The International Workers’ Day this year is different from any other in the past wih the national lockdown preventing the assembly of workers for a show of solidarity across India.
May Day, also known as the International Workers’ Day or Labour Day in many countries, has its roots in 1884, when workers in the United States and Canada demanded an eight-hour work day. By 1886, the movement had gathered steam and even sparked riots after protesters and police clashed at Haymarket Square in Chicago. International Workers’ Day is celebrated on May 1 to commemorate this struggle.
For unions, it has become a day to display their solidarity and become the voice of the workers. Since 1950s, workers had been assembling on May 1 to lead a march every year to celebrate the Workers’ Day in the national capital. But not this year.
“When I first joined the Delhi University in 1970, I have been participating in this rally almost every year. This is for the first time in five decades that I will not be going to the march on the May Day,” All India Trade Union Congress general secretary Amarjeet Kaur said.
AITUC was the first federation of trade unions in India founded in October 1920. “The organisation emerged out of the burgeoning labour movement of the preceding years and in the aftermath of the war. However, the immediate impetus for its formation was the need for an All India Workers’ Organization that could represent the voice of the workers at the ILC (International Labour Conference),” according to an International Labour Organisation document.
In India, the national lockdown has taken from workers their jobs, apart from displacing them from their place of residence as millions of workers are living in relief camps across the country. As a matter of relief, the government on Friday gave a nod to run special trains for carrying migrant workers back home from cities. In the early hours of Friday, a special train also started from Telangana to Jharkhand to ferry the migrant workers. Other train services will also be run.
The national lockdown has put an end to all public gatherings and any rally or procession at this time would be seen as no less than a crime in the eyes of the authorities. Trade unions found new ways to connect with the workers who have been giving distress calls ever since the national lockdown came into being in India on March 25.
“We are trying to be innovative in such extraordinary situations. We want to remain connect with the workers. Though coming together in a gathering gave us some sense of confidence, comfort and strength to us - a big missing factor this year - but we are trying our best to send across a message that we are together in this fight,” Kaur added.
The unions distributed relief material, including food, in relief camps, she said. Along with the food packets, the unions also gave away around 70,000 leaflets to the workers reminding them about their rights, Kaur said. One of the key demands of the unions is a rollback of a recent decision to increase the working hours, from 8 hours to 12 hours a day, in states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. The decision was taken by the States, for a period of 3 months, to compensate for a loss of production in factories due to the lockdown.
In India, the first record of public celebrations of the Labour Day was on May 1, 1923 when labour leader Malayapuram Singaravelu founded the Labour Kisan Party of Hidustan at the Triplicane beach in Chennai (the erstwhile Madras). Reportedly, the red flag (a symbol of revolution or communism) was used for the first time in India on this occasion.
On the May Day every year, the unions would usually organise big gatherings, hoist flags at factories or industrial units, organise public meetings and lead marches. This year, trade unions have moved their speeches or meetings to webinars.
Kaur delivered a lecture through social media platform Facebook on the workers’ demands, especially at a time when work has been impacted the most due to a national lockdown. “This was telecast at some places in Maharashtra where workers had gathered in small numbers, maintaining the social distancing norms. May Day was celebrated in all the states, despite a lockdown,” Kaur added.
Many of the leaders are not tech-savvy and finding it hard to be able to connect to the workers through a new medium.
Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) Vice-President A.K. Padmanabhan have been participating in the May Day rallies since 1964. Since 1979, he has been addressing public meetings as a speaker.
“Today, I asked my son to shoot a five-minute video clip which was circulated to the Whatsapp groups and disseminated through our official website to the comrades,” Padmanabhan said.
“Though it wasn’t able to quench my thirst of being among the people but I guess we have to be accustomed to it and adapt to the change. Usually on May Day, I would have hoisted 20-30 flags in a day,” he added.
He said the CITU published a new manifesto a week back and electronic posters were prepared by the union which was circulated across the country. “For me, May Day was about hearing speeches, raising slogans, being together…It was a day of action,” the trade union leader said.
The unions hoisted flags in the limited number of operational factories across the country. They gathered in small numbers in some of their regional offices, too. In Bengaluru, union leaders, who had curfew passes for relief work, went to the labour commissioner office and handed the authorities a list of demands.
Padmanabhan said that he had planned to pen down an article for his trade union’s journal on how the manifesto presented by Singaravelu on the first May Day is significant even today. The manifesto called for ways to save the rights of labour, right to form union, recognition of right to strike, formation of labour courts to deal with disputes, improved housing condition, state insurance against accident, provident fund for workers, among others.
“Since the journal could not be printed, I decided to write a Facebook post instead,” Padmanabhan stressed.