There are many different kinds of holidays: well-known ones with long national histories, and international ones observed in many, but not in all countries. Some are well received, others have been the in the center of controversies.
International Labor Day – Workers Day – did not emerge out of a consensus, but out of controversy.
The International Workers’ Day started as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in the USA, when police had fired on workers during a strike requesting the establishment of eight-hours workday regulations. Several demonstrators were killed. In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam in the Netherlands called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on May First for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on First May, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”
In more than 80 countries, the First of May is now a public holiday – in spite of may differences. A Cambodian blogger described how things mostly move in Cambodia: a struggle about immediate concerns: slightly higher wages and improved working conditions – always under the threat that the international market situation might make investors move somewhere else:
When workers protesting for higher wage and better work condition, the government urges them to be calm so that it can maintain their rice pot while business lured the workers to understand their profit difficulty! Guess what how much gas and consuming price in Cambodia is now? Happy Labor Day and let all stakeholders have an equation of understanding!
But there is not much public discussion in Cambodia, based on detailed economic data, or with arguments based on the analysis of different basic approaches to economic arrangements in a society.
The international character of such a holiday is an invitation to look beyond the limited horizon of one’s own society, to see what others, in their countries, are doing. As one example, where the May Day is used to fundamentally question the present economic model based on a globalized market economy with hardly any other but economic rules, I found the following declaration by Nasir Mansoor, Deputy General Secretary, National Trade Union Federation of Pakistan, from which I quote. And it is also noteworthy that this text was shared widely by the Asian Human Rights Commission – labor concerns are often human rights concerns.
Readers may be surprised to read some of the following – “Oh that sounds like old Marxist ideology!” Actually, the statement from Pakistan starts by quoting Karl Marx himself.
“Private property has made us so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it – when it exists for us as capital, or when it is directly possessed, eaten, drunk, worn, inhabited, etc., – in short, when it is used by us. Although private property itself again conceives all these direct realizations of possession only as means of life, and the life which they serve as means is the life of private property – labor and conversion into capital.” (Karl Marx, Private Property and Communism, 1844)
All over the world the working class is going to commemorate the 125th martyrdom day on 1st May 2011 in respect of workers who scarified their lives for better living and working conditions. The movement which started in 1886 at Haymarket, Chicago, for the eight hour workday has gained strength and became the strong political movement to defeat the imperialist capitalism.
In a country like Pakistan the conditions of the working class from all sector of the economy have severely been affected by capitalist globalization. In this write-up I confine myself only on the existing conditions of the working class and the non-fulfillment of laws formulated and accepted by the bourgeois themselves in due process of time. But one thing is very clear: that the state of affair and the ground reality in capitalist and feudal societies, in respect of workers, speak the correctness of the Marxist philosophers’ observations and logical analysis of a totally failure of capitalist society based on private ownership of means of productions. As Friedrich Engels said:
”The division of society into a small, excessively rich class and a large, property less class of wage-workers results in a society suffocating from its own superfluity, while the great majority of its members is scarcely, or even not at all, protected from extreme want. This state of affairs becomes daily more absurd and – more unnecessary. It must be abolished, it can be abolished.” (Introduction to Marx’s Wage Labor and Capital, 1891)
We may notice these conditions in any industrial zone anywhere in Pakistan from export oriented manufacturing to the factories producing merchandise for the local market. If we only go through the cotton textile sector to judge the workers situation which earn 66% of the total export oriented foreign exchange, contribute 8.7% of the GDP and employ 40% of the total employed labor force, here we observe the stark reality…
The worst is the condition for womenfolk work in the formal or informal sectors. They get less pay as compared to male workers for the same job; harassment of all kind including sexual harassment is the hallmark of all industry, specially the Export processing Zones (EPZ), the dens of modern slavery.
In these conditions and situation workers have been preparing themselves to face and change the present scenario through their collective and joint struggles within some small pockets but all over Pakistan, setting the successful pattern to follow. For example, the peasants in Okara have defeated the most powerful institution of Pakistan, and protected their ancestral fertile agricultural land form the state sponsored land grabbers.
The 125th May Day unleashes new revolutionary vigor in the emerging labor movement and the day will be manifested as day of workers resistance against all anti-workers policies, laws, and practices of the ruling elite.
Such ideologically loaded language is not usual in recent labor conflicts in Cambodia, though there are a lot of similar problems encountered in Pakistan and in Cambodia. At present, there is also new legislation in Cambodia on labor unions pending – it was considered controversial by the unions which made counter-proposals, as the draft was not according to widely practiced international standards. The Ministry of Labor would have, according to the draft, the power to suspend or dissolve unions.
Article 36 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia declares: “Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to form and to be member of trade unions. – The organization and conduct of trade unions shall be determined by law.” That a legal framework is necessary is not contested. But if activities are banned which might affect public order, labor unions hope that the scope of such regulations will be wide enough so that public demonstrations – a regular part of labor union activities – will not be restricted to a degree that the very purpose of labor union activities becomes difficult to exercise.
Labor Day suffered in various ways from misrepresentation, fear, and repression. Even the Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia has the following information in its history of the International Workers’ Day section, depicting a kind of “alien and scary” image:
May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist, and anarchist groups… May Day has been an important official holiday in Communist countries such as the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union.
That the organized labor movement celebrating May Day has a long history, for example also in royalist Sweden and in many other countries of western Europe – and elsewhere – merits equally being mentioned.
But this history had been interrupted for years in Europe in the 1930ies and 1940ies, when the fascist governments in Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain abolishing the May Day as a holiday, or changed its character by taking over it organization, as it happened in Germany in 1933, when the newly established nationalistic government declared 1 May as the “Day of National Work,” an official state holiday; all celebrations not organized by the government were prohibited.
In the USA, a more “soft” approach has been taken to divert the attention of labor movement celebrations from its origin of a workers’ uprising at the Chicago Haymarket in 1886.
Labor Day in the United States of America, on the first Monday in September every year, became a federal holiday in 1894. After several workers had been killed by members of the US military and police during a strike, legislation was rushed through Congress in only six days after the strike had ended, hoping that this would pacify the situation.
But the notion of “May Day” as an international event continued in US society – so another veil was put on it by establishing Loyalty Day:
Loyalty Day is defined as follows in 36 U.S.C. § 115:
- (a) Designation. — May 1 is Loyalty Day.
- (b) Purpose. — Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.
- (c) Proclamation. — The President is requested to issue a proclamation —
- calling on United States Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on Loyalty Day; and
- inviting the people of the United States to observe Loyalty Day with appropriate ceremonies in schools and other suitable places.
Similar celebrations on 1 May were first held in 1921 as “Americanization Day” in some places, as a counterbalance to celebrations of Labor Day on 1 May. It was made an official holiday in the USA in July 1958 (Public Law 85-529) – and on 1 May 1959 Loyalty Day was observed for the first time.
Now, any people in the United States seem not to be aware of this legal holiday.
President Barack Obama, in his Presidential Proclamation at the occasion of Loyalty Day 2011, wrote among others:
When our Nation’s Founders adopted the Declaration of Independence, they pledged to build a government that represented America’s highest ideals, a Union that secured its people’s sacred rights by “deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.” From the Revolutionary War to the formation of our young country, our Founders’ commitment to this principle never wavered. In the fall of 1787, America launched its improbable experiment in democracy, embedding in our Constitution the core values of liberty, equality, and justice for all.
Throughout our proud history, Americans motivated by loyalty and fidelity to these principles have worked to perfect our Union. Our Constitution grants Americans unprecedented freedoms and opportunities. We are free to speak our minds, worship as we please, choose our leaders, and criticize them when we disagree…
This declaration does not, of course, refer to the history which led to the establishment of Loyalty Day replacing the international workers’ day, but the reaffirmation of the loyalty to the heritage of American freedoms is clearly stated.
As we have seen above, the constitutional rights to form trade unions and how to conduct their activities in Cambodia is to be determined by law. Similarly, also the freedoms stated in the Constitution of the USA are being defined by law, and if this does not lead to clarifications which are accepted, it is possible to appeal to the courts, up to the Supreme Court, for final clarification.
This does not lead always to results which conform to what common sense might suggest.
In January 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that the government may not ban the spending of funds by corporations in candidate elections.
Some citizens had appealed to the courts claiming that unrestricted spending by corporate money – for television ads, special advertisements in newspapers, etc. – during election campaigns would corrupt the basic principles of democracy. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-to4 decision, ruled differently: because of “the Constitution’s First Amendment’s most basic free speech principle – that the government has no business regulating political speech.” Even free speech based on big money.
At that time, President Obama called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” One judge who belongs to the losing minority, said the majority had committed a grave error in treating corporate speech the same as speech of human beings.
Whatever the names and the regulations and laws, the struggle for the freedom of the people and for justice will continue. The basic loyalty can only be to these and not to any other values.