“Today the symbolism and message of May Day is as relevant as it has ever been. We have a government who are more than happy to turn a blind eye as large corporations use the current disruption of the pandemic and our exit from the European Union to rip up existing workers’ rights”
Ian Lavery MP
Although some in our country may insist that May Day marks the celebration of an old pagan fertility festival, the driving force behind the holiday in this country comes from the fight waged by workers against the malign forces that continue to threaten us today.
The modern origins of the festival as a celebration and reminder of the battle workers face each day to protect their hard fought rights dates all the way back to the late 19th century and the fight for an eight hour day. 300,000 protesters arrived in Hyde Park alone to show their solidarity in what marked an immense display of collectivism that was so instrumental in winning over many of the rights that today we all too often take for granted.
From this one off protest blossomed the beginning of an annual event during a period of growing trade union activity as working class organisation began to awaken from its long slumber in the UK led by the giants that walked before us, amongst them the founder of the Labour Party, Kier Hardie.
Since then, May Day has often been a date that symbolises the class struggle all across the world from India to Sweden to Chile to Spain, where the holiday was re-embraced in the late 70’s following the death of the fascist Franco who banned the holiday as part of his ideological war against left wing organising.
Today the symbolism and message of May Day is as relevant as it has ever been. We have a government who are more than happy to turn a blind eye as large corporations use the current disruption of the pandemic and our exit from the European Union to rip up existing workers’ rights, motivated by nothing more than their destructive averous and greed.
The rise of fire and rehire has perhaps been the most troubling development throughout the pandemic which has resulted in thousands of hard working men and women finding themselves on lower pay and worse terms and conditions overnight for doing exactly the same job as before. Although the government have voiced their concerns over the practise they have had ample opportunities to put an end to it once and for all, including by voting for Barry Gardiner’s Private Members Bill which they rejected.
More recently we saw 800 seafarers working for P&O Ferries fired without warning via a pre-recorded zoom call to be replaced with cheap agency workers from abroad being paid less than £4 an hour. Again, while the government talked tough at the time the story was quickly swept away and brushed under the carpet with the company ultimately getting away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist and a warning.
The battle waged by those workers on the first May Day is the same battle we face today. It is too easy to take for granted what those before us battled to win. The 8 hour working day, 2 day weekend, maternity and paternity leave, paid sick leave, equal pay legislation and much, much more did not come out of nowhere but was won through years or organising and sacrifice – and rest assured there are plenty of people out there who would love to see them go.
May day provides us with a chance to reflect on the simple truth that the fight is never won and each generation after the next must take the mantle with the same passion and energy as the one before. The words of the miners leader AJ Cook that became the slogan of the miners federation throughout the 1926 general strike, “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”, rings as relevant today as it did when uttered almost a century ago.
The past few decades have not been a golden era for organising in the UK. In many sectors inflation has led to real term pay cuts and a decade of austerity has thrown millions of working families below the poverty line while the global million and billionaires continue to get richer and richer.
The blunt reality is things will not magically sort themselves out. Only organised labour can reverse this trend and labour is only properly organised through hard work, blood, sweat and tears. But mark my words, the alternative future will be far worse than you may imagine.