International Workers’ Day, May Day, has passed as any other public holiday in these times, mostly a day for recreation, much needed in many cases, but without the slightest attempt to understand the origin or significance of the day. Indeed, except for Christmas and Easter, the biggest Christian Festivals, only Independence and National Heroes Day carry some social significance.
It begs the question whether we should not revisit the scheduling of public holidays in an attempt to make public holidays more relevant and meaningful to the bulk of our people. How much weight should we attach to the old religious holidays inherited from colonial days? The religious landscape has changed tremendously in recent times and
some of the old holidays no longer have meaning to the modern religious community. Thus, most countries in the Caribbean which once had Corpus Christi, a Catholic creation, as a public holiday, have either removed it from the calendar or replaced it by some more relevant occasion.
At the end of this month, the Christian community will commemorate Whit Sunday and enjoy the related Whit Monday Holiday. We here, after experimenting with different dates, seem to have settled to observe the holiday as
Fisherman’s Day, a deserved tribute to our fisherfolk.
However, that in itself begs the question of a similar holiday for our farmers. We will then have, fittingly, public holidays for Workers, Fisherfolk and Farmers, the bedrock of our production. But then as we go along this road, women may well ask whether International Women’s Day does not deserve a public holiday as well. It can become quite a slippery slope. But for the time being, back to the May Day holiday.
It is obvious that changing times have affected the nature of its commemoration over the years. Yet the day is an extraordinary one, a global event cutting across all economic and social systems. It is celebrated in Russia as in the USA, in Catholic France and Italy as well as Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, in freezing Scandinavia and in teeming Africa, Asia and Latin America. Truly an international event underlying the indispensable role of labour.
But more and more, changing times have influenced the nature of May day activities as is only natural. But those changes do not in any way make May Day irrelevant, nor do they indicate that the basic contradictions between capital and labour are over. Far from it. In fact, those contradictions have heightened and if we have been following developments the world over, we will see that workers have utilized the day to highlight the issues most dear to them.
Pension reform in France, the critical state of the health system in Britain and the plight of public workers, the issues facing migrants in Latin America, were but some of the issues which brought workers out to demonstrate. Why then should some of us conclude that the days of workers’ marches and demonstrations are over?
The nature and intensity of the contradictions will determine the response. In fact, one does not just have to demonstrate against something to hold a May Day March. One can very well use the occasion to re-emphasize and celebrate the occasion, to underline the importance of worker organization and the continuing need for trade unions and other forms of worker organization- credit unions for instance.
In fact, I was surprised that the leadership of the public sector unions did not use such a glorious occasion to hold some form of activity to press their cause. How could you let such a glorious opportunity pass without even a murmur?
The Trade Union movement and its allies must not succumb to ideas which can have the effect of weakening their solidarity. Yes, there exists within the trade union movement differences at the leadership level. But May Day is at least one day to demonstrate that what binds workers together is much stronger than the issues that divide the leadership.
Couldn’t the unions agree on at least a bottom line so as to allow workers to focus on solidarity and the need for workers to stick together?
Take the issue of daily-paid workers for instance. Since last year workers in better positions got salary increases, but we are now being told by the Minister of Labour/Agriculture that the archaic Wages Council was constituted on March 29, and has embarked on its work. Why are those at the bottom of the ladder always the ones to feel it the most? Don’t they suffer from rising prices like the rest of us? Can’t the organized trade union movement help with a campaign in favour of unionisation?
Yes, times are changing, and organizations must be flexible enough to change with the times. But they themselves must determine their responses and not allow disunity to undermine the worker’s cause. The fact that times are changing does not appear to occur to politicians. The same working people are mobilized for all kinds of events, so why can’t they mobilize to celebrate their own?
Worker education, class consciousness and solidarity are far more important than leadership and partisan political differences.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.