This time of year is always important to the labour rights movement, what with World Day for Safety and Health at Work and International Workers (Labour) Day falling on 28th April and 1st May, respectively.
But in this 100th year of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), seeing social media posts of the spring maypole and village bunting events associated with the traditional meaning of May Day, I started thinking about what a sharp contrast there is between the bucolic, May Day activities and the terrible fates of workers during the Haymarket Affair that triggered the late 19th century establishment of International Workers’ Day on this same day. How complex is a day celebrating fertility and seasonal rejuvenation for some and commemorating the incessant struggle for workers’ rights for others?
The May Pole of Collective Action
But I see the two celebrations as one--the May Pole (the central pillar) as the ILO, from which flows the coloured ribbons (the core labour protections established by the ILO 100 years ago). The day, especially this year, therefore celebrated the continued pursuit of the most basic of human rights at work: being able to freely associate, participate in dialogue, bargain collectively and elect trade union or independent worker representation. Even in a globalised world where we outsource our work, technology and business models, the ILO’s “our story – your story” strikes a chord, importantly recognising that, “it is timely to reflect on the many life-changing events linked to the ten decades of ILO history. The Organization has played a role at key historical junctures…and today in the building of an ethical and productive framework for a fair globalization.”
The ETI tripartite model and base code are built on the principles of defending workers rights’ through collaboration between workers, business and governments. It’s core to who we are and how we strive to bring about change. These strands of globalised industry are our May Pole ribbons, intrinsically linked and ready to weave in our merry dance or perhaps march.
Another wave of revolution is well under way. Climate change, low carbon energy-efficient industry, digitisation and automation are the latest concepts and challenges shiftng the reality of workers’ lives and working conditions. Change is needed to ensure a new landscape facilitating different ways of working together.
Weaving ribbons together for the future
The ITUC are calling for a new social contract between governments, workers and employers. In a way it’s not new, it’s the heart of what we do at ETI, but it certainly reflects a welcome change of season in the modern world of work. It may be taking on different guises in different circles, such as:
- A new social contract including rights and protections whatever type of employment arrangements worker have,
- Decent Work in the sustainable development goals,
- Just Transition on climate change and environmental sustainability,
- Human rights at work for UN "Protect, Respect and Remedy" Framework and Guiding Principles
- A Universal Labour Guarantee for the 21st century
In any case, the May Pole for workers here, there and everywhere – yesterday, today and tomorrow – are those fundamentals of Freedom of Association: workers equipped, through their independently elected trade union or worker representative, participating and contributing to the changes they are facing with collective bargaining being the vehicle to sustain and manage change.
The ribbons! Yes, we all hold a strand – not pulling in different directions – but moving together at local, national and international levels. Workers, trade unions, the ILO, companies and governments.
So perhaps, the symbolism of May Day, both traditional and labour-focused, is one and the same more than ever in this interconnected world. Pulling together we can weave the vision of improving workplaces, advancing social justice, addressing climatic pressures and promoting decent work.
Happy May Day to that!