. . . but not in New Zealand at present

. . . but not in New Zealand at present

by Colin Clarke

The celebration of the 1st of May as workers day has a strong and proud tradition all around the world since the nineteenth century. It was the one day of the year when workers could stand up and say ‘we are many, they are few’. Alexander Shliapnikov, in On the Eve of 1917, tells how, when he lived and worked in London before the Russian revolution, he would always take May Day off and the next day be asked by his fellow workers if he was ill. He would then explain the significance of workers’ day to them.

The best May Day march I have been on was the first May Day during the 1984-1985 British miners’ strike. You could feel the power of the working class as it marched in solidarity with them. At the time, there was every chance they could win the strike and there was a real mood of optimism amongst the marchers. The event encapsulated the true meaning of the day as a celebration of the power of the working class, especially as there were other marches around the country, equally strong.

Unfortunately, most May Day marches I have been on have been very different; either passive trade union-organised events or local ones attended by three men and a dog. Despite Shliapnikov’s example, I gave up attending May Day events in the late 1990s unless there was a specific struggle going on that would draw in actual workers. I decided I had better things to do than attend a march or event peopled only by activists, union bureaucrats or Labour Party MPs.

This year, though, I didn’t have any choice. As Matt McCarten noted in the New Zealand Herald, 2013 is the first time in 35 years that there have been no official May Day marches in New Zealand. This is hardly surprising given the low level of struggle. As the Department of Labour (DoL) reports, there were 12 strikes in 2011 and 17 in 2010. Figures aren’t yet available for 2012 but it is unlikely they would be much higher. While the number of strike days don’t automatically give us a rounded view of working class consciousness, it is a good rule of thumb, given the number of jobs lost in recent years, that the small amount of strikes tells us that the confidence of the class is very low.

Now I tend to think that it is probably no bad thing that there were no May Day marches in New Zealand as they would have been tiny, purely tokenistic events attended, in the main, by small sects and bureaucrats. What message would that have sent out? That almost the entire working class couldn’t care less about the day that is supposed to celebrate the strength of the working class. . .  Sometimes doing something when there is no real point can be an act of defiance; other times it is just an empty ritual. The token gesture of having a May Day march would have shown up the weakness of our side not its strength.

May Day Iran 2013

May Day Iran 2013

However, the working class is global not just local. More inspiring than the lack of May Day events in New Zealand is this extract from a report by Yassamine Mather which we ran a few days ago: “On May Day Iranian workers took part in illegal gatherings and protests throughout the country despite the repression and the presence of military and security forces, once again proving the tenacity of our class. In Tehran and other major cities there were slogans against low pay, unemployment and the non-payment of wages. The largest demonstration was actually outside the Islamic parliament, the Majles. . .”  (For Yassamine’s full article, see here.)

Further reading:                                                                                                                                        A few thoughts on the politics of stasis                                                                                                          Low horizons and the legacy of defeats



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