Millions march on May Day around the world
Activists in Paris draped the statue on Place de la Republique with a banner reading 'Macron resign' during a demonstration, Monday, May 1, 2023. French unions staged massive demonstrations around France to protest President Emmanuel Macron's recent move to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. | Aurelien Morissard / AP

People squeezed by inflation and demanding economic justice took to streets across Asia, Europe, and the Americas on Monday to mark May Day, in an outpouring of worker discontent not seen since before the worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns.

A million marched in France on Monday as union-led May Day rallies warned President Emmanuel Macron to back down over plans to raise the retirement age.

Crowds banged pots and pans as they wound through Paris, with French trade unions calling “Everyone onto the streets” under the slogan “United with the People for the Withdrawal” of the hated pension reform, which Macron forced through by decree because he could not get it through parliament.

Striking miners march at a May Day rally in Rustenburg, South Africa, Monday, May 1, 2022. | Denis Farrell / AP

Near the Place de la Republique, activists smashed pinatas representing Macron and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Organizers estimated that half a million marched in Paris, with huge rallies in many other cities and towns, including 130,000 in Marseille. Police fired tear gas at protesters in Lyon and clashes erupted in other cities.

French union members were joined by groups fighting for economic justice, or just expressing anger at what is seen as Macron’s out-of-touch, pro-business leadership.

Labor activists from abroad were also present, among them Hyrwon Chong of the South Korean Metal Workers’ Union.

“Today we see rising inequality throughout the world, terrible inflation,” she said, adding that Macron’s government was trying “to tear down a pillar of the social system which is the pension system.”

While May Day is marked worldwide as a celebration of labor rights, this year’s rallies tapped into broader frustrations.

Protests in Germany kicked off with a “Take Back the Night” rally organized by feminist and queer groups on the eve of May Day to protest against violence directed at women and LGBTQ people. On Monday, thousands more turned out in marches organized by German labor unions in Berlin, Cologne, and other cities, rejecting recent calls by conservative politicians for restrictions on the right to strike.

Italy’s neo-fascist premier, Giorgia Meloni, made a point to intentionally snub the country’s labor movement by working on Monday—as her Cabinet passed measures supposedly demonstrating their boss’s concern for workers.

Workers rally in Caracas, Venezuela, Monday, May 1, 2023. | Ariana Cubillos / AP

But opposition lawmakers and union leaders said the measures do nothing to increase salaries or combat the widespread practice of hiring workers on temporary contracts. Many young people say they can’t contemplate starting families or even move out of parents’ homes because they can only get hired as temps.

In other places, May Day rallies highlighted galloping inflation and the need to raise pay. Over 70 May Day demos took place in Spain, with unions warning of “social conflict” if pay isn’t raised to match inflation.

In Northern Macedonia’s capital Skopje, thousands of trade union members protested a recent government decision granting ministers a 78% raise. The minimum monthly wage for workers in one of Europe’s poorest countries, meanwhile, is 320 euros ($350). The hike will put ministers’ wages at around 2,300 euros ($2,530).

“We are here, not only (to mark) Labor Day, but also to warn that if there is no social justice, there will be no social peace either,” said union leader Jakim Nedelkovski.

Taiwanese workers hold slogans reading, ‘Fail to govern and workers will come settle the score,’ during a May Day rally in Taipei, Taiwan, Monday, May 1, 2023. | Chiang Ying-ying / AP

In Moscow—once the site of the world’s largest May Day parades when the city was the capital of the socialist Soviet Union—the gathering was much smaller than typical years. Even in the post-Soviet years, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and trade unions usually hold large marches and protests. That was not the case for 2023.

The country’s biggest trade union federation cancelled its Moscow march, citing “the higher level of terrorist threat, even in regions far from the places of the special military operation,” the phrase used by the Russian government for its war in Ukraine. Red Square has been closed to the public since April 27, and the Putin government also cited “terror threats” as the reason for scaling back Victory Day commemorations scheduled for May 9.

In war-ravaged Ukraine, meanwhile, May Day was also barely observed. “It is good that we don’t celebrate this holiday like it was done during the Bolshevik times. It was something truly awful,” said Anatolii Borsiuk, a 77-year-old supporter of President Volodymyr Zelensky interviewed in Kiev. Alla Liapkina, also a resident of the capital, described the flowers and balloons of Soviet May Day gatherings when workers were honored, but said, “Now we live in a different era.”

In Venezuela, which has suffered rampant inflation for years, thousands of workers demonstrated to demand a minimum wage increase at a time when the majority cannot meet basic needs despite their last increase 14 months ago. “Decent wages and pensions now!” protesters chanted in the capital, Caracas. Many also criticized U.S. sanctions against the socialist-led government of President Nicolás Maduro, chanting, “This is not a blockade, this is looting!”

In Bolivia, left-wing President Luis Arce led a Labor Day march in La Paz with a major union and announced a 5% increase in the minimum wage. Arce said his government “is strong because the unions are strong.”

In Brazil, the focus was not only on traditional labor unions but also on part-time workers and those in the informal sector, with the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announcing a work group on proposals to regulate that sector after he described those workers as “almost like slaves.”

Tens of thousands marched in Seoul, South Korea, chanting: “The price of everything has increased except for our wages. Increase our minimum wages! Reduce our working hours!”

In Tokyo, unions marched with opposition politicians, and rally speakers slammed Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s plan to double the military budget, saying the money should be earmarked for social security and raising pay instead.

In Lahore, Pakistan, workers defied a ban on demonstrations to march on the Punjab Assembly; in Peshawar, unions held a series of indoor events to get around the ban.

Portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Sri Lankan revolutionary leader Rohana Wijeweera are carried on cars during a rally organized by People’s Liberation Front, a Marxist political party, to mark May Day in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, May 1, 2023. | Eranga Jayawardena / AP

In Jakarta, workers slammed the Indonesian government’s Job Creation Law, which protester Sri Ajeng warned “only benefits employers, not workers.”

In Taiwan, thousands of workers protested what they call the inadequacies of the self-ruled island’s labor policies, putting pressure on the ruling party before the 2024 presidential election.

Communists led a demonstration in Beirut, Lebanon, with the march including a block of migrant domestic workers demanding better pay and treatment.

In China, the five-day May Day holiday was the first since COVID reopening, with rail companies saying passenger journeys had broken all records—hitting 19.66 million journeys on Saturday, when the holiday began—and air, land, and sea traffic up 152% from a year earlier.

This article features material from the Associated Press, Morning Star, People’s Daily, and other sources.

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