Date: 1 May 2009
MayDay Address: Night for Gaza – Newtongrange
Miners Club 1 May 2009
John Stevenson, UNISON
From medieval times, Mayday was a big celebration
in Britain – not for the unions at the time, mind
you – more a pagan festival, that got more and more
So rowdy that the Government stopped celebrations
in 1708 after writer Ned Ward wrote that he was
shocked to find comedy booths and prostitutes doing
Perhaps then, it was no coincidence that the 2002
London Mayday rally fell apart in disarray after
a surprise demo by 300 sex workers.
But as you all know, the International Labor Day
of Mayday, started in 1890 in America.
Its whole purpose was international solidarity
and you cannot talk about that without mentioning
the passing of Jack Jones last week. A man whose
principles were so strong that, as a young man,
he went off to Spain to fight fascism in the civil
I had the privilege to meet him in 1987. A tall
man both physically and in terms of his commitment
and contribution to the movement. One of the giants
whose shoulders we stood on and whose example we
strive to follow.
The idea for MayDay was born as long ago as 21
April 1856 Australian workers organised a one day
strike with a festival to campaign for the 8 hour
day. Meant to be for just one year, it was so successful
that it was made an annual event.
The 8 hour day? A fight we are having to face again
all these years after as the opt-out from the Working
Time Directive misses the opportunity to challenge
the long hours culture.
The Americans followed on 1st May 1886
when 200,000 left their work to demand the 8 hour
day. The event at Haymarket in Chicago went off
peacefully but at the end 180 police came in to
disperse the crowd and a bomb went off killing one
and injuring 70. The police fired and killed one
demonstrator and injured many others.
In a major fit-up 8 activists were convicted, one
committed suicide. Albert Parsons, August Spies,
Adolf Fischer and George Engel were hanged. The
remaining three were pardoned 7 years later in a
landmark ruling that confirmed the constitutional
right to demonstrate.
In 1889 there was an international workers congress
and the French delegate proposed a world-wide stoppage
– or holiday - for the 8 hour day and linked it
into the 1 May event planned by the Americans in
It was at this conference that the red flag was
adopted as a symbol of the blood spilled by the
workers in the class struggle.
That first Mayday saw thousands stopping work in
Germany, a rally of 300,000 in Hyde Park – around
the world, the pressure led to most governments
declaring 1 May a public holiday – except Britain.
We had to wait till Labour introduced it in 1978.
In 1916, Mayday in Germany saw 50,000 metal workers
striking against war.
In the second world war, Mayday was even celebrated
in the Warsaw Ghetto.
100,000 celebrated on Mayday in Portugal days after
the dictatorship was overthrown in 1947.
And last year we saw thousands of civil service
comrades take industrial action on Mayday in their
pay and jobs dispute.
The Mayday tradition in the Lothians has been long
and solid. The role of the miners, in particular,
critical to maintaining this workers day.
And the role of the Trades Union Councils in ensuring
that International Workers Day is celebrated has
Another example of the key role of Trades Union
Councils in bringing grass roots activists together.
A role we treasure in Scotland.
A role that had to be defended as long ago as 1897
when the STUC set up totally separately from the
TUC, mainly to defend the representative role of
And as we see tonight, Mayday was born out of an
understanding that workers’ struggles are international.
The 8 hour day campaign was a worldwide campaign.
That’s a lesson we need to learn today with the
global economy and international big business relocating
around the world in search of workers to work for
So when our members or the public or the politicians
tell the trade unions – ‘just get on with the pay
claim – international politics are nothing to do
with you’ – we can tell them that, not only has
it got something to do with us, it is how we were
born, it is what we are about.
Those who oppress workers are international – so
those who defend workers need to be international
I’m proud of my union, along with many others,
for the international links we have built up over
- Links with the South African Congress of Trade
Unions during apartheid, bringing the wonderful
Eddie Ramsdale to Scotland in the 70s and 80s.
- Then our work with Denis Goldberg after 25 years
in a South African jail for standing alongside
Mandela. That supports books for schools in South
Africa and a Rape Crisis Centre.
- Burma: Our member Murray Forgie who set up an
educational trust for Burmese student refugees
- 9/11 and our solidarity work with the municipal
unions in New York – never let us forget the role
of American trade unionists in the history of
On that bleak day, because everything was privatised
in New York, the only people who could organise
the construction workers, co-ordinate the diggers
and get the equipment to save lives, were the
trade unions who organised across the companies.
The bakers’ union went round their companies
and got thousands of face masks in the first few
hours. The unions played a central role with the
teamsters organising convoys, for example.
- The funds we sent after the Tsunami to help
unions re-build their infrastructure
- The work we are currently doing with Iraqi trade
unions to train, organise and re-build infrastructures.
The so-called liberation there has put even more
draconian restrictions on trade unions. It has
allowed the sectarianism the unions were challenging
to re-ignite and thrive.
- The funding from my union to allow me and others
to campaign alongside the Glasgow Girls, that
inspirational group of young asylum seekers, to
get the government to drop its reservation from
the UN Convention on the Right of the Child.
- And Palestine:
- Our links over the years with the PGFTU, our
support for the Gaza clinic and colleagues Mike
Kirby and Fiona Smith’s visit on an STUC delegation
a few weeks ago to come back with the Boycott,
Disinvestment and Sanctions recommendation to
put pressure on Israel to end the occupation.
- And if you have any doubt about the effect of
a boycott, just look at the amount of pressure
Israel is putting on against it. The work being
done by the Israeli visitor in haranguing people
at the STUC shows we’ve got them rattled.
- As trade unionists, we have always looked for
a lead from those in struggle. The PGFTU does
not find the boycott issue an easy one but it
is clear from all the evidence on the ground that
this must now be the way forward.
- And the role of the Histadrut is also a difficult
issue. We are reviewing our relations with the
Israeli trade unions following the Gaza slaughter
and our General Secretary Dave Prentis declined
an invitation to their Congress in February. But
we will maintain a link to tell them why we are
backing a boycott and to make our views on justice
for the Palestinians absolutely clear.
- The lesson of the apartheid boycott is that
BDS won’t happen overnight, but we need to make
it happen and take a leaf out of the book of the
South African dockers – people who should know
more about boycotts than we ever will - who refused
to unload a ship of Israeli goods.
- At the bar earlier with we were reflecting on
the apartheid boycott. How, even after democracy
and the ANC coming to power, many of us still
found it hard to buy South African wine, so strong
had been the boycott message. We need to get there
Mayday is Internationalism. It is about trade unionists
joining together across the world to give the strength
to resist oppression that itself is international.
And it gives us even more strength to know Mayday
and is still happening all over the world from the
far east to the American continent, from Africa
to all across Europe, to here in the Lothians.
Just google mayday and see the host of huge events
going on across the world.
Still going on over a hundred and twenty years
after that first fight for the 8 hour day.
If, as trade unionists, we claim to fight against
oppression, we have to do that beyond our own borders
If the lesson of the first mayday means anything,
it means that if we are not internationalists, we
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