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Workers Day – commemorated on the first of May – sees its origin in the year 1886 when groups that had socialist and communist ideals grouped in order to remember the riots of Haymarket in Chicago. These riots occurred during a passive protest where workers, who were asking for the right to strike, came to conflict with police officers trying to stop the protest, leading to the death of 10 individuals and hundreds more injured.
In 1889, socialist parties had called for the simultaneous international workers` demonstration in favour of a law to limit the working day to eight hours to be held on the 1st of May 1890. These same parties and/or their descendants today provide either the governments or main oppositions of Western European nations.
The origins of the commemoration of Workers` Day by the European Community, however, go back to anti-socialist politicians. The first people in Europe who institutionalised May Day, apart from the Soviet Union, were not people of the far left, but rather those of the far-right such as the National Socialists in Germany. In fact, the first central European nation to recognise the first of May as a national day of labour was Germany, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler. This was followed by Vichy France’s declaration of the first of May as a “Festival of Labour and Concord”, and also the May Day of the Falangist inspired Franco Government in Spain.
Following the Second World War, the European Economic Community which had made the first of May into a public holiday was done so by predominantly anti-socialist governments. Western governments had seen the need to detach May Day from labour movements and from the Marxist concept of class struggle. The Catholic Church led by Pope Pius XII in 1955 had also declared the first of May to be the feast of St. Joseph the Worker.
From a historical point of view we can see that Workers Day, although it had socialist origins, was not restricted to only left-wing groups but that both ends of the political spectrum sought to utilise the first of May to their advantage.
Although today’s world is not the same as it was back in the 19th and 20th centuries, it would be wrong to discard Workers` Day without coming to terms with some realities of the contemporary working environment. Amongst the problems we face today is an increase in people suffering from precarity, youth unemployment, workers used as cheap labour, and also the struggles of women who decide to temporarily stop working in order to raise a family. All these problems faced by individuals make Workers Day a very relevant holiday. These issues faced by a number of people in the workplace may make the concept of work itself seem like something negative and dehumanising, however, the truth of the matter is that all work has its unique dignity, and offers each individual the opportunity of contributing both to his family as well as the community around him. All citizens, without exception, can and ought to contribute to that common good in which they individually share so profitably to themselves. In light of the negatives found in working environments, the state has a duty to intervene so as to provide remedy without absorbing or restricting the liberty of the individual.
Two values of the European Union, which have their origins in the political ideas of the Christian–Democratic parties that played a role in founding the Union, are solidarity and subsidiarity. Subsidiarity as a value ensures that decisions are taken at the closest level possible to the worker, and solidarity acknowledges that we live in a society and should thus work for the common good of all in order to establish a more just society. By returning to the roots of these two values, the EU can serve as an example of how to better the lives of workers.
In order to work towards social justice, we have to understand that every member of a workspace is a `human person` rather than a mere individual, a term used by liberal capitalism in order to dehumanise the person. A human must be seen in his full totality rather than just a productive output for the state and the market. It is for this purpose that we ought to continue celebrating Workers` Day both at a local level and on a European level.
Written by: Jake Muscat
This article was published by members of JEF Malta under the BEV Organisations Area!
A youth political organisation with the aim of creating a more united Europe!
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