy. This became clear in the attempt to highlight economic successes. The workers had to vow to produce more and work better. The rallies no longer focused on the struggle for social and political rights, but on the struggle for economic progress

Military parades

Since 1956, the May celebrations in East Berlin have been opened with a military parade based on the Soviet model. The march of the "armored fist of the working class" completely changed the outward appearance of the May celebrations. The party and state leadership took the parade from the balustrade of the Volkskammer building high above the heads of the East German population. Only after the USA and the USSR had overcome the Cold War did the SED leadership abandon the military ritual from 1977 onwards.She had the VIP stand lowered so that closer contact with the population was possible again and hands could be shaken.

With such gestures alone, however, the alienation between the people and the leadership in the GDR could not be overcome. In 1988, the May rally became a closed society, because for fear of opposition banners and demonstrations, the party had the streets around Karl-Marx-Allee cordoned off from battle groups and FDJ. The spectacle was repeated in a similar form on May 1, 1989, except that this time the official May Committee waived the usual May salute to all "brother countries" in view of Gorbachev's efforts to democratize the Soviet Union.

May 1st in the Federal Republic (1949-1989): Labor Day

Since the founding of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB) in 1949, the executive board has been responsible for the May celebrations and decided on the May calls and the central May slogans. In 1951 he established the tradition of framing political rallies with cultural events. From an initially simple ceremony, a Mairevue later developed, at which the DGB chairman explained the union demands between artistic performances. These events were broadcast by the broadcasting corporations of the ARD, later by the third television programs or broadcast in excerpts.

But even the cultural events and the media presence could not prevent a clear trend towards falling numbers of participants from occurring since the mid-1950s. Even the union members increasingly understood May Day less as a work day or a holiday, but rather as an offer for individual leisure activities. The DGB tried to counteract this trend with attractive mass events following the rallies. Indeed, there has been an increase again since the late 1960s. This was due to the redesign of the May celebrations, but also to the deterioration in macroeconomic key data. In 1966/67 the first post-war recession hit the Federal Republic.

New social movements

Not only economically and politically, but also socially, the signals were pointing to change, as documented not least by the May celebrations in the late sixties and early seventies. In addition to the unions, other groups also held rallies or chaotic the official DGB celebrations: This happened in 1977 in Hamburg and Frankfurt, but also in other cities such as Bremen and Berlin, where they only took place in the hall for several years due to oppositional disturbance maneuvers. By the 1980s, however, the gap between the "old" labor movement and the new social movements was gradually reduced. It became customary to go to the DGB event on May 1st and then to the alternative district festival.

May 1st had little of this kind of spring buds, because the trend towards declining numbers of participants at the rallies began again. In contrast to earlier times, the DGB was no longer able to use the worsening collective bargaining disputes or the campaigns for the 35-hour week and against the strike paragraph 116 (Labor Promotion Act) to mobilize more. The end of May 1st, whether as a fight or a holiday for workers, seemed near. Even within the trade unions, some, like Ötv boss Monika Wulff-Matthies, saw the only chance of survival in the rededication into a kind of folk festival for the whole family.

Labor Day for All: May 1st in a united Germany

Folk festival, fighting day or public holiday - these considerations quickly faded into the background when completely different events in 1989/90 drew the attention of the trade unions. The world had changed almost overnight with the collapse of socialism. In 1990, DGB chairman Ernst Breit held the first free trade union Mairede to an all-German audience since 1932, for almost 60 years, in front of the Berlin Reichstag. At the same time, it was the 100th anniversary of May 1st, a truly historical situation in front of a suitable backdrop.

Initially, the state unity of the (West) German economy brought a boom. Chancellor Helmut Kohl brushed away voices warning that the hasty introduction of the market economy and the DM would collapse the sales markets of the GDR industry: In a few years "blooming landscapes" would arise in the new federal states. As it soon turned out, going to the employment office was the only thing that flourished for many East Germans. After the initial boom turned into a recession, it became clear that the East German states would be dependent on help from the West for many years.

Sharing connects

Against this background, the DGB decided to put May 1, 1992 under the motto "Sharing unites". This motto and the ideas behind it met with a very mixed response within the unions. Many critics dismissed it as too defensive. In their opinion, the federal government burdens workers with the costs of the unit disproportionately compared to the self-employed. Solidarity sharing is a matter for society as a whole, not just for individual groups.

In the 1990s, critical observers gained the impression that the idea of ​​sharing in solidarity had completely receded into the background. IG Metall boss Klaus Zwickel used May 1, 2000 as an opportunity to remind people of the social responsibility of property and to demand that it be given a higher priority than shareholder value. Pope John Paul II demanded that people should finally take first place in the hierarchy of values ​​in the world of work.

At the beginning of the 21st century, trade unions face major challenges. With the United Services Union (ver.di) the organizational foundation for the transition from an industrial to a service society has been laid. The trade union movement of the future will not be able to do without symbols either. Labor Day plays an important role here.

It still offers good opportunities for self-expression and addressing a broad audience. That does not speak against its modernization. Imaginative campaigns such as the Schwerin Job Parade and the Berlin inline skating block on May 1, 2000 can help to pass on the ideas of Raymond Felix Lavigne and his colleagues to the next generation, even after more than 110 years.

Selection of literature on the history of May 1st

  • Udohaben, if you can only agree: texts, pictures and songs for May 1st, Cologne 1990.
  • Udohaben / Matthias Reichelt / Reinhard Schulz, my fatherland is international. International illustrated history from May 1, 1886 to the present day, Oberhausen 1986.
  • Horst Dieter Braun / Claudia Reinhold / Hanns-A. Schwarz (ed.), Past Future. Mutations of a public holiday, Berlin 1991.
  • Dieter Fricke, Brief History of the First May. May celebrations in the German and international labor movement, Frankfurt / M. 1980.
  • Inge Marßolek (ed.), 100 years of the future. On the history of May 1st, Frankfurt / M. / Vienna 1990.
  • Dieter Schuster, On the history of May 1st in Germany, Düsseldorf 1991.