In 1961, a Bill in Parliament abolished the public holiday, Empire Day. Empire Day was the birthday of Queen Victoria of England, the Monarch attributed with abolishing slavery, her birthday was a public holiday celebrated May 24th. The new bill in Parliament, however, designated May 23rd as Labour Day, the day which marks the anniversary of the working class movement which began in Jamaica in 1938.

St. Wiliam Grant
St. William Grant

By 1938 Jamaica was rife for labour unrest, labourers were grossly underpaid and several strikes broke out across the island with workers all asking for the same thing, better wages. The most outstanding of these unrests was the riot at Frome sugar factory, which occurred in May of that 1938.  One prominent figure that arose from the 1938 upheavals was St. William Grant, he was a labour leader, black nationalist and Garveyite. 

Grant spoke loudly for the rights of workers and was even arrested in 1938 for his firm stands, however he sank from the pages on history into obscurity and poverty. His contributions have not been forgotten though and the Victoria Park in Parade in the centre of Kingston was renamed in memory of St.William Grant in 1977. In 1974  he was awarded the Order of Distinction posthumously. 

It was from these labour upheavals that trade unions were formed to champion the cause of Jamaican workers. From 1961 until 1971, Labour Day was mainly celebrated by the trade unions in collaboration with the political parties to which they were affiliated. These celebrations took the form of public rallies meetings and marches which were held primarily in the corporate area. There were occasions when the marches of the opposing major trade unions and the political parties clashed, contrary to the original concept that Labour Day should be a demonstration of unity among the workers in Jamaica. 

There was one additional dimension to the celebration, instituted by the most Honourable Hugh Shearer when he became Prime Minister in 1967,  this was in the form of a Labour Day reception at Jamaica House. This is a tradition which still stands today. Hugh Shearer began his political career as a trade unionist. He took part with Bustamante and other union officers in negotiations with employers in some of the most important labour disputes. In 1953 he was appointed Island Supervisor of the Union. In 1977 he became the President of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union and in the ensuing years built the Union into the largest in the English speaking Caribbean.

In 1972, the Prime Minister the Honourable Michael Manley gave this National Holiday [another] new dimension by issuing an appeal to all Jamaicans to put some meaning into Labour Day by making it a day of voluntary labour. Mr. Manley himself spearheaded this movement by announcing that he would be working on the Palisadoes Road, clearing land and planting and generally beautifying the hitherto barren strips of land.

Following Mr. Manley’s lead, clubs, groups, organizations all over Jamaica began to plan to give free labour to beautify public areas, repair, and paint or build old people’s homes, basic schools community centres, churches – some 464 projects were scheduled to be put into effect on that day. 

Up to 1989, the decision about Labour Day projects rested in the hands of groups and individuals. However, things changed that year as the Jamaican government intervened and introduced themes as a guide for persons to assist in Labour Day activities.

The identification of a theme was meant to foster wider national involvement but did compel citizens to be bound by the theme. Since 1989, Labour Day themes have included a wide range of issues such as health and the environment, youth and the community, respect for the elderly, road safety, and the planting of trees.

–From Origins of Modern Labour Day and Labour Day Jamaica Style by the National Library of Jamaica