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International Workers' Day: why do so many Danes celebrate on May 1st?

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International Workers' Day: why do so many Danes celebrate on May 1st?
Workers carry banners in Fælledparken, Copenhagen on May 1st, 2017. Photo: Sarah Christine Nørgaard/Ritzau Scanpix
09:15 CEST+02:00
International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, is technically not a Danish public holiday but many employers, especially in the public sector, give employees the day off.

Here at The Local Denmark we do not fall into that category, so we have prepared a lowdown on why May 1st is so important to the Danes, and how the occasion is marked.


Labour Day in Denmark is characterised by fiery speeches, red banners, worker's songs and no shortage of beer and coffee.

The international tradition took hold in the Scandinavian nation back in 1890, not long after workers around the world chose the first day of May to campaign for and celebrate the introduction of the eight-hour working day.

At this time, Denmark's union movement attended large congresses in France to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution, and the Danish worker's day movement was born, writes trade union magazine Fagbladet 3F.

READ ALSO: Working in Denmark: Unions and A-kasse

International Workers' Day was celebrated for the first time in 1890 in Copenhagen's Fælledparken, which remains the quintessential location for speeches by both union leaders and politicians to this day.

Labour Day in Copenhagen in 1957. Photo: Ulf Nilsen/Ritzau Scanpix


It wouldn't be May 1st without speeches, and the very first was held by Jens Jensen, chairman of Copenhagen's unions at the end of the 19th century. The demand for an eight-hour working day continued as the main theme of Labour Day well into the 20th century, according to Fagbladet 3F.

Later, politicians, particularly on the “red” side of the Danish political spectrum, began to use the occasion to appeal to workers. In 2013, for example, former prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt was whistled and booed by a restive crowd in Aarhus amid criticism of what at the time was perceived to be the increasingly liberal policies of her Social Democrat-led government.

This year, trade union organisers in Aalborg, the home town of current Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen, withdrew their invitation for the head of the opposition to give her traditional speech in the city. Frederiksen's response to a recently-resolved labour conflict was the apparent background for the move, which was announced in March.

READ ALSO: Danish Social Democrat leader faces rejection on Labour Day

Politicians aside, the main aim of the union leader speeches is to promote solidarity in workers' movements and campaign for better working conditions – new and surprising announcements are uncommon.

Social Democrat party leader Mette Frederiksen speaking in Glostrup near Copenhagen on May 1st, 2018. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Anthems and banners

Singing in chorus, an activity that Danes do not need much encouragement to partake in, is closely connected to Labour Day. While anthems in Fælledparken no longer take place, local unions still have anthems. Old socialist anthems like The International and Danish favourites such as Sådan er Kapitalismen or Når jeg ser et rødt flag smælde ('When I See a Red Flag') are not an uncommon sight on social media on May 1st.

Red banners, meanwhile, mark out political messages as well as union and trade affiliations on Danish Labour Day gatherings.

Photo: Sarah Christine Nørgaard/Ritzau Scanpix

Meeting in parks

It is not just at Copenhagen's Fælledparken that labourers celebrate their day. Workers in towns and cities all over the country are able to attend local Labour Day rallies, usually organised by labour unions.

The occasion is also seen as an opportunity to enjoy a day off – many take to parks with picnics, cans of beer and a thermos full of coffee.

Denmark's Labour Day celebrations do not have the confrontational reputation of those in Berlin - although Germany actually has as many strange May 1st traditions as clashes between left-wing groups and police.

The day though, remains an unashamedly left-wing event - so much so that newspaper MetroXpress last year published a spoof story about the leader of the right-wing Danish People's Party giving a speech on May 1st.

MetroXpress' front page featured a spoof story about a right-wing speech on May 1st. Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix

But Denmark's traditions of social solidarity and strong labour unions have helped International Worker's Day prevail as an event that is still going strong in modern, globalised times. Even if not everyone gets the day off.

Happy International Workers' Day! 

A previous version of this article was originally published on May 1st, 2017.

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