Now that practically every Guyanese has a relative or friend in the US or Canada, we probably know that they do not celebrate “Labour Day” as we do, today on May 1.
But yet a May 1 Labour Day had its origins in the US. In the details of that story lies a clue as to possibly why, as our editorial of yesterday noted, our local labour movement is so tattered. It is a story of subversion of the ideals of equality, brotherhood and solidarity for a mess of pottage.
In the US, after the Civil War of the 1860’s, while the African slaves were freed in the south, the north opened the floodgates to white European immigrants to man their fast-expanding industrial plants.
But a backlash was created within a couple of decades when these immigrants began to organise themselves to fight the tremendously exploitive conditions in the hellholes called factories.
The factory owners responded to strikes and demonstrations for an eight-hour workday from the 10 to 16 hours then prevalent with strike-breakers, and naked violence.
On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in history. Two days later in a continuing labour demonstration in Chicago’s Haymarket Square, after someone threw a bomb at police ranks, the latter opened fire killing several protesters.
Several spokespersons for the workers were hanged after a cowboy trial the following year even though some of them were not even at the site of the blast.
In 1889, the Second Socialist International proposed that May 1 be set aside as International Workers’ Day in honour of the brave souls killed in Chicago. And it was. Today, May 1, is known as May Day or International Worker’s Day – an official government holiday in most countries with mass demonstrations, rallies and marches being held to express labour solidarity and celebrate worker’s rights.
But the American Government did everything in its power including suggesting other events be commemorated on that day to deny its linkage to the radical demands of labour for justice and equity.
Under pressure to acknowledge the rights of workers, it finally accepted the proposal of a labour organisation called the Knights of Labour for the present holiday in September. The latter organisation’s creed was: “Don’t go on strike, let’s talk to employers. Don’t boycott, let’s appeal to the American people, let’s appeal to the legislature.” Workers should go along to get along.
But even in those countries that adopted the tradition of Labour day on May 1, the split between the total radical commitment to the demands of workers for justice and equity and the urge to compromise with the forces that would continue to suppress workers have manifested itself.
And this is where the movement in Guyana has now found itself.
While it was founded by men like Critchlow and Eden who stood up early in their lives to the oppressors of labour, the truth of the matter is that they also later succumbed to the wiles of those would divide labour the better so as to conquer and rule it.
This pattern continued institutionally when labour allowed itself to be used by ambitious politicians to catapult the latter into political office, only to have themselves be inevitably cut down at the knees so as not to present challenges to the now godlike beings.
Although this point was made graphically clear during the previous regime when it decapitated the unions that had eased its way into office, incredibly, the present administration’s allied unions ignored the lesson after 1992, until it was too late.
Trade Unions’ raison d’etre is wholly and solely the betterment of the workers in the country. And has been pointed out recently, this has to do with all workers.
Until the day when trade unionists understand, accept and begin to act from that position, they will continue to be divided and ineffectual. The first break must be from the politicians that only seek to use them. Solidarity forever.
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