The promise of an electrifying force uniting the working class against the Government, charged by the proposed hike in the power tariff, did not come to pass on May Day as predicted by many. The rallies and demonstrations did take place and the largest was easily that of the UPFA and its allies.
In keeping with the Sri Lankan tradition in recent decades of May Day being a show of political party strength, rather than that of working class militancy and struggles for more rights, May Day this year too was a similar display of political strength, where the ruling UPFA demonstrated its continued dominance.
On the issue of electricity tariff on which many in the opposition had hoped to harness the strength of the working people this May Day, it appears that the UPFA led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa had the greater impact, with the President himself announcing concessions to electricity consumers having lower usage, and thereby taking the wind off the sails of those in opposition, who expected to use the power issue for a new push to their political hopes that remain weak due to the divisions and disarray in opposition politics.
If the Opposition parties thought of this May Day as one that would make a turning point in politics through the electricity issue, it is they who were in for a shock.
To the applause of thousands, present President Rajapaksa announced that the power tariff will not be increased for the consumers whose electricity usage does not exceed 60 units a month, and stressed that a percentage of relief would also be introduced to the consumers who use less than 180 units per month.
In a new measure of relief, President Rajapaksa said that those who are self-employed would soon be able to obtain low interest loans.
It has been a pattern of politics in our country for many years that May Day is the expression of strength of the government in office, rather than the demonstration of working people’s solidarity. This is the result of the trade union movement being divided on the lines of party politics rather than on the broader issues of workers and peasants' rights or that of social demands. What happened to the old left-party LSSP and CP led May Day shows of working class strength, began their decline with the emergence of the SLFP’s own trade unions and later the UNP - the unquestioned party of the right, too, having its trade unions and joining in the May Day show of political party strength.
It appears that in all the shouting that we heard of how May Day this year would show a change in political direction in Sri Lanka, with an opposition that lacks coherence and policy hoping to use the power tariff to cover its inherent weaknesses in policy and leadership, the actual beginnings of May Day has been forgotten by all.
The history of May Day or International Workers' Day is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, when the police who were trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour workday, fired on the striking workers, killing four demonstrators. The police claimed that an unidentified person among the protesters had thrown a bomb at them. It is a claim that has never been established by proof.
In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International's second congress in 1891. Subsequently, the May Day Riots of 1894 occurred. In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam called on all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.
The congress made it mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers. In many countries, the working classes sought to make May Day an official holiday, and their efforts have largely succeeded. May 1 is now a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries.
Of special significance to us in South Asia is the May Day demonstration that took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Its focus was on the recent collapse of an illegally built many storeyed building that housed at least five garment factories employing several thousand workers, mainly women. It is now confirmed that more than 400 workers have been killed, and others remain missing. In addition to the anger of the Bangladeshi workers and people at large, such repeated crises in the Bangladeshi garment sector have now drawn the attention of the International Labor Organization, as well as the European Union. The safety of the lives of working people is clearly an important issue for the Bangladeshi people today, and May Day was a good time to draw attention to it in a country that depends so heavily on the garment export sector in its economy.
The suffering of the Bangladeshi workers is the cause for genuine sympathy and calls for solidarity with them for future success. Yet it is necessary to recall that the growth of the trade union movement in Sri Lanka in the last century, and their pressure on successive governments, have resulted in Sri Lanka having some of the most secure working conditions in this region, and has brought the country both into compliance with most requirements of the ILO as well as winning praise from it for the progress made. May Day is a good occasion to note this with satisfaction.
There was much activity in Europe this May Day, with protest rallies and demonstrations in several capitals. Workers hit by lower living standards and record high unemployment staged May Day protests across Europe on Wednesday, hoping to persuade euro zone governments of the case for easing austerity measures and boosting growth.
The most significant was the protest in Greece, where there was a general strike and those who took to the streets remained focused on the policies of austerity that have had serious adverse effects of the daily lives of the Greek people. The immediate cause for further anger among the people was the decision of the Greek government to dismiss at least 1,500 public officers in the next year, adding to the huge burdens of unemployment, living costs and livelihoods of the Greek people.
May Day protests in many other capitals of Europe and May Day related statements by political leaders also laid stress on the need for new political thinking to meet the economic and political crises that affect the entire European continent and the euro zone. There is increasing opinion in Europe to move away from what seems to be an obsession with the policies of austerity and instead look at policies of growth, to meet the demands of economic expansion.
The prime minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, of the center-left Democratic Party who heads a coalition with the center rightists led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has already stated that Europe must look at policies of growth. Mr. Letta has already made his position known to French President Francoise Hollande and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Analysts of European politics see him having issues with Angela Merkel on this policy shift, as she is strongly in favour of austerity, and is also facing an election in September with the German people being largely against German assisted bail outs to other European countries.
Spain & the Pope
In Spain, hit by massive unemployment and huge austerity imposed on it, thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, snaking up the Gran Via central shopping street, waving flags and carrying placards reading "austerity ruins and kills" and "reforms are robbery”. The Spanish economy has shrunk for seven consecutive quarters, and unemployment stands at a record 27 percent.
Seen from the rising opinion in favour of pro-growth policies in Europe, with Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Cyprus having major issues caused by austerity, May Day this year seems a crucial date for new political thinking in Europe that could have an important impact on the world economy. This focus of the crises in Europe is more in keeping with the original aims of May Day, which dealt with the struggles of the working class under different circumstances, but is once again beginning to look at easing the increasing burdens on the working people due to the policies that have an inherent faith in capitalism.
As Reuters reported, tens of thousands marched in Italy's major cities to demand government action to tackle unemployment - at 11.5 percent overall and 40 percent among the young - and an end to austerity and tax evasion. Most marches were peaceful, but demonstrators in Turin threw hollowed eggs filled with black paint at police.
Pope Francis made a May Day appeal for governments to tackle unemployment, as "work is fundamental to the dignity of a person"…"I think of how many, and not just young people, are unemployed, many times due to a purely economic conception of society, which seeks selfish profit, beyond the parameters of social justice," he told tens of thousands of people packed into St. Peter's Square for his weekly general audience. The Pope also said that the situation of the Bangladeshi garment workers amounted to slavery today and was an affront to human dignity.
Traditional May Day marches also took place outside the euro zone too. In Russia, about 1.5 million people were expected to take part in parades, a fraction of the millions that used to march in Soviet times. Large numbers of workers participated in the May Day demonstration in Cuba, where thousands of worker delegates from all over the world joined, with a special mark of solidarity with Venezuela and in opposition to the continued ban on trade with and assistance to Cuba imposed by the USA.
In the UK too, although having just escaped a triple-digit recession by showing a minimal growth of less than one per cent in the last quarter, the traditional May Day demonstrations took a greater significance due to the increasing burdens on the working people and lower income sectors.
The May Day issue of The Independent announced in its lead that ministers in the UK are preparing to spin off “dozens” of state-owned services into independent companies in what could be one of the largest privatisation programmes since the 1980s, where eventually as many as one in six civil servants – or 75,000 staff – could be transferred into the private sector.
This has been described by trade unionists as “privatisation by stealth”… another Tory party ploy to sell off public services, and is seen by many as a new rise in Thatcherism.
As austerity and slow growth in most of Europe affects the affect the livelihoods of workers, and repressive moves by governments against demands for more relief and new policies increase, the situation harks back to the days of the Haymarket affair in Chicago that gave rise to May Day and the struggles of the working people in all countries of the world. In the new context it is also an issue of Human Rights also not looked at as such by Human Rights activists of today.