Friday, 1 May 2009

MayDay Address: Night for Gaza – Newtongrange Miners Club 1 May 2009

From medieval times, Mayday was a big celebration in Britain – not for the unions at the time, mind you – more a pagan festival, that got more and more rowdy.

So rowdy that the Government stopped celebrations in 1708 after writer Ned Ward wrote that he was shocked to find comedy booths and prostitutes doing ‘good business’.

Perhaps then, it was no coincidence that the 2002 London Mayday rally fell apart in disarray after a surprise demo by 300 sex workers.

But as you all know, the International Labor Day of Mayday, started in 1890 in America.
Its whole purpose was international solidarity and you cannot talk about that without mentioning the passing of Jack Jones last week. A man whose principles were so strong that, as a young man, he went off to Spain to fight fascism in the civil war.

I had the privilege to meet him in 1987. A tall man both physically and in terms of his commitment and contribution to the movement. One of the giants whose shoulders we stood on and whose example we strive to follow.

The idea for MayDay was born as long ago as 21 April 1856 Australian workers organised a one day strike with a festival to campaign for the 8 hour day. Meant to be for just one year, it was so successful that it was made an annual event.

The 8 hour day? A fight we are having to face again all these years after as the opt-out from the Working Time Directive misses the opportunity to challenge the long hours culture.

The Americans followed on 1st May 1886 when 200,000 left their work to demand the 8 hour day. The event at Haymarket in Chicago went off peacefully but at the end 180 police came in to disperse the crowd and a bomb went off killing one and injuring 70. The police fired and killed one demonstrator and injured many others.

In a major fit-up 8 activists were convicted, one committed suicide. Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolf Fischer and George Engel were hanged. The remaining three were pardoned 7 years later in a landmark ruling that confirmed the constitutional right to demonstrate.

In 1889 there was an international workers congress and the French delegate proposed a world-wide stoppage – or holiday - for the 8 hour day and linked it into the 1 May event planned by the Americans in 1890.

It was at this conference that the red flag was adopted as a symbol of the blood spilled by the workers in the class struggle.

That first Mayday saw thousands stopping work in Germany, a rally of 300,000 in Hyde Park – around the world, the pressure led to most governments declaring 1 May a public holiday – except Britain. We had to wait till Labour introduced it in 1978.

In 1916, Mayday in Germany saw 50,000 metal workers striking against war.

In the second world war, Mayday was even celebrated in the Warsaw Ghetto.

100,000 celebrated on Mayday in Portugal days after the dictatorship was overthrown in 1947.

And last year we saw thousands of civil service comrades take industrial action on Mayday in their pay and jobs dispute.

The Mayday tradition in the Lothians has been long and solid. The role of the miners, in particular, critical to maintaining this workers day.

And the role of the Trades Union Councils in ensuring that International Workers Day is celebrated has been immense.

Another example of the key role of Trades Union Councils in bringing grass roots activists together. A role we treasure in Scotland.

A role that had to be defended as long ago as 1897 when the STUC set up totally separately from the TUC, mainly to defend the representative role of Trades Councils.

And as we see tonight, Mayday was born out of an understanding that workers’ struggles are international. The 8 hour day campaign was a worldwide campaign.

That’s a lesson we need to learn today with the global economy and international big business relocating around the world in search of workers to work for poverty wages.

So when our members or the public or the politicians tell the trade unions – ‘just get on with the pay claim – international politics are nothing to do with you’ – we can tell them that, not only has it got something to do with us, it is how we were born, it is what we are about.

Those who oppress workers are international – so those who defend workers need to be international too.

I’m proud of my union, along with many others, for the international links we have built up over the years.

Links with the South African Congress of Trade Unions during apartheid, bringing the wonderful Eddie Ramsdale to Scotland in the 70s and 80s.

Then our work with Denis Goldberg after 25 years in a South African jail for standing alongside Mandela. That supports books for schools in South Africa and a Rape Crisis Centre.

Burma: Our member Murray Forgie who set up an educational trust for Burmese student refugees

9/11 and our solidarity work with the municipal unions in New York – never let us forget the role of American trade unionists in the history of internationalism.

On that bleak day, because everything was privatised in New York, the only people who could organise the construction workers, co-ordinate the diggers and get the equipment to save lives, were the trade unions who organised across the companies.

The bakers’ union went round their companies and got thousands of face masks in the first few hours. The unions played a central role with the teamsters organising convoys, for example.

The funds we sent after the Tsunami to help unions re-build their infrastructure

The work we are currently doing with Iraqi trade unions to train, organise and re-build infrastructures. The so-called liberation there has put even more draconian restrictions on trade unions. It has allowed the sectarianism the unions were challenging to re-ignite and thrive.

The funding from my union to allow me and others to campaign alongside the Glasgow Girls, that inspirational group of young asylum seekers, to get the government to drop its reservation from the UN Convention on the Right of the Child.

And Palestine:

Our links over the years with the PGFTU, our support for the Gaza clinic and colleagues Mike Kirby and Fiona Smith’s visit on an STUC delegation a few weeks ago to come back with the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions recommendation to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation.

And if you have any doubt about the effect of a boycott, just look at the amount of pressure Israel is putting on against it. The work being done by the Israeli visitor in haranguing people at the STUC shows we’ve got them rattled.

As trade unionists, we have always looked for a lead from those in struggle. The PGFTU does not find the boycott issue an easy one but it is clear from all the evidence on the ground that this must now be the way forward.

And the role of the Histadrut is also a difficult issue. We are reviewing our relations with the Israeli trade unions following the Gaza slaughter and our General Secretary Dave Prentis declined an invitation to their Congress in February. But we will maintain a link to tell them why we are backing a boycott and to make our views on justice for the Palestinians absolutely clear.

The lesson of the apartheid boycott is that BDS won’t happen overnight, but we need to make it happen and take a leaf out of the book of the South African dockers – people who should know more about boycotts than we ever will - who refused to unload a ship of Israeli goods.
At the bar earlier with we were reflecting on the apartheid boycott. How, even after democracy and the ANC coming to power, many of us still found it hard to buy South African wine, so strong had been the boycott message. We need to get there for Palestine.
Mayday is Internationalism. It is about trade unionists joining together across the world to give the strength to resist oppression that itself is international.

And it gives us even more strength to know Mayday and is still happening all over the world from the far east to the American continent, from Africa to all across Europe, to here in the Lothians.

Just google mayday and see the host of huge events going on across the world.

Still going on over a hundred and twenty years after that first fight for the 8 hour day.

International solidarity.

If, as trade unionists, we claim to fight against oppression, we have to do that beyond our own borders too.

If the lesson of the first mayday means anything, it means that if we are not internationalists, we are nothing.

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