Terry Bell | The saddest Workers' Day in history

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Today is the saddest global May Day in history. For the first time in 130 years, there will be no rallies and marches to celebrate what began as a campaign for an eight-hour working day.

Not only has that goal still not been achieved in many regions, but workers and their unions, still reeling from job losses even before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, face an even bleaker future. With airlines, major retail outlets, restaurants and other businesses in dire straits, many more jobs have been lost and even more are threatened.

Latest estimates, given the damage already done to the South African economy, are that up to 1 million more workers may be unemployed before year end. Treasury has sketched a bleak worst-case scenario in which the coronavirus sees South Africa losing a total of some 7 million jobs, bringing unemployment levels to over 50%.

But May Day, although regarded as a celebration, is also a time of recommitment to the fight for a better future.

It is against this background that the first worldwide virtual May Day celebration will be staged. By nine o’clock this morning, many South African trade unionists were ready to tune in via the internet. In New York, the 12-hour celebration was scheduled to start at three in the morning while workers in New Zealand will tune in from seven at night.

Supporting this ambitious programme is the web-based labour movement campaign body, Labour Start, along with the International Trade Union Confederation and seven of the major international trade union federations, to which many local unions are affiliated. These include, Education International, Public Services International and the International Federation of Journalists.

For many workers in different countries and time zones today will be the first May Day spent at home under lockdown regulations. It also comes at a time of great and increasing uncertainty about what the future holds.

However, perhaps ironically, this virtual celebration gives a resounding meaning to that 1848 call by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: Workers of all countries, unite. Because workers and unions on every continent will be able to contribute to a programme featuring the inevitable speeches, along with stories and songs of the labour movement.

It is a first for the labour movement at this level although the means to establish such connection and unity has existed for years. But there has been a great deal of suspicion about the rapid advance of digital technologies. Along with communication, these include automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, all widely seen, with justification, as major threats to jobs.

Division and fragmentation

Speedy, cheap and almost instant communication has also seen the growth, now speeded up in the wake of the pandemic, of online labour. With increasing numbers of workers operating from home, workforces are effectively fragmented. This fear is summed up in the slogan: United we negotiate, divided, we beg.

However, this working from home trend, speeded up by the pandemic, cannot be stopped, primarily because it makes sense from a business point of view. The cost of office space and equipment is greatly reduced, work flows can still be monitored and, on the basis of available evidence, workers are often more productive.

This is accepted by unionists who raise a counter argument: that with proper use, the latest technologies can become a major weapon in the worker and union arsenal. This argument should begin to gain greater traction following the virtual May Day, as workers realise how — with open access — modern communication technology can become an organising tool at the local, national and global levels.

This could mean an extension of union organising into the communities in the way some unions began to operate in the 1980s. Or, for that matter, the way mainly young people triggered the Arab Spring in Egypt or marshalled the masses in Hong Kong’s democracy protests.

For a government faced with crippling debts and a massively restive population, such a development would not be welcome. It would also threaten established bureaucracies within the labour movement that might join the state to stymie all such attempts.

Whatever happens a turbulent time looms and the country, the world, and the global labour movement, will certainly not be the same again, for better or worse.

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