A brief introduction to Labour Day in Switzerland

A brief introduction to Labour Day in Switzerland

Labour Day is a national holiday in 10 cantons in Switzerland. The event on May 1 is designed to celebrate the achievements of workers and to protest social issues through marches, speeches and social action.

Where is Labour Day celebrated in Switzerland?

International Workers Day (Tag der Arbeit, Fête du travail, Festa del lavoro), also known as Labour Day, is an official holiday celebrating workers in the alpine nation. Taking place on May 1 every year, the event is recognised around the world and is celebrated as a cantonal holiday.

Which cantons have Labour Day as a day off?

In Switzerland, 10 cantons have Labour Day as an official day or half day off. These are:

  • Aargau
  • Basel-Stadt
  • Basel-Land
  • Jura
  • Neuchâtel
  • Schaffhausen
  • Solothurn
  • Thurgau
  • Ticino
  • Zurich

All other cantons do not consider Labour Day a day off, so check with your employer to see if it counts as a day of paid leave for you. Also bear in mind that Switzerland does not provide compensation for holidays that fall on a weekend, meaning that, sadly, when May 1 lands on a weekend, people do not get a day off in lieu.

History of Labour Day in Switzerland

The first Labour Day in Switzerland took place in 1890. The year before, the International Workers’ Congress in Paris called on workers from all countries around the world to protest on May 1 to secure an eight-hour working day.

Switzerland one of the first to celebrate Labour Day

Switzerland joined the new May Day protest the following year and has been marking the event ever since. In the first few years, workers faced repercussions for attending Labour Day, as protests usually occurred within working hours.

This was until the mid-1890s, when employers finally allowed workers to protest, albeit without pay. The typical celebrations included marches by workers with large, mostly red banners, rallies with political speeches and then a large party that would last well into the early hours.

The Swiss General Strike of 1919 and later popularity

The practice steadily grew in popularity, culminating in the Swiss General Strike of 1919. That year, Labour Day was used to advocate for a 48-hour working week, but things quickly escalated in November when a general strike was called and several lives were lost in one of the most significant crises in Switzerland since the Sonderbund War of 1847.

After 1919 and the censorship of the Second World War, Labour Day began to adopt several non-political rituals, such as costume groups, music and dance performances. During the Cold War, overtly political marches were avoided, leading to a decline in participation in many areas.

60s revival and greater inclusion

From the 1960s onwards, Labour Day started to include several new social movements and expat workers, who used the event to push for greater reform. Employees from all backgrounds were encouraged to participate, as they do to this day. Switzerland is now one of the few countries in Europe that has held Labour Day marches in some form every year since 1890.

What happens on Labour Day in Switzerland?

On Labour Day, many unions and workers in Switzerland take the day as an opportunity to protest on the streets, with thousand-strong marches and large banners. Issues raised range from salaries to working conditions and employee rights when losing a job.

The Swiss Trade Union Federation (SGB), the largest trade union in Switzerland, runs around 50 different events in Swiss cities like Geneva, Basel, Bern, Lausanne and Solothurn. The largest event however is organised by the SGB in Zurich. The Labour Day protest in Zurich regularly attracts over 17.000 people and is one of the largest regularly held protests in Switzerland. 

Events typically include a solidarity march through the city, followed by keynote speakers and activist rallies. Bear in mind that these events have been known to get rowdy, so expect a strong presence by Swiss police and do take care if you plan to attend the event.

Labour Day in Switzerland gives workers a voice

While not achieving the popularity of pre-war years, Labour Day celebrations in Switzerland continue to be well attended and are now used by a number of social movements to promote their causes. While Switzerland is not typically known for its activism, Labour Day is a crucial day where workers in the alpine nation can have their voices heard.

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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