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May Day: New conditions need new strategies

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Tomorrow, May 1, will be celebrated worldwide as International Workers’ Day, or May Day, as it is traditionally called.

Here in SVG, workers will enjoy the day in a variety of ways, mainly recreational as any other public holiday – at picnics, fetes, or just plain old rest and recreation.

But May Day is not just another public holiday; it is a very special holiday which has come about based on the struggles and sacrifices of working people the world over. It is a 19th century creation, arising from the very nature of the capitalist system and the bitter fight of workers for the right to organize and bargain for conditions ensuring a decent life for themselves and their families.{{more}}

As such, the focus of International Workers’ Day is on workers’ rights and the achievements of the international workers’ movement. It is a day to remember those struggles and to serve as an inspiration to sustain and advance those noble efforts, in both developed and developing countries.

In the Caribbean, May Day in colonial times was a very special occasion, a day on which the labour issues were combined with the wider anti-colonial and democratic struggles. Huge marches were the order of the day right across the region and these helped to maintain the momentum and forward movement of those political parties which had arisen out of the bowels of the labour movement.

May Day is still big in some countries, if not quite as big as in the past. In Barbados, Guyana, and even in our neighbour to the south, Grenada, there are still big activities organized by the trade union movement, and while in Trinidad and Tobago, Labour Day is now officially commemorated on June 19, in honour of Uriah ‘Buzz’ Butler and the 1937 uprising, (akin to our own 1935 events), May 1 is not forgotten.

In St Vincent and the Grenadines, May Day has had a chequered past in recent times. The holiday was changed by the Mitchell administration from the first day of May to the first Monday in May, as had been done with Emancipation Day to August Monday in colonial times. It even had a spell doubling up as Fisherman’s Day, before being restored to May 1 by the ULP government after clamour by the local unions.

The irony of the situation is that the trade unions, having loudly advocated for the change, have not been able to take advantage of the opportunity and to organize meaningful activities to mark the occasion in a fitting manner. May Day in our country in the 21st century is a far cry from what it was 30/40 years ago.

For this, the unions and their leadership cannot escape some responsibility and are on the receiving end of union-bashing, especially the leadership, on an annual basis. But the issue is far deeper and much more complex than subjective criticism of the labour movement.

Much has happened over the last 50 years which has impacted on the changing face of capitalism globally and in turn on the character of the labour movement. To ignore these in any analysis would be a fundamental error. It is an error that we make in relation to a number of issues, where we tend to hark back to the past and bemoan the passing of the ‘good old times’.

Many of us elderly folk keep harping on “in our days,” as if everything was perfect then and imperfect now. We seem to conveniently forget our own weaknesses and errors and to situate those of today in their correct context. Let’s face it, those so-called ‘good old days’ will not return, neither in behavioural patterns, in West Indies cricket, in Carnival, nor indeed the fortunes of the banana industry.

We are faced with rapidly changing environments and must be prepared to adjust our strategies and tactics to suit if we are to be relevant. All the best intentions of the union leaders will not bring about massive May Day marches as in the past. We must accept this and seek to find relevant activities based on current day conditions.

Instead of bashing the unions and their leaders, should we not be seeking to engage and come up with appropriate activities which suit the current times? After all, we all have benefitted, in one way or another from the struggles of the labour movement.

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