30 April 2014

The timeless May Day and flowers that refuse to die

The powerful have neat ways of dealing with issues and groups. Some are bought over, the promise of material wealth and/or position being alluring enough to attract quite a few over to the "other side". Parliamentary "cross overs" constitute just one such example. Sometimes the ideas are hijacked. If you were to flip through the web pages of the World Bank, the IMF or related zamindars in the development game such as USAID, you might well wonder what all these NGOs and development experts are doing talking about sustainable development, participation, gender equality and traditional knowledge, for the Big Bosses themselves have deftly pick-pocketed their terminology, and, as Big Bosses are wont to do, have redefined these terms closer to their own intents and purposes.

There are other ways, among which is the dedication of a particular day for celebration and voicing of concern. And so we have one day for women, a day for the earth, a day for national heroes, one for the farmers, one to talk about water and we have May Day for the workers. I almost forgot, we also have an Independence Day.

What happens during the rest of the year? Right, women are harassed, sexually and otherwise. The environment is ravaged and the earth scarred, farmers are kicked out of their land or are forced to work as wage labour on their own property, the memory of heroes are defiled, and labour exploited. The market forces and its ideological allies such as "progress" and patriarchy see to all this. 

Anyway, May Day has a history, a history that capital and its creatures in government have done their best to erase in the country where it originated, predictably, the United States of America. The holiday began in the 1880s with the fight for an eight-hour working day, for now the first of May is "Law Day" there. Reminds me of Lenin's famous dictum "the law is the will of the ruling class".

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work from and after May 1, 1886. The resolution called for a general strike to achieve the goal, since legislative methods had already failed. With workers being forced to work ten, twelve, and fourteen hours a day, rank-and-file support for the eight-hour movement grew rapidly, despite the indifference and hostility of many union leaders. By April 1886, 250,000 workers were involved in the May Day movement.

The heart of the movement was in Chicago, organised primarily by the anarchist International Working People's Association. Businesses and the state were terrified by the increasingly revolutionary character of the movement and prepared accordingly.

The police and militia were increased in size and received new and powerful weapons financed by local business leaders. Chicago's Commercial Club purchased a $2000 machine gun for the Illinois National Guard to be used against strikers. Nevertheless, by May 1st, the movement had already won gains for many Chicago clothing cutters, shoemakers, and packing-house workers. But on May 3, 1886, police fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works Factory, killing four and wounding many. Anarchists called for a mass meeting the next day in Haymarket Square to protest the brutality.

The meeting proceeded without incident, and by the time the last speaker was on the platform, the rainy gathering was already breaking up, with only a few hundred people remaining. It was then that 180 cops marched into the square and ordered the meeting to disperse. As the speakers climbed down from the platform, a bomb was thrown at the police, killing one and injuring seventy.

Police responded by firing into the crowd, killing one worker and injuring many others.

Although it was never determined who threw the bomb, the incident was used as an excuse to attack the entire Left and labour movement. Police ransacked the homes and offices of suspected radicals, and hundreds were arrested without charge. Anarchists in particular were harassed, and eight of Chicago's most active were charged with conspiracy to murder in connection with the Haymarket bombing. A kangaroo court found all eight guilty, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them to the bomb-thrower (only one was even present at the meeting, and he was on the speakers' platform), and they were sentenced to die. 

Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer, and George Engel were hanged on November 11, 1887. Louis Lingg committed suicide in prison. The remaining three were finally pardoned in 1893.

Ever since then, the working class has come out in full force on the first of May, although, lamentably, not always together, to shout out loud their numerous grievances, to remember struggles, caress the callused hands and stout hearts of comrades and gather resolve and strength in the necessary struggles. Too often this outpouring does not spill over to the work place and elsewhere where resistance and struggle ought to occur and very rarely in a sustained manner.

For the ancient Left, May Day has become something little more than a perennial "last hurrah," increasingly taking on the appearance of a comedy of errors given their wholesale sell-out to the forces of capital that spark the PA. The younger Old Left, i.e. the JVP, seems to have entrenched itself as the last refuge of those who subscribe to the agitational reading of Marxism, and usually puts up a good show on the 1st of May. They have their own brand of trade unionism, the worth of which is open to debate. Other trade unions such as the CMU, I now believe, who are out of the crass world of power politics, have achieved much more for the workers than have these parties whose politics are by and large operations of political expediency. The UNP and the PA have lost the right to speak for the workers, having bashed them over the head with more than one draconian law, not to mention turning the state into a capital subsidising machine.

Then there are the Tamil and Muslim parties. They operate in a world where the human being has one identity, ethnicity. The violence done to their working class brethren in the name of "community" is never talked about, perhaps because each and everyone who did talk or could talk were systematically done away with or coerced to join the LTTE. No, I am not forgetting the CWC. For the CWC, which is still living in the colonial era, the only workers in "Ceylon" are Tamils in the estates. May Day, they seem to have forgotten, is just another name for International Workers' Day. I know, it is a bit too much to expect those who defend parochial interests to see beyond ethnicity. And especially when such identities are embraced as tightly as the CWC does.

The idea of May Day, regardless of the meaning those two words have for the aforementioned parties, is something that resists the reductionism embedded in a pre-defined day. If oppression does not limit itself to the kind of calanderisation that May Day has been trapped in, it goes without saying that responding to, resisting and overcoming oppression is timeless. The true struggles of working people can never bear fruit if the parameters of engagement remain those that are set by the oppressor.

"Struggle," the political scientist would say, comes in many forms. Peaceful satyagrahas, hunger strikes, picketing, rallies, demonstrations, marches are all part and parcel of the game of agitation. And anyone who resists reductionism would add that just as armed struggle cannot be taken as the one and only "way," by the same token, saying "no" to arms regardless of the circumstances, is as faulty a proposition. Where the state cannot give the minimum guarantees with respect to worker's rights, where it is illegal for workers in the so-called free trade zones to unionise, where a fundamental document such as the Workers' Charter is defeated simply because the chamber pots of commerce feel that it impinges on their "right" to defecate on the working class, it is natural for workers to resort to organised agitation.

Where such agitation is met with baton charges and tear gas attacks, the bosses should understand that at some point desperate men and women will fight back. For nothing is conceded by those who wield power and wealth unless they are pushed out of the comfort zones won by silencing the exploited. A case in point is the New Deal in the USA. It was less a product of a benevolent leadership that a victory won by militant labour.

Today, we are in the 21st century. The issues are different, so are the terms. It is no longer capitalism. The new name of the beast is globalisation. The target is not just the workers, but the indigene and his/her way of life. The worker, I believe, must take a walk down history, rediscover roots and engage with the world with the full strength that comes from a sensitivity to environment, culture and heritage. In this, we have to recognise, as Bala Tampoe says, that we are first of all human beings, then members of a community, then workers, and only after all this are we members of a union or a party.

And here, the words and thinking of Joseph Hillstrom, better known as Joe Hill, the great American labour leader who was murdered by a firing squad, are pertinent. In his will, he asked that his ashes be strewn across the land, "so flowers that refuse to die will rise up strong and stand". But more than this, he said, "Don't mourn. Organise!" 

In the year 2014, as has always been the case, organising" will certainly follow the familiar paths taken by the Left. It will also take other avenues, other forms. Some of it underground, for just as the dreams that soar into the clouds are brought down by the acid rains that progress has generated, the good earth filters and draws into her bosom the children who care enough to fight her immemorial battles.