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May Day shows our weakness

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ANOTHER MAY DAY, another Workers day has come and gone, as if it were a merge public holiday given for well needed rest and recreation for our workers. The presence and impact of the organized Labour movement on the Day continues to be minimal or at worst non-existent. Gone are the days when May Day/Workers Day would be a significant one in the local calendar with mobilisations. So strong was the influence over 40 years ago that not only did those workers, their unions and political representatives turn out to march but even the non-union, antiunion Labour Party of the time would stage its biggest political manifestations on May Day in an attempts to challenge the monopoly of Joshua, his FIAWU and PPP over the support of the labouring classes.{{more}}

There was a decline in the importance of May Day associated both with advances in labour rights and the weakening of Joshua’s political position in the late sixties and early seventies. But the movement itself continued to grow as workers began more and more to assert their rights. The mid-seventies witnessed a revival in the commemoration of May Day as the various industrial and social disputes coupled with rising consciousness and militancy among younger workers took root. This was the decade of the pre-eminence of the Teachers Union but others the St. Vincent Workers Union, the Commercial Technical and Allied Workers Union (CTAWU) the Civil Service Association/Public Service Union all played their part. Buttressing them was the progressive political movement and its trade union and farmers contingents, the National Progressive Workers Union and National Farmers Union.

It was a decade of the crises in health and education, a contradictory period of progressive social legislation but arrogant and even repressive government actions as the Cato regime began to decay. Some of the finest hours of the modern labour movement were exhibited here in heroic resistance such as the industrial actions of teachers, nurses, workers at St. Vincent Motors and the Water Authority. The crowning point was the successful struggle against the Dread Bills of 1981. What a May Day that one was!

However as the advances were made and victories scored, as the international environment changed rapidly, the local (and regional) labour movement seemed not to be able to keep pace with the social evolution. In addition many trade union leaders, internationally, regionally and locally lacking clear vision and relevant strategies began to rely more and more on collaboration with employers and political tailing in order to keep themselves afloat.

Workers and trade union consciousness, class solidarity, gave way to individualism and even petty union rivalry. Naturally, in such a situation, May Day, the sacred day of the Workers became a casualty. By the time former Prime Minister Sir James Mitchell, officially downgraded the occasion and further diluted it by adding Fisherman’s Day to the mix, the labour movement had no answer. We even spent our time on non-effective attacks on Mitchell, some of us seeking to even turn the setback into an advance by mobilising the fisherfolk to the cause and linking the fortunes of the toil on land and sea as a common one. Hindsight eh?

In spite of all this, the influence of the labour movement has brought about significant legislative and social achievements – NIS, protection of Employment, Health and Safety etc. That is not to say that there are not many loopholes in those advances or much more ground to be covered. But economically, socially and legislatively there have been victories. Unfortunately the movement as a whole has not been able to take advantage of these and advance the cause of the class as a whole where power relations in the society are concerned. We are still at the stage of piece-meal victories in minor skirmishes. The power and influence of the movement as an organized entity vis a vis either the government as the largest employer or the employer class as a whole is still very limited. Indeed the term “working class” is today largely taboo.

So May Day, officially reclaimed as May 1 by the Unity Labour Party government remains mainly a feather in the cap of that political force, rather than occurring to the benefit of the organized labour movement which had pleaded for its restitution. Outside the ruling party, the labour movement has been unable to assert its claim to Workers Day, incapable (or unwilling) to mobilize the workers around the occasion. It needs some introspection and reflection on the issue.

In today’s world of unbridled capitalism, trade agreements which sacrifice workers rights on the altar of international capital, the trade union movement is more needed, more relevant than ever. As governments become more captive to international financial institutions and today’s money barons, workers need a higher level of organization, a greater show of solidarity, a deeper sense of common purpose, a more concrete manifestation of unity.

Yes, conditions have changed but the fundamental, contradictions remain. For our workers, that fundamental contradiction is not between ULP and NDP but between the common interests of workers and their organizations and those who benefit most from their labour. The failure to be able to assert itself on May Day is a clear reflection of the weaknesses of the movement and its inability to grasp with the realities of the situation. Is it not time for us to re-assess and re-strategize?

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