Why International Workers‘ Day is so important – right now amid coronavirus!

May Day is International Workers‘ Day – how does that ring in your ears?

In mine, it sounded slightly old-fashioned for a long time. It did remind me of something important, yes, but seemed to leave a taste of a dusty long-gone history. I grew up in Western Germany where the unions and economy were strong. Whilst workers‘ rights may not have been perfect, it was my impression that they were very good. At school I learned that communist states looked at it differently and I saw the huge parades in the DDR (GDR) on TV. I was too young to reflect on it. May Day remained a nice bank holiday to me, reflecting workers‘ struggles of the past.

In the late 19th century, eight hour shifts or safety in the work place were not a given – as high work-related death rates at the time would testify too. These were rights that had to be fought for with blood, sweat, and tears. It was not until much later and after many struggles that weekends, 40-hour weeks or payed leave were granted to workers. 

The commemoration of the Haymarket affair in Chicago in 1886 is the origin of Workers‘ Day on May 1. 

It started with workers‘ demonstrations in 1890 and it became a public holiday in many countries in the course of the 20th century. In some countries, it coincides with spring celebrations, such as the traditional May Day (now also International Workers Day) or Walpurgis Night, and in few it never became a holiday at all.

I have experienced and shared various May Day traditions with friends in Europe – with most countries now combining labour day and spring celebrations. However, there are differences. In the Netherlands, people barely take notice of International Workers‘ Day, in my experience, it’s just another working day. – Even though the Dutch are aware of the importance of workers‘ rights and seem to strike a fair balance between workers‘ rights and economic interests.  In conversation with Polish and Hungarian nationals, I discovered that May Day now leaves behind a bad taste for many in the former socialist or communist countries. Enforced by governments for too long and used to demonstrate unity, freedom and welfare that did not exist in reality, it became a compulsion. In Germany, as in many other countries, May Day is a day filled with union demonstrations and many have ‚danced into May‘ the night before to welcome spring. 

In France, my first May Day had a nice surprise in store for me: on the corner of where I lived, I received a bouquet of lily of the valley by members of a union!

This nice combination of spring and workers‘ rights is said to go back to King Charles IX in 1561 and the flower is an old Celtic and Roman symbol for the return of spring. There are many more traditions and ways to remember the struggles to secure the level of fairness and safety that workers in most parts of Europe enjoy today. They are all worth mentioning, they are part of our rich European heritage and I appreciate discovering the diversity of our cultural traditions. 

At the same time, the gap between European nations when it comes to securing workers‘ rights is nearly as wide. -As even the most common denominators of work safety and fair working conditions are not yet established everywhere – neither in Europe, nor in the world.

Right now amid the COVID19 crisis, we are witnessing the limits of what I thought at least Europe had agreed on as minimum standards for workers‘ rights. I could accept medical staff being temporarily under-equipped and overworked, if it did not put their lives at risk and if they were re-compensated later. 

Even if it is near impossible to prepare entirely for a pandemic  – we need to recognise that Corona’s magnifying glass shows us exactly where the ongoing fight for workers‘ rights lies. 

It is with the protection and re-compensation of medical staff. It is with the marginalised workers, who now save our European harvest of fruit and vegetables, and whose living conditions are often so poor that they can barely protect themselves from an infection. It is with cleaning staff, shop vendors, teachers, and countless others at risk doing their job and improvising to get the necessary work done. They are described as relevant to the system in some countries and called key or frontline workers elsewhere. Corona shows us that it is in society’s interest to protect and treat all workers fairly, as this protects everyone, including the employers.

Corona shows to us that squeezing the lemon until it runs dry does not produce more lemon juice in the long run. 

We may no longer have to fight with blood and tears or lose our lives to fight for workers‘ rights in our part of the world. It might suffice to debate and negotiate a fair and workable compromise for all. Right now it is evident that this is what is needed to keep society running. Hence it’s good to continue to applaud those doing the heavy lifting and dangerous jobs – many applaud themselves. And it’s good to continue to bring a bit of May Day into the rest of the year and to fight for fair play and fair pay in the world of work.

The french habit of handing out the lily of the valley will remain a favourite of mine.

Text and photo: Iris

This blog has first been published on the website of New Europeans.