May Day celebrated annually on May 1, is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the celebrations that the day includes. Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a maypole. The photo is of Maypole dancing at the Village Fair on the Egg (village green), with the tower of St Andrew’s parish church in the background at Bishopstone, East Sussex. In the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago; is a different celebration from the traditional May Day. Haymarket affair was the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labour demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day and in reaction to the killing of several workers the previous day by the police. In the 20th century May Day is linked to International Workers’ Day in Great Britain, even though it is not officially a “Labour Day” and in Sri Lanka it is a public holiday.
Ninety years ago today when pioneering trade unionist Alexander Ekanayake Gunasinha led a group of men and women in what was Ceylon’s first ever May Day march. The country’s first May Day rally proper was held in 1932 at the Galle Face Green again led by Gunasinha; saw men clad in white sarongs and red striped banians and women in blood red reddai-hatte (cloth and jacket) singing and dancing to the songs of the workers, in a decidedly non-politicized display of strength and solidarity. None would have foreseen the shift in priority of the International Labour Day celebrations that are influenced by mainstream political parties in the island nation. Judging by the majority of ‘2017 May Day’ rallies held this week across Sri Lanka to mark the International Labour Day; it is clear that it is no longer about workers, but it is more about the political manipulations of workers than worry about workers’ rights; while the smaller rallies, have attempted to stay true to the core principles. Today, May Day is all about the political parties drawing their grassroots supporters to various venues in the country to throw challenges at their opponents to demonstrate they are ready for the local government elections that are to be held probably later this year?
In 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago, it began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day and in reaction to the killing of several workers the previous day by the police. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they acted to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; scores of others were wounded.
Gone in Sri Lanka are the days of the 50s, when May Day rallies were used essentially to pass resolutions to provide a better deal for workers in the following year to restore the dignity of workers. Today in 2017, what was witnessed in the same Galle Face Green and elsewhere in the country was a demonstration that workers are been used by political parties to draw supporters for the next elections and in the process people have died of exhaustion, a heavy price to pay to satisfy their masters.
In Sri Lanka, launching a countrywide strike today as the aftermath of 2017 May Day, has clearly demonstrated the irresponsible conducts of some trade unions; as these are all politically motivated activities. Such arbitrary actions from few trade unions will only hurt the innocent people more than the government they are opposing. The reasons for calling a 24-hour country wide strike are on matters that are already taken care in the plan by the government; the demands of the strikers are only based on imaginary and theoretical situations. Even in the exceptional case the action to resolve a particular issue by the government is to impact any section of the workers, the doors are always open for talks. It was therefore not surprising to read in the media a request from a minister calling the strikers to engage in discussions to get their issues resolved. It is for this purpose the May Day rallies should have been used by the Trade Unions; not miss the opportunity and call for a politically motivated strikes; sadly it was a call led by trade unions representing some well-educated members of the Nation.