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Poor workers, weary unions in May Day lamentations

By Owei Lakemfa

THE world is getting richer and the poor, poorer. This was a major lamentation in May Day commemoration in many countries as workers marched across the globe egged on mainly by old, weary trade unions, many in need of rebirth. One of the most combustible places this May Day was Argentina where massive protests, some quite violent, blew out on the eve. The people said enough is enough, and took matters into their hands.

The Argentine peso was devalued by 50 percent in 2018 with inflation rising to 47.6 percent and continuing its march this year. Purchasing power has drastically fallen, hunger is on the rise as are use of drugs. Daniel Catalano, Secretary-General of the Buenos Aires City Sector of the State Workers’ Union, lamented: “The degree of distress is really high. People have lost the ability to feel joy”.

May Day
May Day

The 74-year-old World Federation of Trade Unions, WFTU, with an acclaimed 97 million members in 130 countries across five continents, claimed that by the 2019 May Day: “One percent of the population possesses more than 80 percent of the produced wealth, while 4.5 billion people live in poverty and misery.”

It lamented that it is workers in “their irreplaceable role in the production of all goods and services” that produced the global wealth from which they get so little. It, therefore, asked workers to fight for a new world order under the slogan: “The wealth belongs to those who produce it!”

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Taking a swipe at labour leaders who speak from both sides of their mouths and reinforce the oppression of workers, the WFTU said the time is ripe to expose “the dirty role of reformists and of corrupted bureaucrats that turn trade unions into servants of the bourgeoisie”.

As expected, France, given the ‘Yellow Vests’ protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-people economic policies, got the trophy for the most militant demonstrations. All sides seemed prepared  for the May Day protests dubbed ‘Armageddon’ by some demonstrators. Macron had authorised the police to take ‘extremely firm stance’ if the May Day rallies and demonstrators turned violent. In beautiful Paris, when violence between demonstrators and the police fully broke out by 1.00 pm, 65 arrests were made within one hour. Both sides had weapons. In Toulouse, southwestern France, demonstrators were on the streets with smoke bombs of various colours.

The 70-year-old International Trade Union Confederation, ITUC, which claims to represent 207 million workers in 163 countries and territories with 331 national affiliates, lamented:   “Workers everywhere are increasingly living on the edge as corporate profits skyrocket… Today there are 300 million working poor in the world, 190 million officially unemployed and 60 per cent of workers in informal jobs. Every 11-second, someone somewhere dies because of hazardous and dangerous work. These are not just statics – they tell a story of desperation, deprivation and rising anger.” To stop this “ race to the bottom” the Western-leaning ITUC said the solution is a new social contract “to fix the rules of the global economy, and the Declaration to be adopted at the ILO in June…”.

In Russia, there were the traditional May Day rallies and anti-government demonstrations with some protesters carrying placards that read: “Putin is not immortal” in reference to President Vladimir Putin who has been in power in the last 19 years. Over 100 protesters were reportedly arrested, most in St. Petersburg (Old Leningrad) where the 1917 Russian Revolution had erupted leading to the historic establishment of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR. In Moscow, the unions rallied over a 100,000 in a single rally.

The famous Taskim Square where  34 people were killed in 1977 during May Day rallies and which in 2013 was the focal point of anti-government rallies, was cordoned off by the government. That did not stop demonstrators attempting to break in with shouts of  “May Day is Taksim and it cannot be banned”. A number of arrests were made. The International Transport Federation, ITF, argued that what is necessary is global solidarity to overcome  global challenges: “Let our voice be heard all over the world, loud and proud and union and working class. That’s May Day.”

In Nigeria, the trade unions took to the streets of the capital, Abuja on Monday to march for jobs before holding mass rallies on May Day. The workers, like the rest of the populace, have been buffeted by mass poverty, hunger, high inflation, marauding terrorists, bandits and kidnappers and the challenges of a state heading into anarchy.

Even at that and with incidents of unpaid salaries and pension, the workers look forward to a salary raise following the new National Minimum Wage signed into law on April 18. But the powerful state governors, most of who had expressed misgivings about a wage increase, warned two days before the May Day, that the country is heading for another economic recession from mid- 2020 to the third quarter of 2022. The Nigeria Trade Union Congress, TUC, President Boboi Kaigama said on May Day that Nigerian workers are: “Suffering and smiling.”

The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters, EFF, in South Africa led by Julius Malema, turned out in red shirts and berets in Johannesburg to identify with workers. Their militant style and agitations, especially for land reforms, have put the ruling African National Congress, ANC, on edge. This May Day, Ghanaian workers under the umbrella of their Trade Union Congress, TUC, marched for pensions.

In Spain where acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party is trying to couple together what may be a minority government, the labour unions sought to push for a roll back of what they argue are anti-worker and business-friendly labour and fiscal reforms.

May Day strikes and rallies in Greece shutdown the country with means of mass transportation effectively crippled. Separate rallies by unions and radical groups included marches to parliament.

The usually quiet Nordic countries of Sweden and Denmark witnessed pockets of violent demonstrations as some far right and usually anti-worker groups took advantage of the May Day to propagate their ideology. A major point about workers solidarity was made this May Day when some South Korean and  North Korean trade unions issued a joint statement to push for unity  between their two countries. The Koreas  had split since 1953 following a three-year civil war which recorded 2.5 million deaths.

The 2019 May Day activities, rallies and protests across the globe showed that the trade unions do not have a common agenda, that there is the continued  ascendancy of capital over labour; of profits over human rights and an international preponderance of compromised labour leaders making excuses for employers and governments rather than taking directives from their members.

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