The start of a new month is a new reason to celebrate as today, 1 May, is a public holiday in many countries. Across nations 1 May is known and celebrated as Labour Day or International Worker’s Day. Some countries in the Northern hemisphere with strong connections to their pagan roots celebrate 1 May as May Day or the manifestation of spring.
International Workers’ Day has its tradition in the socialist and labour movements and has its origin in that socialist-fearing country of the United States as Labour Day started out as the commemoration of the Haymarket affair. On 4 May 1886 a group of workers gathered on Haymarket square in Chicago to demonstrate in favour of an 8-hour workday. This gathering, which started out peacefully, was dispersed by the police killing four demonstrators.
The achievement of labour laws and workers’ rights, like the 37.5 to 40 hour workweek, sick pay and holiday pay, that seem so normal to most of use now, had been a hard-fought battle of the 19th and great parts of the 20th century. They were mainly fought over by factory workers as the industrial sector played a great part in many western economies. Most workers made something with their hands which was tangible. They could say: “I made that”.
Although some western countries, like Germany, still have a strong manufacturing sector, most workers nowadays tend to work in the service sector, where the product of one’s labour is often less tangible. Now, more than 120 years on after that first International Worker’s Day celebration, a period in which the world of work has transformed almost beyond recognition, one could pose the question; what makes one a worker and what exactly is there to celebrate and/ or commemorate on Labour Day?
As mentioned, the fight for workers’ or employers’ rights has most certainly come along way, yet the world of work (still) doesn’t seem that groovy on many fronts. In many parts of Europe unemployment and youth unemployment especially is at record high. Very few of us still expect to get and have a job for life – many are quite scared by that prospect- and even contracts for an undefined period of time seemed to have become some sort of luxury good in countries like the Netherlands. In the UK so-called zero-hour contracts, in which workers don’t have the guarantee of a certain amount of hours and therefore a guaranteed minimum income, have become endemic especially for those employed in lower-paid jobs.
Individual workers in any sector, whether employed or self-employed are being forced to be more self-reliant. No job for life, the government- whether national or supranational- doesn’t want to guarantee a stable economy as it gives certain sectors a free hand in wrecking the economic system. And if because of it you can’t find a job or are not well enough to work the state says there is less money available to help you get back on your workers’ feet or just make a decent living.
Every crisis has its opportunities. Wherever you stand in the world of work, whether you are happily (self-)employed and take pride in your work, or your work is just a means to live, or you are trying to bring changes in your working life, desperately or otherwise, know that, whatever the situation is, you are not your work or the lack of it. If we are the owners of our ability to (do certain) work, we should truly make it our own it. Whatever you do, make your labour work for you.
Happy May Labour Day