What happens in Sri Lanka is that majority of the unions are affiliated to the major political parties and they participate in May Day rallies organised by the parent political parties who are making use of the May Day rallies to demonstrate their strengths. It is not the aspirations of the workers that are highlighted on May Day but the slogans of the political parties – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara
It is reported that a group of trade unions, offended by the decision to declare 7 May as ‘Workers’ Day,’ have decided to protest against it on 18 April in Narahenpita.
This decision to reschedule had apparently been taken by President Maithripala Sirisena, heeding to the advice of Maha Nayake Theras who have pointed out that the week following the Vesak Poya on 29 April and the day following on 30 April will be a week of religious observances and therefore, it is not opportune to have May Day rallies on 1 May, which is Tuesday just after the two Vesak holidays.
The trade unions which have grouped together argue that 1 May is International Workers’ Day or Labour Day popularly known as May Day which according to them is universally celebrated as the day of protest by the workers to highlight their woes and voice their legitimate demands and it is against international norms and rules to annul the 1 May holiday and declare instead 7 May as the holiday to commemorate Workers’ Day.
The unions argue that this decision is in violation of the Constitution of Sri Lanka too and say that there were a few occasions in the past when May Day was celebrated just before or just after Vesak day. They go on to highlight the historical significance of May Day and that almost all countries have declared 1 May as Workers’ Day or Labour Day. The trade unions have declared that they will defy the Government’s decision and hold rallies on 1 May.
It is worthwhile pondering on the historical background of May Day. In early Pagan culture of Europe, 1 May was celebrated as the first day of summer and over the centuries, the day was associated with various religious and cultural festivities and celebrations. This day was observed as a spring holiday in the northern hemisphere with varied cultural and religious activities.
In the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by he Socialist and Comm-unist movements of Second International to commemorate the bombing on 4 May 1886 of a labour demonstration conducted in support of an eight-hour workday in Chicago known as the Haymarket Affair. Due to the bombing, seven Police officers and four workers lost their lives. This celebration also combined with the anti-capitalist movement of the time in England.
Since then, the working classes of many countries celebrated 1 May as International Workers’ Day and several governments recognised the day and declared it as a holiday. However, some countries celebrate the Workers’ Day on different dates significant to them such as in the United States where Labour Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September. This year in England, the May Day holiday is declared to be on 7 May, which is Monday, since 1 May falls on a Tuesday. It had been the practice in England over the years that Mayday is recognised as a holiday if it falls on a Monday and if not, another day, usually a Monday, is chosen as the May Day holiday.
Now one may wonder why the trade unions are irked by the decision to name 7 May as May Day. If the workers wish to highlight the issues that directly affect them or of concern to them, why cannot they rally on any holiday during May, if it is so important to them?
The message will be effectively put across to the respective authorities if unity among workers is firmly displayed. But what happens in Sri Lanka is that majority of the unions are affiliated to the major political parties and they participate in May Day rallies organised by the parent political parties who are making use of the May Day rallies to demonstrate their strengths.
There is more disunity among workers than a coherent approach. The only unions with sufficient numbers are the plantation workers’ unions, which too have become political parties in their own right. As a result, it is not the aspirations of the workers that are highlighted on May Day but the slogans of the political parties. Therefore it is a moot point whether the trade unions have their Workers’ Day on 1 May or any other day in May or even for that matter any day in the year but they are responsible to their members to effectively present grievances and make representations against policies or practices of the employers that directly affect them adversely.
Instead what we see in the present times is that the unions mobilise workers or members against totally unrelated issues and often miss the woods for the trees, meaning their main issues are not focused on and they get the workers to chime the slogans of the political parties they are affiliated to at May Day rallies.
The May Day rallies of the so-called socialist countries are also farcical demonstrations where such rallies are used to demonstrate their economic and military might to the world and hardly any worker grievances are highlighted. Due to the shrouded nature of the worker conditions, the world hardly gets to know of the plight of the workers in those countries because the unions are state-controlled, as are the media.
The Government and the President cannot obviously ignore the advice of the Maha Nayake Theras in respect of religious observances connected with Vesak and the President quite rightly got the Cabinet to approve the shifting of May Day celebrations to 7 May. What is the position if Vesak Poya fell on 1 May itself? Do the trade unions want the Poya day shifted to some other day to enable them to celebrate May Day?
In this instance, the rights of the workers and trade unions have not been suppressed and merely allowed another convenient day to exercise their rights. The unions claim that this rescheduling of May Day is a violation of international norms and our constitution.
As explained in previous paragraphs, celebrating May Day on 1 May is not an international norm though prevalent in many countries. The claimed violation of the Constitution may be hinting at favoured treatment of Buddhists but there is no discrimination against other faiths in this exercise. Hypothetically, if Workers’ Day falls on Christmas day itself, there is no other option for the Government but to reschedule Workers’ Day to some other time.
Have the trade unions lost their marbles or is there a more sinister motive in this agitation? Only time will tell.