Friday, May 01, 2009

The Fighting Spirit Of May Day: What We Want For Ourselves We Demand For All.

Today is May Day, the holiday most of the world marks as international workers' day. North Americans call it Labour Day and celebrate it on the first Monday in September, usually without much of a thought about its meaning, but it's the same holiday.

Long tarnished by Stalinist appropriation and armoured parades in Moscow and Beijing, and lately fashionable with earnestly dyspeptic anti-globalization protesters, May Day is nonetheless a traditional, official workers' holiday in such noticeably non-totalitarian countries as India, Sweden, Brazil, and New Zealand. In Los Angeles last year, the Chamber of Commerce joined May Day marchers in the common cause of immigration reform.

May Day was first intended to commemorate a bloody labour war in Chicago in May, 1886, but Labour Day actually began in Canada. It came out of an historic printers' strike in Toronto, in 1872. There's a circuitous history involved in all this, but May Day and Labour Day arose from the same uncomplicated basis of working-class unity. A fair day's pay for an honest day's work. What we want for ourselves we demand for all. Any saboteur of this common purpose is a scab.

This is raw, unambiguous and unsophisticated language, but its moral clarity is the basis of progressive internationalism. It is universal in purpose and global in ambition, and it is the bedrock beneath the fight for free trade unions, the eight-hour day, safe working conditions and proper labour law. This isn't just the dusty antiquarian stuff of maudlin labour ballads. These are still life-and-death struggles in much of the world today.

If this means nothing to you, it could be that you're just too busy enjoying the fruits of victories won by people who fought these battles for you a long time ago. But if you thought that it's still the old bedrock principles of international workers' solidarity that rally the Canadian labour movement to the cause of, say, Palestinian, Israeli, Iranian or Afghan workers, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Dig as deep as you want, you’ll be lucky to find much of it.

Nowadays, Canada's union officials are just as likely to be engaged in highbrow apologetics for the worst enemies of the world's bravest workers. It's commonplace now to happen upon union officials at rallies where everyone's shouting slogans that give courage and comfort to despotic regimes that distinguish themselves by busting unions, jailing union organizers and lynching strikers.

It should come as no surprise that in North America, May Day is now more commonly known as the distress call that goes out from the bridge of a sinking ship. Several recent events have brought this sad irony into rather sharp focus for me.

Just the other day, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and several other worldwide labour federations issued an alert to unions around the world, warning that the approach of May Day in Iran meant the country's trade unionists were facing especially grave peril. After last year’s May Day protests, scores of Iranian union leaders were fired from their jobs, sentenced to lengthy jail terms and publicly flogged. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's police thugs have begun yet another wave of arrests in recent weeks.

You'd think that Canadian trade unionists would have been at the vanguard of a massive response to ITUC's appeal. After all, the historic 1872 Toronto printers' strike was waged against laws that banned free trade unions, and these are precisely the kinds of laws the Tehran regime is using right now to persecute trade unionists in that country. These are laws that even the Tory Prime Minister John A. Macdonald called "barbarous" when he agreed to the Toronto strikers' demands for their full repeal.

I can’t say I’ve noticed any great throngs of CLC-affiliated union members massing down Granville Street in Vancouver or Danforth Avenue in Toronto to show the world they stand in solidarity with their Iranian brothers and sisters.

The ITUC appeal came just a couple of days after I'd had a rather nasty personal encounter with Zahra Jamal, a Vancouver journalist who works for Tehran's government-run Press TV. I'd refused to consent to an interview, recalling the brave Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi who was beaten to death by government thugs after taking photographs of a student protest in Tehran in 2003.

Press TV is a holocaust-denial broadcasting service. It's as slick as the CBC. After I expressed the view that Press TV's bosses should rot in hell for eternity, Jamal threatened to report my sauciness to the faculty where I'm engaged as an adjunct at the University of British Columbia. This is just funny.

What is not so funny is that Press TV is the direct function of a Khomeinist crackdown that involved the firing of hundreds of Iranian journalists and the shuttering of dozens of Iranian newspapers and magazines. Last year, the Association of Iranian Journalists was arbitrarily dissolved by Ahmadinejad’s officials. By any proper standard, Press TV is a nasty little racket and a masquerade, and its journalists are scabs. . .

That's from the bow of my Tyee column today. It cheers up towards the stern (I've been thinking about Tommy McGrath the last couple of days)

We should speak with One Voice, and what we want for ourselves we should demand for all. Shoulder to shoulder, the people will win.

UPDATE: Seems I'm red all over today. Here, and here. Thanks, Jonathon. Muchos gracias, Poumistas, and Blazer. Prairie listeners can tune into CHQR's World Tonight program, 7:35 p.m. Calgary time, when I'll be in conversation with the good Rob Breakenridge. (Podcast here).

UPDATE II: Security and police forces violently attacked Iranian workers as they gathered in Laleh Park in Tehran to observe May Day. The demonstration had been called by ten independent labor organizations. More than 100 persons were arrested, and citizens not participating in the attempted May Day observance were among those beaten. If you think Iran's workers will be defeated by this kind of repression, think again.


Blogger petrou said...

Nice piece, Terry. Here's something I wrote on Press TV when it was launched:

8:39 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

I had read your piece, Michael, and relied on it, because it was a great essay and your work is always reliable.

8:46 AM  
Blogger Andrew Murphy said...

Great article Terry. Well said.

12:03 PM  
Blogger Parvus said...

Fantastic job, Terry. More than a much needed call for solidarity, your Tyee piece also evokes the best of what the left was once about: defense of universal values, support for *all* the oppressed, and no mercy toward bureaucratic misleaderships.

And that picture speaks a thousand words!

5:38 PM  
Blogger Will said...

Fuck the boss class scum.

5:57 PM  
Blogger vildechaye said...

"The working class
can kiss my ass
I've got the foreman's
job at last."

8:25 AM  
Blogger RadicalOmnivore said...

Petrou: Just finished Renegades. Excellent, fascinating and worth every penny I spent.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

How can a poor man stand such times as these? Only with a bit of heart and soul.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

You don't get me I'm part of the union, till the day I die:

12:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a thoughtful piece, thanks for writing it.

Iran is indeed a major violator of trade union rights and, so are many of its friends in the non-aligned movement, especially Cuba, but also China (technically not a member, but nonetheless). Comments from the mainline Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) on Cuba for instance, are non-existent at best and supportive of the regime at worst.

Our union, the Christian Labour Association of Canada, CLAC, has been actively supporting workers in Cuba since 2004 and in China since 2006.

See, for instance:


Should that all trade unions concentrate on their reason for being -- the protection of the rights and interests of all workers on the ground -- rather than ideology.

Thanks again,

Brian Dijkema

11:20 AM  
Blogger Winston said...

excellent post! Thank you

3:07 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


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