May Day – The issues at stake


By Upali S. Jayasekera

The workers have come to observe May 1st as an event to further working class unity and solidarity. The choice of this day derived from the historic struggle launched by the American workers to win an eight hour working day and the attack by the Police on a workers’ protest meeting held at Haymarket Square, Chicago on 4th May 1886.

Despite the day being set apart for the workers, in Sri Lanka it is more a political event to which political parties attach great importance. Political parties utilize the day to show their strength whilst the workpeople exhibit their disunity and weakness. Yet the significance of May Day cannot be underscored.

The Industrial Revolution, in its wake brought in hopeless working conditions, low pay and unrestricted working hours. Men, women and children were kept on their feet for 12-13 hours a day under inhuman conditions. Those who had land and capital prospered whilst the poor were forced to a wretched life. Human rights and dignity were not for the workpeople. The belief at the time, among the rich was that the poor had to be kept in poverty and half-starved to get them to work.

The workers were prevented from organizing themselves and demanding better working conditions. Trade Union activity was considered as conspiracies by law. Workers engaged in trade union work were summarily prosecuted and imprisoned.

There was no job security. Hire and fire basis was in operation.

The competition among the employers (industrialists) at the time was such that even those who recognized the necessity to improve working conditions and shorter working hours, did not venture to introduce favourable working conditions for fear of being overtaken by their unscrupulous competitors. The only aim of the employer was to accumulate more money by maximizing profits. That was possible only by maintaining poor working conditions, low pay and long working hours. And that was what the workpeople had to put up with.

It is noteworthy that at the time the state backed the rich industrialists and prevented the workers from organising themselves. Any attempt to form a trade union resulted in Police raids, harassment, prosecution and imprisonment. There was interdependence and cooperation between the politicians and the industrialists and this set up helped the rich to prevent the workpeople from asserting their rights. This situation was inevitable as private enterprise then was the only economic rallying point and the employers were powerful financially and hence politically too.

Faced with that situation, it was clear to the workpeople that they had to organize themselves for their own protection and gaining what was due to them. This they did despite oppression and the existence of repressive legislation preventing unionisation of workers. The workers started calling for better working conditions. The strike demanding an eight hour working day was one such demand.

The strike and the bomb attack that killed a policeman and injuring 59 more at Haymarket Square in Chicago, America whilst a workers’ meeting was in progress, resulted in violent prejudices and incitement against workers.

As an aftermath of the bomb explosion the Police raided meeting halls, printing presses and private homes and saw to it that the raids were fruitful. For, each day they discovered ammunition, rifles, swards, cartridges, underground firing ranges etc. The irony of those findings is that the workers had never used such ammunition at any time during the struggle. However, the Police backed by the pulpit, the industrialists and the rich were able to stimulate public hysteria and anger against the workers in that manner.

Eight labour leaders were arrested over the Haymarket Square incident and brought to trial in an atmosphere of prejudice and were convicted of the murder of a policeman. Seven of the defendants were sentenced to death whilst the eighth was handed down a 15 year prison term. Two of those who appealed for clemency had their death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. One escaped the scaffold by committing suicide before the date of execution whilst the four others who refused to plead for clemency were hanged.

Those worker leaders were infact convicted not on conclusive evidence against them, but under the misguiding influence of hatred towards the workers. They were convicted over the economic and social ideas they held on to and fought for and not for a murder committed by them proved by evidence. They paid the penalty for coming forward to safeguard worker interests.

The Haymarket incident and its aftermath has a great impact on working class thinking. It stressed the necessity to mobilize working class power in greater velocity to win for the workers their due in society and safeguard their rights.

This thinking brought about working class unity and trade unions around which unity was ensured, have been vehicles of social change, safeguarding democracy and freedom. Trade Unions were successful in improving the quality of life of the workpeople and safeguarding their dignity.

Trade Unions or worker organizations which came into existence in an atmosphere of hostility, with the passage of time came to be tolerated due to necessity. Thereafter with the strengthening of the trade union movement toleration changed to one of partnership.

The suppression of workers ‘ rights and continuance of poverty paved the way for the emergence of the far left-communism. Communism in turn enslaved the workers and kept them in bondage.

Communism is no more. But if the reasons that led to the emergence of Communism are not removed, the resurgence of more violent forms of ideology is inevitable. Hence far right Capitalism that encourages suppression of workers’ rights and amassing of wealth by the few rich, should similarly be thrown out. However, this appears to be a far cry.

The open economy and multi-nationals have brought in an economy in favour of the rich. As a result the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened, unemployment increased and poverty extended. This inequality of economic standards is a social problem an injustice in the relations between capital and labour, landlords and tenants and employers and employees. This has to be overcome.

On the other hand, the financial crisis, unemployment and poverty have resulted in the workpeople being made to bear the burden and make sacrifices. Trade Unions are under attack for the inability to solve these problems, whilst the rich in whose hands capital lie are increasingly relied upon to overcome the crisis. The situation as a result can become worse.

There cannot be a strong trade union movement in a sick economy and there can be no freedom and democracy without a free and strong trade union movement.

The workers should therefore address their minds to these issues and resolve to overcome them by a united effort. The purpose of May Day will otherwise be defeated.

The observance of May Day would be in vain.

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