400,000 people poured into the Taksim Square in central Istanbul for the May Day celebration. The top photo captures that massive gathering well. Unfortunately, however, I did not take that picture. I had no clue that you could access to the Taksim Hill Hotel which faces the Square but if I have another opportunity there, I will certainly try that.
Whilst the event was impressive in its turn-out and successful, the union density in Turkey is less than 6% (OECD, 2009). That means a large number of the 400,000 participants were not members of existing trade unions although these organisations are good in mobilising their members. It shows the affection that the masses in Turkey have to commemorate this day. For example, I know that a group of precarious workers in the construction sector have joined the march for the first time. They have recently formed their own association, too. Whist the labour legislation is weak and the industrial relationship is oppressive, I see some perspective in the new workers’ movements to progress through struggles here.
There are those who may challenge my sentiment by contesting that one day of mass mobilisation will not change this world or even improve the conditions of the workers. That may be true (by the way, why was that recent general strike in Spain only for one day?) but if you can not even afford yourself to spare time to celebrate an international workers’ day, how can you be part of a movement that fights for the collective interests of the working people around the world?
On the previous day, at the press conference for international visitors, I said to the Turkish media that May Day belongs to both men and women; young and old; all ethnic minorities; unionised and non-unionised workers; employed and unemployed; full time workers and precarious workers; direct employees and sub-contracted workers; ones in prison with false charges and those who were dismissed unfairly. I was thinking about the sincere people that I have worked closely with and those I met at picket-lines and court hearings.
Rosa Luxembourg once described how May Day was discussed at the 1889 Congress of the Second International as follows.
“At this Congress, attended by four hundred delegates, it was decided that the eight-hour day must be the first demand. Whereupon the delegate of the French unions, the worker Lavigne from Bordeaux, moved that this demand be expressed in all countries through a universal work stoppage. The delegate of the American workers called attention to the decision of his comrades to strike on May 1, 1890, and the Congress decided on this date for the universal proletarian celebration”. (What Are the Origins of May Day? 1894)
First of May is indeed a moment for such celebration. Although I doubt a universal work stoppage was ever organised in its history, a eight-hour working day has become a part of international labour standards since this launch of a Second International campaign.
And in events around the world, the undying message “workers of the world, unite” is echoed. Be reminded, however, that Marx and Engels have never said “trade unions of the world unite”. Let the two things not get mixed-up. Whilst the unionised labour and their organisations have a role to mobilise international solidarity, federating the trade unions globally was never the ultimate objective of this message. The authors of Communist Manifesto put this declaration in the clear context to overthrow all existing social conditions worldwide.
It is worth remembering that point and think about our options when we chant the slogan on May Day.