Is May Day Still a Celebration of the Working Class?

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In India, and across the world, May 1 is celebrated as the International Day of Labour. But is the spirit still alive?

On May 4, 1886, the Washington Critic’s evening edition in Chicago published a fiery release by the Chicago Socialists. It read:

Revenge! Workingmen to arms! Your masters sent out their bloodhounds – the police. They killed six of your brothers at McCormick’s yesterday. They killed the poor wretches because they, like you, had the courage to disobey the supreme will of your bosses. They killed them because they dared ask for the shortening of the hours of toil. They killed them to show you ‘free American citizens’ that you must be satisfied and contented with whatever your bosses condescend to allow you or you will get killed…to arms! We call you to arms!

10,000 copies of this had been circulated across the city. The context was a peaceful protest by workers for an eight-hour workday that had been disrupted by police firing, killing between two and six workers. The next day, anarchists and socialists took advantage of the mood to call for a larger rally. But this event too proceeded peacefully, so much so that the mayor of Chicago attended it in the sidelines and left early.

The peace was shattered by the hurling of a bomb. Near the conclusion of the main speaker’s speech, a dynamite bomb was thrown at the police who had gathered over the event. Seven police officers and eleven civilians were killed, with over 70 hospitalised. The nationwide campaign for an eight-hour week had turned horrifically bloody – and was soon to be followed by riots. But the event was a landmark one in worker’s movements. Over

But the event was a landmark in worker’s movements. Over 200,000 workers went on strike across America, demanding that May 1 be the day when the eight-hour-week would be adopted. To honour this, the Second International conference of socialists at Paris in 1886 declared the day as International Labour Day.

May Day in India

The situation in India, however, was different. From the very onset of worker’s strikes in India, getting the people together in solidarity has been a challenge. Workers from the Buckingham and Carnatic Worker’s Mills in Perambur found their working day had stretched to 18 hours – and had their first strike in 1873. In 1889, they went on strike again, this time for the basic demand of a weekly holiday. The largest strike came in 1921 when workers protested for six months. It was punctuated by its violence – where over seven were killed by police firing.

The strike is remembered today, not so much for the death of the workers, but for the rift, it highlighted between Dalit and Savarna-workers. In “Nandanar’s Children: The Paraiyans’ tryst with destiny”, writer Raj Sekhar Basu highlights how the Adi Dravida workers, unable to afford to take a day off from work, refused to participate in the strike, triggering clashes with the upper-caste workers (allied with Muslim workers). The tensions between the two were played by the employers who were seen as favouring the Adi Dravidas.

However, the 1921 strike had its impact. It was one of the strike’s leaders, Malayapuram Singaravelu Chettiar, who announced May Day as an occasion in India in 1923, from a gathering of the Labour Kishan Party on Chennai’s Marina beach.

In 1926, the Trade Union Act was passed, leading to a boom in the number of unionised workers across the country. With independence and the passing of the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, Indian labour entered a phase of stringent legislation. On paper, India is one of the world’s most heavily regulated labour markets. But to bypass the many laws, most businesses keep their workers informally employed – i.e.working in off the books jobs in companies with fewer than ten workers (on paper).

Data also suggests that Indian workers are treated poorly compared to their peers in the rest of the world’s major economies. An International Labour Organization study of the garment industry found that employers deliberately kept wages low so that workers would have no choice but to take up overtime. Verbal abuse was common.

Labour in recent times

By 2013, trade unions in India represented almost 90 million workers.However, many workers were left out by virtue of being in the informal sector. The Economist estimates that 87 percent of Indian manufacturing in 2007 relied on informal labour.

As India eyes a manufacturing revolution through its Make in India initiative, regularising labour standards becomes essential. Reforms in Ease of Doing Business have yet to accompany similar ones in labour and professional standards.

In September 2016, 180 million workers went on strike. It was a historic show of strength, where large chunks of the workforce went on strike demanding a higher minimum wage (amongst other demands). But it had little effect. Their demands were not met. It didn’t help that India’s largest trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, did not participate in the strike (the BMS is an offshoot of the RSS, closely affiliated to the ruling BJP party).

The problem with days like Mayday in India is that they seldom commemorate the actual scale of worker’s problems. If India commemorated every occasion where protesting workers were killed, many, many more days would be declared testimonies to the working class.

Mayday remains a public holiday (in twelve states) rather than a moment of contemplation. With economic liberalisation, the focus shifted to increasing GDP growth rate and other such macroeconomic indicators. The original demand – the eight-hour-day – remains an unmet demand for many workers across the country.

The informal sector which employs the majority of labourers in the country knows no work limits. And, India continues to be a land where slavery, exploitation and unsafe working conditions are rampant.

Like an Atlas who shrugs with the world on his shoulders, India’s workforce could make or break the economy. A day to contemplate the plight of our workers needs to be accompanied by more than just empathy. Perhaps we could take better heed of their demands the next time they go on strike?


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