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The significance of May reduced

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As a young boy, and later in early adulthood, the month of May always brought with it a certain significance. There was the annual May fair, held by the church and most times a Whit Monday holiday, a day for picnicking. But for me and many of my schoolmates, there was an aura about May Day, Workers Day, which grabbed special attention.

In the fifties, with working, economic and social conditions as bad as they were then, May Day was the time for workers, the poor and downtrodden, to make their voices heard and to come out in solidarity with each other.{{more}} I was fortunate enough to be close to the mobilization efforts, since my parents lived in the same building where the legendary Ebeneezer Joshua had both the headquarters of his Federated Industrial and Agricultural Workers’ Union (FIAWU), as well as the People’s Political Party (PPP). One could not help but be influenced and enthralled by the hive of activity.

The marches, uniting estate workers with their counterparts on the waterfront and those in other categories; the lusty singing of “Hold the Fort……….Union men be strong”; the fiery speeches, and yes, at the end of it all, the sharing of modest refreshments made a strong impression on my mind and helped to raise awareness and consciousness of critical social issues. It provided a useful platform on which to build later in life. Yes, May Day of those times, was real, alive and motivational.

The merging of the trade union and political struggles with the struggles against colonial rule, for democracy, against estate serfdom and racism, came to a head in the 1970s. Then, the Black Power influence, at its zenith in the USA, was strong in the Caribbean as well. May was the month chosen to commemorate African Liberation Day, and added spice was given to mobilization efforts during this month. Political activists of my generation very much looked forward to and prepared for the month of May.

In the four decades since then, this precious month of May has witnessed some epic political battles, right here in St Vincent and the Grenadines. There have been high points such as the unforgettable mobilization of 1981 against draconian pieces of legislation proposed by the Cato government of the day. May Day 1981 was one of the more memorable such occasions and helped to strengthen the resolve of the working people in their struggle to preserve democracy.

There were also notable activities around African Liberation Day. In 1973, the first attempt to organize local activities to express solidarity with the struggle against apartheid, colonialism and racism in Africa, had to be aborted. The reason? There was an unofficial state of emergency, occasioned by the tragic shooting of Attorney-General Cecil Rawle and the manhunt that police were carrying out in search of the killers.

But one year later came the historic first ALD march, uniting young progressives in the urban area with their rural brothers and sisters, marching through the estate belt to highlight the suffering of the people there and linking it with what was taking place on the African continent. That bond of solidarity was to continue year after year, bringing speakers from other Caribbean territories and even members of the African National Congress of South Africa itself. The high point came in a massive rally at Bishop’s College grounds in Kingstown in 1990 to celebrate the release of Nelson Mandela from 27 years of unjust imprisonment.

With such a rich background, one is left to wonder how have we arrived at such a passive May today. The mobilization and militancy of workers and the trade union movement are a far cry away from the recollections I have mentioned here. Throughout the region, but particularly in St Vincent and the Grenadines, the trade union movement has been weakened and its unity ruptured by petty personal and political divisions. Major changes have occurred in the character of the workforce which require new strategies and innovative leadership. Distractions have loomed larger and many workers today have difficulty identifying the achievements over the years with the struggles and sacrifices of the trade union and working people’s movements.

A similar shift has occurred in the bonds of solidarity which once linked us to the African liberation struggle. Apartheid and colonialism have been brought to an end, but too many African leaders are mired in corruption and anti-democratic practices. Nelson Mandela must be turning incessantly in his grave at the revelations concerning the personal enrichment of many of his successors today. No wonder the month of May no longer has the same attraction.

But, as the saying goes “A LUTA CONTINUA”, (the struggle continues).

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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