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Rebuild the workers’ movement


Another May Day has passed with varying levels of activities held to mark the occasion throughout the region. Workers’ Day in the 21st century is sure a long cry from what it was three or four decades ago, and this fact has not escaped the many critics of the labour movement. But what has remained the same since those days?{{more}}

In the case of St Vincent and the Grenadines, the low level of participation is all the more obvious because of the fact that the labour movement itself had been in the forefront for the restoration of May 1 as May Day and not the first Monday in May, as it had become. It is therefore embarrassing to having successfully campaigned for the restoration of May 1 and then being unable to organize events appropriate for the occasion.

Yet, it would be wrong to conclude that restoring May Day to May 1 was wrong. The reasoning behind it still stands, as does the reasoning behind restoring August 1 as Emancipation Day. When the holiday falls in mid-week, there is certainly some inconvenience caused, but no more than when Christmas Day is in a similar position. We maintain December 25, not any “third Monday” in December, because of the significance of the occasion to the Christian community. This is in spite of no scientific evidence to connect the birth of Jesus Christ to December 25. In contrast, there is concrete justification for May 1 being Workers’ Day and August1 being Emancipation Day. The weaknesses of the present trade union movement do not, in any way, refute such justification.

At the same time the leadership of the trade union movement, in particular, and all workers in general, must accept the criticism levelled about the lack of enthusiasm over May Day celebrations. Frankly put, in spite of the many gains that union organizing and political action have brought for workers in the Caribbean, the level of working class consciousness has waned significantly. In many respects workers have come to believe that betterment of their standard of living can only come through political parties and the ballot.

It is a fundamental error to treat workers as though they are simply some “special interest group.” Workers represent a major economic pillar of society, without whom economic life, as presently organized, cannot exist. The labour movement cannot be regarded as some other non-governmental organization, and futile debates be launched as to what benefits should accrue to it. The enjoyment of the fundamental rights of workers – the rights to rewarding employment, decent wages and a sustainable standard of living, the basic rights to freedom of association and to bargaining as a means of improving conditions of work – these are best guaranteed when workers take it upon themselves to organize to guarantee the exercise of those rights.

Looking around our own island and our neighbours in the region, it is clear that even maintaining those rights and living standards, much more improving them, is proving to be more and more challenging. Of course, the union leadership has a responsibility to provide clear leadership, a sense of direction and purpose. It is one thing to have political affiliations of one sort or another; it is another if those are allowed to supersede class interests. The labour movement has to safeguard its independence fiercely and learn to make strategic alliances.

However much we heap blame, rightfully so, on the union leadership, workers themselves cannot be excused for their own continued lack of participation in union activities, save in wage negotiations and for neglecting the importance of solidarity. May Day, for instance is not the sole preserve of the union leadership, it belongs to all workers, organized and unorganized. The more we neglect it, the stronger will be the clamour about its supposed “lack of relevance,” and, who knows, maybe a call to do away with it altogether, the one day of solidarity with the workers of the world. Curiously, although we have other holidays, the relevance of which can be questioned, nobody points fingers there.

It is a warning to workers that the proverbial “socks need pulling up;” if there are shortcomings at leadership level, we must address these, but by all means, the conditions may change, the types of jobs may do so also, but the workers need strong organizations if their rights are to be defended. Capital is becoming more and more aggressive, all kinds of anti-worker sentiments are being spewed. In the face of this workers need to be prepared; that can only come from organizing, building unity and solidarity, cleaning the Augean stables and moving forward.

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Renwick Rose is a community activist

and social com-mentator.