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Reclaim May Day

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First, let me say thanks for the kind words in the press about me, including those from my brothers, the Drs. Richard Cox and Kenneth John. In some ways, though, I almost felt as though I was reading my own obituary – a pinch to make sure I am still here, was the reaction. On a sadder note, condolences are order to my fellow soldier on the banana frontline, Brother Philemon Allen (and family), on the loss of his father, and to the Richards family on the tragic murder of Edgerton Richards Jr.{{more}}

Moving to wider issues, next week the month of May begins with Workers Day on May 1st. It is great news to hear that the local trade union movement is making an effort to organize activities for the occasion scheduled to take place in Barrouallie next Thursday. Worrying, though, that the publicity and mobilization for the event is, in my view, at least, not as high powered as it deserves, and needs to be. For it is no easy task to get our workers, we who have so many complaints everyday, about how “things hard”, to come together in a common cause. It requires a lot of push, persuasion and incentive.

May Day, the International Day of the Workers, is in danger of falling into disuse. That is true in some countries, like ours, even more than others, but it is a worldwide phenomenon. What a tragedy, given the glorious history of May Day, its origin in the blood, sweat and tears of workers and its upkeep through their determined efforts at unionization and class solidarity. True, it has had its downside at times, especially, its misuse and abuse by opportunist politicians, and union leaders, too, for their own selfish purposes. But for it to be at the risk of becoming defunct is a betrayal of the life and times of our working class pioneers, like George Mc Intosh, George Charles, Ebenezer Joshua and Elma Francois. They fought not only for workers’ rights at the working place, but for special recognition of May Day as a Day for special recognition of May Day as a Day for Workers.

It was, therefore, a slap in the face of these heroes of the working class when May Day was downgraded in importance two decades ago. Not just by a decree by the government of the day, but also by the complacency of the workers themselves. It is as though we didn’t care, as long as it was a holiday, nothing else mattered. Whether we used it for fete, picnic or just simply rest, we paid little attention to the significance of Workers Day. So when in 2001 the new government “reclaimed” May Day, one looked forward to the revival of the spirit of working class solidarity.

Who tell we dat? For it was the government, not the trade union movement or the workers themselves, which took up the running. So much so that one could be forgiven for thinking that Workers Day was a ULP invention. The irony stood out for all to see. When most of our workers were estate bound or laboured on the waterfront or few factories at the time (“blue collar” workers as they call them), the working class movement and May Day was very much alive. Now today when as a result of the struggles of those early pioneers, their children have been educated, becoming “white collar” workers in the service industries, when teachers and public servants have genuine trade unions, interest in May Day is at rock bottom.

This should be a time when the movement is infused with enlightened, educated, leadership. Except for the teachers union, there is not much evidence of this. And let us not just point fingers at the union leadership, for our apathy is allowing this to happen. Imagine there have been reports of unions having to pull up by the NIS and Inland Revenue Department for defaulting on their commitments.

In spite of this far from rosy picture, all is not lost – well, not as yet. Starting with May Day we can begin the long, hard road back to respectability for the workers movement. It will never be the same as in the old days for times are changing. So must we. Yet we must be able to refashion our institutions in keeping with the times. The trade union movement today is as relevant as it was in the days of Joshua; bank workers need organization as much as sanitation workers, service workers equally as much as those in the manufacturing industry. In fact, unionization is even more challenging in today’s world. Globalisation and the spread of monopoly capitalism is a threat to the very survival of the planet on which we live. Global warming is a reality with which the workers movement needs to come to grips. It is not just wages and salaries but a whole wide range of issues facing us. Are we up to the challenge?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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