Detail from Walter Crane's "A Garland For May Day"
May Day: Times change but values are eternal
May 1st is a highly significant date for unions. Known also as International Workers Day, May Day is when the labour movement across the world celebrates the core values that we as trade unionists stand for.
The traditional messages of solidarity, peace, respect and good jobs for all resonate on May Day. It’s when we remember the trade union movement’s many achievements – and there are many- and when we commit to continue the collective struggle for dignity and justice at work to which all workers are entitled.
Historically, May 1 represents the struggle and great success of the American labour movement in fighting for the 8-hour working day, back in May 1886. The US unions launched a general strike to demand a limit to impossible working hours and conditions,fundamentally changing millions of Americans’ working lives for the better by winning greater work/life balance. May 1st is now a public holiday in many countries with marches and rallies organised in most major cities around the world (although the Americans now celebrate their Labor Day on 1st September).
Here in Britain, it was Prime Minister, James Callaghan, who in 1978 created the bank holiday on the first Monday in May to coincide with International Workers’ Day. However, the trade union movement continue to celebrate on the 1st and there are May Day rallies taking place across Britain today.
The London May Day March and Rally has its origins in the first global mobilisation for May Day in 1890. It is a long established tradition and whilst the ‘times’ might have changed our values have not. It remains a time when trade unionists peacefully celebrate our achievements, when we recommit ourselves to achieving economic and social justice for all, and when we express our support for those throughout the world who are struggling for basic rights.
It is a day when we remember our sisters and brothers who are suffering victimisation, such as trade unionists in Colombia and Palestine.
In the words of my TUC colleague Laurie Heselden, “May Day is not a heritage festival, it is very much about campaigning for today”. We know that there are still huge injustices and inequalities to be eradicated. Too many people stuck on poverty wages, too many women denied equal pay, too many people in our ethnic minority communities whose lives are blighted by discrimination and disadvantage, too many unemployed and millions of workers, especially young workers, suffering the curse of zero hours contracts.
We need stronger laws to right these wrongs. But most of all we need stronger unions.
So today, whilst we remember our heritage, we remain conscious that we are a “movement not a monument”, we commit ourselves to organising and building strong unions that win for workers now and in the future. So that the next generation aren’t doomed to work on insecure contracts with no stability, on low pay, struggling to move out of parent’s homes, pay off student debts and plan for their future. We want our young workers to have access to all the benefits and security being a trade union member brings.
And on this day we shout with confidence, that trade unionism remains the hope of workers the across the world.