The Changing Significance of May Day

07 May 2015 - Commentary

What is the significance of May 1st in Sri Lanka? Although it is a seemingly broad question, the connection between May Day and the larger workers’ struggle provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the successes and losses of the country’s labour movement. Toward this end, the authors of this article sat down and discussed with veteran unionists and organizers regarding both the history of May Day and contemporary challenges. The goal was to use May Day as a platform to discuss larger issues affecting labour organizing in Sri Lanka.

While May Day is a workers’ day celebrated internationally, it has its own unique history in this country. This includes the fact that it was made a public holiday in 1956 by the government of SWRD Bandaranaike. As a result, the rest of the article will focus on the changes to the unions involved in May Day in Sri Lanka, with implications for more systemic challenges to organized labour across the world. This includes the continuing fragmentation of workers’ identity in the context of neo-liberal globalization.

Beginnings and political divisions

May Day first emerged as a significant day of protest in Sri Lanka thanks to the efforts of the Communist Party and Lanka Sama Samaja Party during the 1940s and 50s. The result was a demonstration of workers’ militancy. After the day became a public holiday, however, it was increasingly incorporated into the programs of the bourgeois parties such as the SLFP and UNP, which organized their own unions. As DW Subasinghe (General Secretary, Ceylon Federation of Trade Unions) puts it: "Some workers began using it as a holiday for themselves.We had to work a lot to bring them to the demonstrations. The militant part of the workers on the May Day was reduced by this public holiday." Moreover, May Day celebrations eventually became bogged down by splits among party affiliates and political patronage.

Unions were forced to choose sides in what became an increasingly partisan game, which overshadowed previous debates about revolutionary strategy. Subasinghe singles out the United Front as particularly damaging for the trade union movement: "In 1970 the left parties joined Sirima Bandaranaike’s coalition. Then the May Day became an event of the United Front government, dominated by the SLFP. The whole procession was dominated first by the SLFP and its speakers. The left alliance also joined and they also spoke, but it changed the tone of the May Day." The left has yet to recover, and factions remain divided to this day over participation in the fractured United People’s Freedom Alliance, including breakaway factions of the CP and LSSP.

Challenges to organized labour

These political divisions are compounded by changes to the workforce that undermine organized labour. This includes both more concerted attacks on workers’ rights and the gendered composition of labour. In areas such as the Free Trade Zones and the plantation sector, labour is inhibited in its basic ability to articulate its demands. Padmini Weerasuriya (Executive Director, Women’s Centre) argues, "Successive governments so far have facilitated the investors keeping in line with the concept ‘profit and compliant labour’. Comparatively, they have done nothing towards the workers in the FTZs. Inevitably, workers are exploited; their basic human rights, labour rights and specifically women’s rights are severely compromised daily since the inception of the FTZs."

Moreover, the issues specific to these sectors also highlight the gender gap within unions. "If we look at the labour-force of the country, whatever sector it is, whether it is in the garment industry or the plantation sector, the majority 60 to 70 per cent of the workforce consists of women. But if we look at the leadership of the trade unions the leadership still remains predominantly male, plus in its political outlook," according to Menaha Kandasamy (General Secretary, Ceylon Plantation Workers Red Flag Union). At the same time, the changing makeup of the workforce entails new approaches to unions, including accessing donor funding. Questions remain however about the independence of organizations given these constraints and the shift away from the traditional tasks of movement building.

Rethinking the role of unions

In light of these challenges, we can draw perhaps two major dimensions from our discussions with labour organizers: 1) political splits and divisions among unions and 2) the capacity of organizations to deal with issues facing labour.

In terms of the first point, in the absence of a unified political program shared by unions and affiliated parties, continuing to emphasize the need for left unity is insufficient. One alternative, however, could be to identify everyday issues as class issues in order to explore the irrelevance to people’s lives. These could be dealt with around specific campaigns addressing common problems that affect broad swathes of workers. The current 2,500 rupee demand to increase private sector workers’ salaries is a useful example, insofar as it has brought together many diverse unions from across the political spectrum to put pressure on the government to fulfil its promises.

With regard to the second point, it is important to recognize the limits to donor-funded approaches and the need to re-start the basic task of developing unions’ membership base. Padmini Weerasuriya says,"In the case of the Women’s Centre, we have been able to balance our interventions effectively through external funding because the staffs come from a working class background and have the necessary experience to engage with workers effectively, focusing on issues which matter to the FTZ workforce." Similarly, Menaha Kandasamy proposes, "Donor agencies should support trade unions, but that should be targeted at sustaining the unions and labour struggles, and not by being project-focused and perpetuating the traditional male-elite outlook."

The problem, however, is that even amidst these caveats, when organizations rely on external funding they must often work around donors’ requirements in order to continue to access funding. In contrast, it would seem that discussion between leadership and the membership that sustains it and holds it accountable is the most effective method for achieving workers’ goals. In many cases this will require first building up a base. In the context of the FTZs this may be easier said than done, given employers’ restrictions, which impacts the collection of membership fees. At the same time political training and education for those workers who come from rural backgrounds and who may lack labour organizing experience is needed.

Hope on May Day

Despite the setbacks, there is still hope rethinking May Day in terms of the struggle to promote the dignity of labour, even as a loose set of commitments, while unions continue to work out difficult theoretical and practical issues. The question is what unions and workers’ organizations are currently able to embody the two perspectives outlined in the previous section, overcoming personal and political differences in order to work together. We should also keep in mind the possible negotiations between unions that occur during May Day, against the background of heated debates regarding reforms to the constitution.

Current political discussions about the relationship between state and society do not occur in a vacuum, which is why we should acknowledge the perspective offered by the unions that claim to represent the masses of the working people. Democratic demands such as the current proposed 19th amendment must be articulated with deeper demands for equality. Class equality remains one of the most powerful ideas in the modern political imagination, despite global setbacks including the historical path taken by socialist countries. Accordingly Sri Lanka’s unions brought together however tenuously by May Day will remain relevant until the transformation of the capitalist system that continues to make them a necessity.

This piece was also published in The Island on 2 May 2015