May Day

It’s the evening of May Day, though as it falls on a Sunday we will (in Queensland at least[1]) celebrate it with that great Australian institution, a long weekend. Last year, I went on the march, this year I ran a triathlon instead[2]. My somewhat confused attitude is, I think, pretty characteristic of the position labour movement more generally.

Updated below

I’m a worker and a union member, but on a higher income than many employers, and (thanks to research grants) effectively an employer myself. Where Marx and others in the 19th century foresaw a sharpening of the divide between capitalists and proletarians, the actual outcome has been that the lines have been increasingly blurred. A term like ‘working class’ is more of a cultural and occupational label than a statement about economic position – I read somewhere that ‘working class’ households in the US have about the same average income as households in general.

At the same time, there clearly exists a boss class which has become increasingly self-assured (in fact, bossy) over recent decades and is grabbing a steadily growing share of the economic pie. The top 1 per cent of income earners receive something like 25 per cent of total income and Paul Krugman has pointed out that 10 per cent of all capital gains in the US accrued to just 400 individuals. The recent attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere reflect the political power of this class, and the resistance to those attacks reflects the possibility of a more general movement to protect the interests of workers against the claims of the bosses.

Given the decades of retreats and defeats we have experienced, it seems somewhat quixotic to call for a revival of traditional trade unionism. On the other hand, there is no apparent alternative, and unions have managed to carry on the struggle with at least some success (for example, the defeat of WorkChoices in Australia).

The debate over austerity provides one possible way of linking these issues. The demand for austerity has been pressed primarily by the same financial corporations that caused the crisis in the first place. They, and not public sector workers, or workers in general, are the ones who should pay. But only with strong unions and a political movement openly supportive of workers against the top 1 per cent can this be achieved.  The political case is there, and would, I think attract plenty of support, but the political movement is not.

I’d welcome suggestions of a way forward, pointers to positive developments around the world and so on.

Update. Commenters at Crooked Timber and elsewhere have reminded me that much of the labour that used to be done by the working class in developed countries is now done in factories in China[3] and other developing countries, along with the same oppression and class conflict and at least some of the resistance we celebrate on May Day. In this context, can I give a plug to <a href=”http://www.labourstart.org/”>Labourstart</a&gt;, which links to labour struggles all around the world, and links today to a great <a href=”http://www.care2.com/causes/politics/blog/may-day-belongs-to-the-workers-and-their-songs-come-sing-along/”>collection of May Day songs</a>.

fn1. Most Australian states celebrate Labour Day on a different day, usually commemorating the achievement of the eight-hour working day in the 19th century. In the subsequent hundred years of so, we managed to whittle that down to 7.6 hours, and get Saturdays off, but for many, the reduction in the standard working week has been snatched back since about 1990.

fn2. 1:32 for a sprint (750/20/5) – not competitive, but a personal best

fn3. The fact that the “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie” in this instance is by far the world’s largest and most politically successful communist parties is one of those ironies that make history a depressing study.

27 thoughts on “May Day

  1. Apologies, the first post disappeared from my screen, & I thought it’d been lost in a crash/freeze. Being too bushed at the time to type all over again, I allowed the It was meant to expand on the opening sentence, which in isolation looks a tad on the outlandish side.

    Short version:
    Lost the Plot = Uni Professors do not, by any stretch, fit into the definition of “workers”. They are an elite, professional class, and can be members of many things, but a trade union?

  2. Ikonoclast says:”I protest once again that Steve at the Pub’s icon is advertising a product and a very harmful product at that. I request that Steve’s comments by deleted until he removes the advertising icon.”

    It would seem Ikonoclast doesn’t know heritage listed stuff when he/she sees it. I am not responsible for your lack of historical knowledge or of Qld culture. The sign in my gravatar is a historical one, and is synonymous with “Pub”, having been painted onto all pubs for decades. That sign’s almost total removal (note that word) statewide is due to some poor decisions by the owners of the corporation, however this does not change the historical reference, nor the heritage listing.

    “Harmful product”? Now we really DON’T know our class from our elbow do we? I have news for you wowser: Not everybody is a Presbyterian, & in fact my industry is VERY top heavy with Irish stock, always has been. Can’t stand the though that somewhere someone is having fun? Deal with it! The product is actually beneficial, nyeh nyeh nyeh.

    I don’t try in this forum to proselytize you away from the Qld Temperance League. It would seem the courtesy isn’t returned. You are all class.

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