PH Labor Day: A history of struggle

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PH Labor Day: A history of struggle
The first recorded Labor Day in the Philippines takes place on May 1, 1913

MANILA, Philippines – On May 1, Filipino laborers, armed with their placards and grievances, came together and joined ranks as they filled the streets of the city.

Most of the time, Mabuhay ang manggagawang Pilipino!” (long live the Filipino worker) is echoed throughout nationwide rallies and demonstrations, bringing to the forefront issues such as fair remuneration and labor export policies.

But how did it all start? Where did the yearly event originate and how did it come to be the day for laborers’ collective action?

US origins 

More popularly known as May Day, Labor Day traces its roots to the US. 

According to the official website of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), seeds of the public holiday emerged in the late 19th century, when the 10- to 16-hour work day caused unrest among laborers and led them to embrace socialist ideals that promised fair distribution of resources.

Socialist groups would eventually sprout, including the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU). FOTLU, with backing from other large labor organizations, would eventually proclaim the 8-hour work day. 

The declaration garnered massive support from laborers. On May 1, 1886, about 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the US walked out of their jobs and went on strike, staging relatively peaceful parades and demonstrations. 

After two days, however, the peace between police and strikers was broken in Chicago, where may of the strikers came from, and 6 months of violence ensued. Anarchists dominated the ranks of the striking workers.

Anarchists eventually called for a public meeting at Haymarket Square to discuss police brutality. As police began to disperse the crowd at Haymarket Square, a bomb from an unknown source hit police ranks, causing the police to retaliate with indiscriminate gun fire. This event is known as the infamous Haymarket Massacre.

Eight anarchists were arrested and convicted of murder by a jury dominated by business leaders. This was despite only 3 being present during the Haymarket meeting. According to the IWW, “these eight organizers were convicted, not for their actions, of which all were innocent, but for their political and social beliefs.”

This event is now known globally as International Workers’ Day and is officially recognized as a public holiday in 66 countries, including the Philippines. The US, however, celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September, based on a proposal for a workers’ public holiday from popular labor unionist Peter McGuire, according to the US Department of Labor.

Philippine roots

According to the National Historical Commission, the first recorded Labor Day in the Philippines happened on May 1, 1913. Previous strikes had occurred but were met with swift action from the American military government which imprisoned perpetrators and forcefully restored order.

At a time when American firms made Filipino laborers work for as long as 12 hours a day, 36 labor unions decided to convene at Claro M. Recto Street. The 36 unions decided to unite under one umbrella and form the Congreso Obrero de Filipinas (COF) or Congress of Philippine Labor.

The COF however fell apart on Labor Day 1929, when several members, led by communist Crisanto Evangelista, defected and established the Katipunan ng Anak Pawis (KAP) due to large numbers of non-members being present during the COF Congress. 

The KAP would eventually be outlawed in September 1931 due to its aggressive brand of unionism heavily influenced by communism.

Championing the Filipino worker

Now its 113th celebration, Labor Day remains a significant holiday for Filipinos. 

In its birthplace, in the US, Labor Day is more often than not associated with product sales and the end of summer rather than the actual roots of the holiday. Any association with labor is often a demand for greater benefits.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Wesleyan sociology associate professor Jonathan Cutler said that “May Day has always been linked to the demand for less work and more pay; Labor Day celebrates the ‘dignity’ of work.”

But for leaders of Filipino labor unions, Labor Day celebrations in the Philippines go beyond the demand for fair remuneration.

In an article in the Philippine Star for Labor Day 2014, labor leaders like Partido ng Manggagawa Chair Rene Magtubo said that Labor Day is a time to raise awareness about labor issues such as contractualization and unemployment, and to assert the rights of Filipino workers. 

“Although it is Labor Day, there is no reason for workers to celebrate, but more reasons to demonstrate,” Magtubo added.

Trade Union Congress of the Philippines spokesman Alan Tanjusay, on the other hand, said in a published interview also in May last year, that the public holiday is a time “to recognize and honor the contribution of Filipino workers to the economy of the country.” – research by Miguel Sevidal /

Miguel Sevidal is a Rappler intern.

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