Rather than go to work, I’ve got an all-day union meeting and then I’m speaking at the Commercial Drive May Day festivities this evening. Which is about as close as we ever get to celebrating International Workers’ Day in North America – Canada and the US being two of the only countries in the world that don’t recognize May 1st for what everyone else does. Funny too, for the origins of May 1st come out of the US labour struggle of the late 19th century and the state-sponsored murders of anarchist labour organizers arrested during the Haymarket affair. Then again, if you were the US government, maybe you would want to forget that history too.
Not only did the US refuse to make it a national holiday back when the labour movement demanded it, but in 1959 May 1st was designated “Loyalty Day” which was intended as a celebration of patriotism for the country. I’m not sure how much Loyalty Day ever caught on – but clearly the message was – labour struggle is unpatriotic! “International” solidarity is for wusses who don’t care about their *own* countries! Bolsheviks! Traitors!
Oh. If only the North American labour movement hadn’t internalized that message exactly so.
Here in Vancouver the “labour community” has pretty much abandoned MayDay after years of organizing some pretty weak marches. (An exception to this was during the HEU strike five years ago when May 1st fell on a Saturday and BC was edging towards a general strike. That was probably the best workers’ MayDay I’ve celebrated). Of course the international workers’ community here hasn’t let the tradition go and for the last couple of years have taken on the mantle of organizing a community march and speakers in my neighbourhood with a specific focus on workers in other countries, the rights of migrants, and the injustice of a Canada that use the labour of “foreign workers” without giving them basic rights.
All good stuff – and given the global character of the migrant working classes – the focus is increasingly important. And you would think that even though the official labour organizations aren’t a part of putting it together – they might still endorse such a rally or encourage attendance at it. After all – the struggle of one is the struggle of all. Etc. Etc.
But it probably is no surprise to anyone who knows anything about the internal politics of labour that the Vancouver District Labour Council (as one example) wouldn’t even put the march on their circulated calendar of labour events. They won’t have a speaker there. And I’m pretty sure that means they haven’t donated a dime to helping some of the most marginalized groups of workers in Vancouver organize this whole event. And why is that? I would guess it’s because they can’t control the radicalism that emerges from communities of the oppressed. I’ve seen this conflict continually within the labour/radical movements here in BC and elsewhere – if capital-L Labour doesn’t get to call the shots when it comes to organizing pretty much anything, it packs up its toys and goes home.
Because you see, when most of labour bureaucrats talk about “supporting international solidarity” they mean taking a holiday in Cuba. They want international speakers at their conventions – only “as long as they speak English”. And the minute you even nod support towards an armed struggle past or present, you get a lecture on what happened in Nicaragua and that apparently settles that! It’s solidarity on our terms or no terms. Which sounds a little bit too much like the way our political “leaders” approach the rest of the world – our way or the highway!
*Ahem* But I’m getting a bit ranty here. I suppose it’s because I’m on my way to a meeting of federated labour which I know will be comprised of 99% white folks who pay lip service to international struggle while eschewing the local implications of it. While I applaud the money that some unions put towards human rights and labour training in other countries, the abstentionist position towards politics in those places means that the root crises will never be resolved. And instead of going to Colombia to celebrate the toppling of a dictator, we will be forever fielding the refugee claims of Colombian labour activists here. How can we ever win until we see that the struggle of one really is the struggle of all?
I suppose, as always, that the people must lead – those who support international struggle and the rights of all workers need to push for and attend those events that don’t fall inside the traditional labour monopoly. It’s such a small thing – to march in a contingent of radical workers from my union at today’s event – but the fact is, we exist out here. Those of us who know we can only build a better world if we do it together. Not at the expense of the children, the trees, our water sources, or our souls. Together and with the health of the planet and all her creatures considered.
At labour events I am always hearing about the need to renew the labour movement, bring in more diversity and more young. It’s a hollow conversation, because I rarely see the will there to direct operations towards more inclusivity – and this MayDay standoffishness is just one symptom of the same problem. Perhaps Canadian Labour could take the next few May 1sts as a day for reconsideration and renewal. Want to be more relevant? Than how about coming together with the rest of us?
In the meantime, I’m marching with workers from all communities. See you this afternoon!