Thursday, 1 May 2008

Labour movements cry 'mayday!'

May 1 is a traditional workers' day holiday across most of Europe, with most of the countries on the continent having the day off (the UK and Ireland save the day off for the following Monday). It coincides with a traditional pagan holiday welcoming spring, and such festivities are a big part of the celebrations. But it is also a traditional day for labour protests, although the intensity of those has tapered off over the years.

Berlin, for example, used to see massive street protests. But over the past five years they've dwindled to almost nothing. In fact May Day in Europe is quickly coming to resemble the watered-down version that is celebrated in September in the United States, Labour Day. The American version was put at that time as a compromise with unions because the government thought the traditional May 1 was too radical). Like in the United States, where few people could tell you what Labor Day celebrates, May 1 in the Europe has now also begun to lose its meaning in Europe.

However in other areas of the world it still maintains relevance. In Turkey the day still has huge significance. Though it is a normal working day in Turkey, the government has had to resist intense union pressure this year to make it a day off. Today has already seen violent clashes in Istanbul. Turkish riot police used water cannons and tear gas to disperse crowds gathering for an outlawed May Day rally in central Istanbul today, according to Reuters.

In fact in many ways May Day's significance is shifting to the developing world, as can be seen by activity today. In Egypt, the Al-Ahram weekly reports that for the first time in five years the government is going to have to take May Day demands seriously.

In Africa, celebrations across the continent are quite large. In South Africa, for instance, it is a very big deal. And in neighboring Zimbabwe the government is using it as a morale booster in the midst of the deepening crisis there.

However in India, papers noted the exceptionally mild May Day the country has experienced this year, echoing the trend in Europe. THAIndian noted, "Labour Day, once an occasion to bring most of India’s organised workers together, was a relatively insipid affair around the country Thursday, with trade unions organising a few rallies. Governments inthe Communist-ruled states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura observeda holiday. There were small trade union rallies in some towns besides acandle-light rally by sex workers in Kolkata demanding recognition asorganised labour."

Labour as an organising force and as a global social movement seems to be declining in significance in politics and in people's lives, most acutely in the West. What will this mean for the future of the working class and for the way politics and economics intersect? With global enthusiasm for Labour as an organising and inspiring force dying, what movements will step in to take their place? Will religious movements be the Labour of the 21st century?

No comments: