Campaigning for paid holiday for everyone

After the Industrial Revolution, the majority of working people no longer enjoyed the seasonal breaks that farming offered. Most workers had Sundays off, but apart from that the only other time off was during the religious holidays of Christmas and Good Friday.

Vintage TUC poster calling for 'holidays for all'From the beginning, trade unions campaigned for every worker to have paid leave – as a right. It took more than a century, but generation after generation of trade unionists never gave up.

At the end of the 19th century most people had no paid holidays except bank holidays. The TUC first began to campaign for paid holidays for workers in 1911. Unions encouraged local organisers to demand more paid holiday from employers – and workplace-by-workplace some working people began to get more paid time off. But the law still lagged behind.

In 1938, after pressure from the unions and the International Labour Organisation, the government passed the Holidays with Pay Act. It finally gave some workers (those whose minimum rates of wages were fixed by trade boards) the right to one week of paid holiday per year.

This was progress. But it fell short of the two weeks demanded by trade unions – and it did not cover all workers. So the campaign continued – for decades. Slowly, over time, unions won the right to paid leave for more workers through collective bargaining agreements with individual companies – but still lots of workers missed out, particularly part-time workers.

Even pressure from the European Union didn’t help. In 1993 the EU gave the right to four weeks’ paid holiday to all workers – but John Major’s government decided to opt out. Finally, after more than a century of campaigning by unions, the law was changed.

On 1 October 1998, the new Labour government implemented the EU working time directive. And at a stroke, six million workers got more paid holiday than before – and two million of those got their first paid holiday ever. The battle started by trade unionists in the nineteenth century had finally been won.