May Day 2016 around the world

This year’s celebration of May Day around the world saw an unprecedented level of unity against serious threats by the capitalist class to take away what workers have won in over a century.  Attacks on fundamental labor rights, on the survival of unions and on the wages and living and working standards of workers and their families are going on in multiple countries, but everywhere workers are fighting back hard.   

Opposition to the monster “free trade” pacts now being negotiated, the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, was evident in many countries, providing future points of unity for organized labor across borders.  For example, Maria Calderoni, writing on the website of “Rifondazione Comunista” describes the TTIP as the “enemy at the gates” (“Il nemico alle porte”) and a “Galactic Monster“, a danger not just to Italy and Europe, but to the world.    On Monday May 2, Greenpeace Netherlands released damning leaked documents on the negotiation of the treaty, showing that fears about the TTIP have not been exaggerated.

A sampling of May Day activities:

France:  Some of the most dramatic May Day protests took place on the streets of a number of French cities, including  Paris, Nantes, Lyons, Marseilles and Toulouse.  For nearly two months, both workers and students in France have been protesting a proposed employers’ flexibility law, introduced by the nominally socialist government of President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls.  Billed as a remedy for France’s high (10 percent) unemployment rate, the law would make it easier for employers to fire workers and would make other changes in French labor law, including making it harder for unions to negotiate contracts at the national level, as well as relaxing rules on hours and other things.  On Thursday April 28, a reported 170,000 protesters hit the streets, with more on Sunday May 1 and yet more scheduled in the future as the law is debated in the National Assembly.   In some of the protests, violence broke out between fringe groups of protesters and the police, but most of the May Day protests went off peacefully.

Last year, Argentine voters elected a right wing president, Mauricio Macri.  Macri has been a bundle of energy in imposing on the country a neo-liberal program of free trade and austerity, and has packed his cabinet with figures from international monopoly capital. The finance minister, Alfonso Prat-Gay, is a former Morgan Stanley executive, the energy and mining minister is a former Shell executive, and so forth.   The result of their involvement in governance has been a sharp drop in living standards with almost 130,000 workers laid off in just four months, and sharp rises in the cost of everyday living expenses for ordinary people, especially electricity rates.   Macri also handed over millions to predatory “vulture funds,” a move that had been resisted up to now by the administration of former President Cristina Kirchner.  Macri is also seriously implicated in the “Panama Papers” scandal.  So on Friday April 29, all five major Argentine labor federations coordinated mass protests against the full range of the government’s economic policies, but especially those which have so tangibly, and in such a short space of time, undermined the survival needs of Argentine workers. Argentine workers have been demonstrating against Macri for months, but on Friday the numbers, estimated at 350,000 demonstrators in Buenos Aires alone, were at record levels.  Part of the extra anger is due to Macri’s threat to veto legislation passed by the Congress to put the brakes on the avalanche of layoffs.

In Brazil, there is an ever-clearer understanding among the working class that the current political crisis, in which President Dilma Rousseff is being threatened with impeachment, also entails an all out attack on advances that Brazilian workers, racial minorities, women and others have made under the governments of Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.   The current effort to impeach Rousseff and replace her with Vice President Michel Temer is clearly a stalking horse for right wing politicians, big business interests and transnational corporations who have an agenda of rolling back the gains of the Brazilian people.  Temer has put together a list of possible cabinet members to appoint if Rousseff is forced to step down temporarily or is ousted permanently, and he becomes president.  As in Argentina, this list is packed with people who are connected to international monopoly capital.  For example one person allegedly being considered for a high economics position is Paulo Leme, head of Goldman Sachs in Brazil.  Changes in labor law being contemplated by Temer and his allies include a halt to indexing of wages to the cost of living, increases in possibilities of contingent and part time jobs, advancing the retirement age to 67, and the removal of some workers’ rights from the law books.    So, as in Argentina, workers and unions have not waited until May Day to hit the streets, but were out in force in many cities for weeks.  In São Paulo on May 1, marchers were addressed by President Rousseff who announced increases in the social welfare programs that people like Temer would cut or eliminated if they take power.   

Incidentally the surname “Temer” means “to fear” in Portuguese, and surveys now show that most Brazilians fear what Temer would bring and would rather have new elections than let Mr. Temer slip into power by crafty maneuvering.

Workers in Venezuela hit the streets on May Day in the middle of the worst crisis the country has seen since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998 and embarked on the Bolivarian socialist experiment. Chavez’ successor, President Nicolas Maduro, is embattled, and the crisis has both economic and political dimensions.  The right wing, which now controls a supermajority in Congress, has collected enough signatures on a petition to proceed with an effort to remove Maduro from power.   But Venezuelan workers on Sunday did not forget that progressive labor laws enacted under the two Bolivarian presidents would be in serious danger if the right wing took power.   These endangered laws include the Organic Law on Work and Workers (Ley Organica del Trabajo, los Trabajadores y las Trabajadoras), or LOTTT.  Venezuelan labor law is extremely advanced in a part of the world where workers’ rights are often violated or ignored, as in next door Colombia where large numbers of labor union activists have been murdered in recent years.  LOTTT guarantees the rights of workers with respect to union membership, collective bargaining rights, wages and hours, child labor (prohibited) and government guaranteed grievance procedures.   Such strong labor legislation flies in the face of the worldwide push by monopoly capital to break unions and push down wages. Although many things have gone wrong in Venezuela recently, marchers on May 1 were also aware of the danger that their hard won labor rights could be taken away if the right wing gets into power.

In Cuba, May Day celebrations were immense and joyous, in Havana and all over the island, in the context of the commitment of the Cuban Communist Party to the defense of the gains of the revolution and the renovation of the model of socialist development.   In Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, the May Day march took nearly two hours to pass by the reviewing stand.  President of the People’s Power Assembly (Cuba’s national legislature) Esteban Lazo presided and praised the marchers as part of “a people ready to defend their revolutionary conquests”.

Cubans did not forget the challenges and threats that other left-leaning governments in Latin America are facing, as well as those that Cuba still faces.  Speaking at the main rally in Havana, Ulisis Guilarte, the General Secretary of the Cuban Workers Federation (CTC), pointed out that the 55 year unilateral U.S. economic blockade of the island is still in force and that the U.S. controlled naval base at Guantanamo Bay has not been restored to Cuban sovereignty,  things which impede full normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Photo: Workers and students demonstrate for May Day in Marseille, France.  |  Claude Paris/AP 


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.