By MURPHY BROWNE
Most countries celebrate Labour Day on the first day in May. Even in countries that do not recognize May 1 as Labour Day, there are celebrations by workers on May 1 (International Workers Day).
As a child growing up in Guyana, May Day was more than the celebration of workers; it was a day when the descendants of enslaved Africans and the descendants of indentured labourers imitated the antics of their former colonizers. Dressed in our new, special for May Day clothes, we gleefully danced around the Maypole during May Day celebrations as we plaited the colourful ribbons attached to the Maypole.
I remember that more than I remember any Labour Day parades that happened during my childhood. The crowning of the May queen was also a part of the celebration which was replicated across the country in various community centres.
Surprisingly, I can remember feeling very proud and pleased looking at the Maypole after we finished plaiting as I saw the intricate pattern we had formed on the pole with the brightly coloured ribbons. The plaiting of the Maypole and the crowning of the May queen are part of the pagan spring rites from the British Isles that became part of British Guianese culture and, subsequently, Guyanese culture.
May Day, in countries where it is observed as Labour Day, usually is a public holiday to honour workers and celebrate the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. Britain is said to have the oldest trade union movement in Europe, supposedly beginning in the 17th century with the organizing of workers in skilled trades like printing.
The idea apparently gained momentum in the early 18th century with more categories of skilled workers, including tailors, shoemakers, weavers and cabinetmakers. Of course, none of these workers saw the irony of them fighting for improved working conditions and wages while the enslavement of Africans was a British institution.
Similarly, in Canada, where the first trade union was founded by printers in Quebec City in 1827 White men organizing for better working conditions and wages did not see the irony of keeping a whole group of people working without pay. (Slavery was a Canadian institution until August 1, 1834.)
In the United States, where slavery was abolished on January 31, 1865 with the passing of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Mechanics’ Union Trade Association organized skilled workers in 1827. White workers were so incensed at the idea of Africans competing with them for jobs that there were several incidents of African-Americans being lynched and their homes burned.
One of the worst cases occurred over a three-day period from May 1 to May 3, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. Eric Foner, a White American historian wrote of the Memphis Massacre in his 1988 book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877: “It is difficult to say which proved more threatening to local Whites – the large number of impoverished rural freedmen who thronged the streets in search of employment or the considerable group that managed to achieve modest economic success.” (Many of the Black victims were robbed of cash, watches, tools and furniture.)
The many documented sources of this period of domestic terrorism against African-Americans emphasize that the victims of these crimes could not expect any help from the White, mostly Irish, police force whose members were, in many cases, also the perpetrators.
On May 3, 1866 in the aftermath of the Memphis Massacre, it was documented that White Americans had raped and murdered many African-Americans, and destroyed four churches, 12 schools and 91 homes of African-Americans.
There are fewer recorded incidents of White Canadian workers murdering African-Canadians and burning their homes. However, what they may have lacked in quantity, the Canadians made up for it in quality. Beginning on July 26, 1784, African-Canadians in Shelburne, Nova Scotia were attacked and had their homes destroyed by their White neighbours. Those who managed to escape the 10-day reign of terror by fleeing to nearby Birchtown, were still the targets of attacks from the White mob, which continued the racially motivated attacks up to one month later.
In his 1976 book, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone 1783-1870, James W. St. G. Walker writes about the plight of David George who fled to Birchtown: “Along with others of his colour, George sought refuge in Birchtown, but even here they were unsafe. While the force of the riot continued in Shelburne for at least 10 days, incursions into Birchtown were reported for up to one month”.
The attacks were blamed on the inability of White men to compete with African-Canadians in the job market as employers could exploit the Africans by paying them less than the White men were willing to take as wages.
Whether in Canada or the U.S., these attacks were erroneously called race riots when White people attacked communities of Africans. These were not riots when one group was trying to eliminate another group based on skin colour. Competing for jobs may have been used as an excuse but these were racially motivated attacks on clearly outnumbered and vulnerable African communities.
If the White people were interested in fighting for jobs, they should have recognized that who they needed to fight were those who could withhold employment or exploit their labour. The Africans in their midst were not in positions of power and were also being exploited by those who held power.
The labour movement and worker solidarity has come a long way since those days when Africans in North America were brutalized and murdered because they dared to seek waged employment.
Today, Africans in North America are members of unions alongside White co-workers. Unfortunately, however, although we pay the same union dues and should have the same access to services and leadership roles in our respective unions, this is not the case. It continues to be a struggle for Africans and other racialized people in the labour movement; hence the need for organizations such as the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA).
While working in unionized workplaces may offer more security for racialized workers than in workplaces where workers are not organized, racialized workers sometimes do not have the same access to services from their unions as White workers do.
Looking at the leadership of the labour movement, from the individual locals to the national bodies, it is quite obvious that we still have a long way to go for equity and equality in the labour movement.
As racialized workers, it is important to be actively involved in our unions, to work and advocate for change and not be satisfied with token, lapdog positions.