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Labour Day in Denmark: why is it so special?

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Labour Day in Denmark: why is it so special?
Labour Day celebrations in Copenhagen's Fælledparken in 2016. Photo: Mathias Løvgreen Bojesen/Scanpix
12:39 CEST+02:00
International Worker's 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 lucky category, so have prepared a lowdown on why May 1st is so important to the Danes.

How and why do Danes celebrate International Worker’s Day?

History

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.

 

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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, according to Danish union magazine Fagbladet 3F.

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

International Worker’s 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.

Speeches

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 in front of 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.

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 will be giving speeches in several locations today. Photo: Henning Bagger/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 like Sådan er Kapitalismen or Når jeg ser et rødt flag smælde are not an uncommon sight on social media on May 1st.

Red banners, meanwhile, mark out the political message of Danish Labour Day gatherings.


Banners in Fælledparken in 2016. Photo: Mathias Løvgreen Bojesen/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 week 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 Worker’s Day! 

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