Relevance of the international workers’ day in modern times

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Dr. Eugene D’Souza, Moodubelle
Bellevision Media Network

01 May 2010: “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” This clarion call given by Karl Marx, the founder of Scientific Socialism (Communism) in mid nineteenth century, had fired the imagination of the exploited workers throughout world who organized themselves into unions to fight for their rights. After sustained efforts form the working classes from different countries of the world, every year 1st May has been observed as the May Day or Labour Day or the International Workers’ Day. However, in recent times, with the big unions becoming voiceless and towering union leaders either dead or old, it seems that the labour movement has lost its teeth and the International Workers’ Day has lost its relevance. But is it so...?

May Day is celebrated as spring festival in many European countries with their own customs and traditions. However, May Day coincided with the Labour Day when in 1889, the Congress of World Socialist Parties held in Paris voted to support the demand for an eight hour day by the labour movement in the United States of America. This was in response to the so called ‘Haymarket Massacre’ (1886) in which the Chicago police fired on workers during a general strike demanding the eight hour day, killing a dozen demonstrators. At the Congress it was decided that on 1st May 1890, demonstrations should be held in favour of the demand of eight hour day for the workers. Following this, 1st May became a holiday called Labour Day or International Workers’ Day in many countries.

The origin of the labour movement can be traced to the Industrial Revolution in Europe since the mid-eighteenth century. The workers were exploited with lengthy hours of work, poor wages and unhealthy living conditions. There was neither government legislation nor popular movement to improve the condition of the working class.

The first attempt to ameliorate the miserable condition of the working class was made by the so called ‘Utopian Socialists’. A British socialist, Robert Owen created a model community of workers by improving their working and housing conditions and providing schools for their children. His ideas stimulated the cooperative movement in England. In France too, a number of socialists such as saint Simon, Charles Fourier, Proudhon and Louis Blanc tried to implement socialist ideas to improve the condition of the workers, but their efforts did not produce any desired results.

It was Karl Marx who gave a voice to the working class. He made a close study of the industrial society and formulated certain conclusions, which constitute the chief principles of Scientific Socialism, also known as Marxism or Communism. The basic ideas of Karl Marx were first expressed in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ which he wrote along with Fredrich Engels in 1848. Marx believed that the only way to ensure a happy and harmonious society was to put the workers in control. Marxism had great influence on the history of the world. It inspired the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917) and other Communist Revolutions in countries like China, Cuba and other Eastern European countries. Marxism inspired and emboldened the working classes throughout the world to unionize and fight for their rights.

On May Day or International Workers’ Day the workers unions affiliated to various communist, socialist of anarchist groups take out processions and hold demonstrations and street rallies to show their solidarity and power. May Day is an important official holiday in most of the countries of the world. In Communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union, May Day celebrations typically feature elaborate popular and military parades. In the United States, however, the official Federal holiday for the ‘working man’ is Labour Day on September 5. This day was promoted by the Central Labour Union and the Knights of Labour who organized the first parade in New York City on 5th September 1882.

The labour movement in India can be traced since the 1920s. During the early period, the Indian Communists and Socialists took lead in organizing labour unions in industrialized cities such as Mumbai, Madras (Chennai) and Kolkotta. They adopted various measures such as huge processions, demonstrations and strikes as methods to gain better wages and fair conditions of work to the working classes.

The first May Day celebration in India was organised in Madras on 1st May 1923 by the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan. This day also marks the beginning of the use of red flag (the flag of the communists) in India. In 1923, the party leader Singaravelu Chettiar made arrangements to celebrate May Day in Madras at two places-one meeting at the beach opposite to the Madras High Court and the other at the Triplicane beach. Reporting on this event, the ‘Hindu’ newspaper published from Madras mentioned that the Labour Kisan Party had introduced May Day celebrations in Madras and Comrade Singaravelar presided over the meeting. A resolution was passed stating that the government should declare May Day as a holiday. The president of the party explained the non-violent principles of the party. There was a request for financial aid. It was emphasized that workers of the world must unite to achieve independence.

May Day has been celebrated every year ever since in India and it is a bank holiday. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, 1st May is officially called ‘Maharashtra Day’ and ‘Gujarat Day’, respectively as these states were created on 1st May 1960 on linguistic basis from a larger state known as the ‘Bombay State’. This (2010) marks the Golden Jubilee of the constitution of these two states.

With the collapse of Communism in the former Soviet Union and the East European countries and the modern ‘mantra’ of liberalization and globalization, the working class movement has received a serious set-back. By paying better salaries and providing conducive working environment, most of the multinational corporations have made the labour unions redundant.

However, with the global economic meltdown, as a large number of workers are being laid off or their salaries are slashed, there is no mechanism to fight for their rights. Besides, there is a large number of urban unorganized labour and rural working force in India which is still being exploited. Under these circumstances, the International Workers’ Day should focus on these problems and seek remedies for a better future for all the working classes. The emphasis and focus of International Workers’ Day might have changed but not its relevance...


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Comments on this Article
Victor D Souza, Moodubelle / Doha Sat, May-1-2010, 2:03
Article gives important message. I liked the picture Pyramid of Capitalist System, which says it all. It is a picture for many of the governments in the world, especially the poor countries. They are all one and the same. Capitalism results in an unequal distribution of wealth. Communism results in an equal distribution of poverty. I think the common problem is corruption.
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