International Workers’ Day is celebrated in Brazil on May 1st as Dia do Trabalho (Labor Day). In fact, over 80 countries globally honor the contribution of workers to society on this date. The annual tribute commemorates a famous labor demonstration — often called the Haymaker affair — that occurred in Chicago, Illinois in 1886. (Ironically, though the holiday’s impetus began in the US, that country holds its Labor Day on the first Monday in September.)
It’s easy to forget that the situation for industrial workers in the United States and Europe during the late 19th Century was vastly different from what exists today. Wages were very low; 13 to 17 hour work days were the norm; workplace safeguards were virtually nonexistent; and weekends off, holidays, and paid retirement were unknown concepts.
On May 1, 1886, rallies and strikes were coordinated across the United States with up to 500,000 workers participating nationally. The largest group was in Chicago (then the third most populous city in the US); their collective goal was to reduce workers’ daily shifts from 13 to 8 hours. Over the course of 4 days, the demonstrations became increasingly violent and resulted in the deaths of both police and protesters. Ultimately, eight labor leaders were arrested and executed as a result.
Five years after that seminal event, in 1891, the International Workers Congress declared May 1st an official day of mourning and continued struggle for the rights of workers. Over the next few decades, many governments adopted the date as a national holiday in deference to the value that workers — whether they labor in a factory or a field — provide to a nation’s health.
Dia do Trabalho in Brazil
The first commemoration of May 1st by the Brazilian labor movement was held in 1895, but it didn’t become a national holiday until 1924 under President Artur Bernardes. Early on, the day was typically marked by strikes, protests, and worker unrest. However, during the extended dictatorship of President Getúlio Vargas, the tone of Dia do Trabalho changed dramatically.
In the final period of his unelected rule, known as the Estado Novo (New State), Vargas used the holiday repeatedly to announce new protections for the Brazilian worker: a true “labor” day. For example, in 1940, Vargas established the first minimum wage — meaning that compensation must cover a family’s essential needs, such as housing, food, health, clothing and education. Since then, the minimum wage in Brazil traditionally has been adjusted on May 1.
One year later, in 1941, Vargas created the Justiça do Trabalho (Labor Court) to specifically solve legal issues regarding workers’ rights and the relationship between labor and management. Other laws and initiatives which began on May 1 include the reduction of the working day to 8 hours, the formation of the Ministry of Labor, the regulation of the employment of children, and the guarantee of a right to vacation and retirement.
In 1943, Vargas created the Consolidação das Leis do Trabalho (Consolidation of Labor Laws) which, as the name implies, unified the existing labor laws. For example, it made no status distinction among the types of employment (intellectual, technical and manual); it counted time away from work due to occupational accident towards an employee’s length of service; and it insured equal pay for women.
The video (below, in Portuguese) gives you a flavor of Dia do Trabalho under Vargas when he was known affectionately by some as “o pai dos pobres” (the father of the poor). The rally dates from 1951, during his last term in office — this time as Brazil’s legitimately elected president. Though Vargas granted some labor concessions to stem the influence of anarchism and communism within the country, he initiated many important rights which stand today.
Obviously, not every issue has been solved; the day can still see protests and strikes by workers. But, more often than not, May 1st is a day of leisure in Brazil with parades and festivals.
Painting: “Operários” (Workers) by Tarsila do Amaral © Tarsila do Amaral Licenciameutas
Photo: A Dia do Trabalho parade honoring Vargas in Rio de Janeiro, 1941 (via FolhaPE)