TODAY workers in TT join millions of workers around the world in celebrating May Day, or International Workers’ Day. Hundreds of millions of workers will mark this historic day by marching through the streets to commemorate a worker’s right to an eight-hour work day. In TT this will be no different as workers will be marching through the streets of San Fernando.
Conceptually, the eight-hour work day was conceived to allow for eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of leisure within a 24-hour period. At the 1884 National Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labour) in Chicago, a proclamation was made that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour and that the day May 1 was to be marked with demonstrations.”
On May 1, 1886, workers in the US and around the world went on strike for the eight-hour work day. By the third day of the strike, Chicago authorities began to repress the workers. In response, a public meeting was announced to be held at Haymarket Square to discuss the police repression. At that meeting, a bomb was thrown, leading to the police opening fire, and the death of several protesters.
At the first congress of the Second International (an international organisation of socialist and labour parties) in 1889, it was proposed that international demonstrations commemorate the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. May Day was eventually formally recognised as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891.
In TT, the earliest detailed record of May Day celebrations took place exactly 70 years ago on May 1, 1949. May Day celebrations were then led by the TT Trade Union Council which had as its national executive John FF Rojas, president; CP Alexander, first vice president; Dudley Mahon, second vice president; Quintin O’Connor, acting secretary, and Ralph Mentor, treasurer.
Participating in May Day celebrations in 1949 were the Amalgamated Building and Woodworkers’ Trade Union (now the Amalgamated Workers Union), All Trinidad Sugar Estates and Factories Workers’ Trade Union (now the All Trinidad General Workers Union), Federated Workers’ Trade Union (now NUGFW), Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union, Port of Spain Municipal Pensionable Employees Association, Railway Workers’ Trade Union (later TIWU), San Fernando Municipal Employees Association (now the C&GWTU), Seamen and Waterfront Workers’ Trade Union, and the Public Works and Public Services Trade Union (now the PSA).
Since back then, the May Day march was held in San Fernando, a tradition which continues until this day. It had started at King’s Warf and ended with a rally at Harris Promenade with an address by Rojas, who was also president general of the OWTU. In his address, which we are fortunate to still have, Comrade Rojas condemned the recent move by western trade unions that left the World Federation of Trade Unions. Rojas reaffirmed the trade union movement of TT to be both internationalist and anti-imperialist.
Interestingly, some of the issues raised in the address remain quite similar to today’s issues, such as the long delay by the legislative council to bring progressive labour and social legislation. Five resolutions were passed at that May Day celebration which the trade union movement called for.
Firstly, responsible government (still relevant today), federation with dominion status (independence with a federation), opposition to war (even more relevant with war drums beating in Washington against Venezuela), unwarranted attack on human rights (we see the rise of attacks on people’s institutions) and social insurance (unemployment insurance, health insurance, full employment, housing and free secondary education for all).
The following is an excerpt from Rojas’ May Day speech 1949:
“Our celebration of this May Day is taking place under the three-fold slogan: ‘For Peace, for Social Justice, for Economic Democracy.’
“In respect to the safeguarding of peace, the Trinidad and Tobago Trade Union Council considers that the labour world should have its place in international agencies where the fate of the nations can be decided.
“With regard to social justice, every worker is entitled to a minimum living standard and the remuneration of labour must be improved in order that the workers may live with dignity in a regime of social justice and security.
“As for economic democracy, the workers no longer want to be merely passive elements and wish to have access to the responsibilities and advantages of economic management through the speedy establishment of works, councils and other adequate institutions.”
Today in TT, the eight-hour work day is under serious threat. There are thousands of workers in the security sector and now the energy sector, who are working under a 12-hour work day. This goes against international standards and violates the ILO principle of decent work. In fact the very first convention of the ILO, Convention No 1, regulates daily and weekly working hours in industry. Similar rules were established by the hours of work (commerce and offices) convention, 1930 (Convention No 30). These two instruments, as a general rule, limit working hours to eight per day and 48 per week.
These attempts by employers to introduce a 12-hour work day represent a very backward step in terms of where the rest of the world is going. We must make it clear that a 12-hour shift system is different from a 12-hour work day, the difference being the remuneration structure. In other words, to have someone work for 12 hours a day with a straight pay is really effecting a 12-hour work day, which is inhumane and cruel.
As we celebrate May Day 2019 in San Fernando today, we must remember that the struggle for the eight-hour work day was never exclusively about that. In essence, it was about human dignity of the workers and forging a new world where social justice can exist for all people. Today, the significance and symbolism of May Day reminds us of the magnitude of that seminal struggle, and the role that struggle has played in raising class-consciousness, and safeguarding human rights and dignity.
Ozzi Warwick is the chief education and research officer of the OWTU