This week is a significant one for the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the working people in particular. Smack in themiddle of the week is perhaps the most recognised international holiday, International Workers’ Day (May Day), the celebration of which cuts across national boundaries, religious affiliation and political outlook. There is no similar cross-cutting event in the world.
Earlier in the week, on Monday, there was the launching of an important book by Finance Minister Hon. Camillo Gonsalves, entitled “GLOBALISED, CLIMATISED, STIGMATISED”, which addresses some of the most critical issues affecting the people of small island-states such as ours. Then, today, Friday May 3, there is the official funeral of one of our most prominent cultural figures, former Government Minister John Horne, who distinguished himself and dignified his country particularly in his contribution to the arts. May he rest in peace!
Keeping May Day alive
Since this column was written before the May Day holiday, I cannot comment on the activities scheduled, but it is heartening to know that, in spite of the current-day negative trends, there are still those folks who are determined to keep the May Day tradition and message alive. International Workers Day as a global holiday, did not come easily, and it marks an important landmark in the recognition of the value of labour world-wide.
Other holidays have specific social or religious bases, but this is the one with universal recognition.
There was a time when, fresh from victories in the recognition of workers’ rights, including the freedom of association in joining unions, May Day was one of the highlights of our calendar year, in SVG and most of the rest of the Caribbean. But over the years, for various reasons, it has declined in importance and scope. However, in several countries May Day is still a big occasion, commemorated by the working people.
Unfortunately, SVG is not in the forefront of these celebrants, and while we have been successful in the campaign to have May 1 declared as the official holiday, not just the first Monday in May, it has been embarrassing to note the low-key approach and poor participation in activities for the Day. Appreciation of its significance is far from the level that it ought to be.
There are many reasons for this. One is rooted in the global decline in the importance of trade unions. In spite of the gains won over the years, powerful employers, bent on extracting the maximum benefits from workers have used their influence on governments to continue to limit the influence of workers organisations and to roll back hard-won gains.
In addition, changes in the economy and the shift more and more to the service sectors have brought in their train some mistaken beliefs among some workers that they are not really “workers’ in the traditional sense and that trade unions and occasions like May Day are not for them. The irony is that the more that capitalism develops, whether in the manufacturing, service or public sectors, the greater is there the need for trade union organisation to defend workers’ rights. Too many workers only have time for unions when their livelihood is at stake.
Along with this decoupling from the natural roots, there is the tendency to succumb to anti-union propaganda. Workers fall for the propaganda that unions are “a burden”, that union dues are a burden and that all trade union leaders only “sponge” on workers. Today very few unions can finance needed activities from dues, but that is not well appreciated.
Disunity a problem
To compound all of this there is the big problem of disunity in the labour movement. Long ago the employer class and reactionary governments set out on a deliberate strategy of dividing the international labour movement. Political and ideological differences were foisted on the workers movement to create divisions. This continues today.
The trade union leadership must also share some of the blame since too many leaders seem to put political party affiliation above worker class interests. That exists in almost all Caribbean countries of today and, as a consequence, the interests of working people are too often sacrificed to fit those of political parties which have no commitment to the interests of working people.
We here in SVG have our share of these differences, real and perceived. Yet it is in the interests of all the working people that such differences, real or imagined, be addressed maturely. The egos of trade union leaders or their individual partisan political preferences CANNOT be placed above those of the working people as a whole.
That is why occasions like May Day must be used to try and find common ground, to keep dialogue alive, to re-emphasize the need for solidarity and to strengthen the working people in their just struggle for a decent standard of living, dignity and a future for their children. We must not let party politics, opportunism or big-headedness create artificial barriers to class unity That is the message of May Day.
is a community activist and social commentator.