Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | May 1, 2012

MYPLACE multi-national views on May Day Labour Movements

With Mayday labour protests and marches taking place across the world, MYPLACE Project team members were hastily polled on what was (or perhaps just as tellingly was not) happening near them.

The results are a rough and highly unscientific collection of observations (both first hand and based on local news reports), which nevertheless serve to show the constant relevance of the project’s work, as well as hinting at the benefits of using a large international team to address international issues.

For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE

Contributors: Martin Price (University of Warwick, UK),  David Cairns and Nuno de Almeida Alves (Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon, Portugal), Dr Dusan Deak (Univerzita sv. Cyrila a Metoda v Trnave, Slovakia), Domonkos Sik and Florian Sipos (Debreceni Egyetem, Hungary), Marti Taru (Tallinn University, Estonia)

As an exercise, this straw poll was perhaps hindered by the fact that public holidays across much of Europe meant some people were unavailable to comment.

However, responses from the UK, Portugal and Hungary revealed activities chiefly organised by the trade unions. David Cairns, of CIES Portugal reported “As in previous years, the major unions will be holding marches in central Lisbon.  Most of these marches will take place in the afternoon, with the various unions having their own separate marches, e.g. CGTP (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers) and UGT (General Workers Union). Other such marches will be taking place across Portugal.” while in the UK a major rally took place in Trafalgar Square, London where crowds were addressed by Trade Union leaders. Closer to home in the West Midlands, a demonstration by Birmingham Against the Cuts was held in the ‘Second City.’ In Hungary, Domonkos Sik tells us that “the trade unions are organizing a protest demonstration against the financial politics of the government and the new labour law, which drastically cuts back employee rights.” 

Posters for the day's march in Lisbon, which is underway in the background.

In Estonia, the situation was somewhat different, with Marti Taru of Tallinn University revealing that Estonian unions had adopted a more conciliatory tone “No marches in Estonia. Trade Union leader made an announcement that they want emphasize cooperation and negotiating between employees and employers instead of confrontation and conflict. So there are no demonstrations in Estonia. As a matter of fact a number of demonstrations and strikes took place earlier this spring, so trade unions stress peace and understanding now.” Which serves to remind us that the differences we find between countries and regions during the project can be just as interesting as the similarities.

In Slovakia, Dusan Deak discovered that “in one of major Slovakia’s towns, Zilina, there was a meeting of trade-union activists” which was attended by only a few hundred people. With Slovakia’s socialist Prime Minister in attendance, we must doubt whether this can be classed as a ‘protest’ in any event.

A march of the communist party was planned for one of the squares in Bratislava, but this again was quite low-key.

The Slovakian situation appeared to Dusan to be typified rather by apathy. In a theme very crucial to MYPLACE, history nad memory have a part to play here. According to Dusan, 1st May is associated with compulsary marches under the old communist regime. The day remains a public holiday, which many people are happy to keep quite separate from memories of compulsary marching. Put more succinctly “sun is shining, who cares about old communists?” Further evidence of this post-communist reaction are found in Hungary, where Florian noted that “After the obligatory mass “demonstrations” of the socialist era, in Hungary, 1 May became a small-scale, peaceful family event, celebrating the spring. The most important symbols of it are taking a walk (not a common march, a family walk) in a park, balloons for the kids, sausage and beer for the daddies. May Day lost its political meaning for most of the participants.

 The most exciting thing was that 5 persons were arrested for wearing red star, which is prohibited authoritarian symbol in Hungary.”

So we find the M (Memory) and PL (Political Legacy) of MYPLACE very much in evidence, both in Slovakian apathy and in the historical overtones of Labour Day marches. But what of the Y (Youth)?

Lisbon: Youth not much in evidence

It seems that youth focus has been limited (though far from non-existant) in these marches. In Lisbon generally, youth were “Generally not in the union-led marches, which are if anything more gerotocentric” according to David Cairns, although Nuno de Almeida Alves found other activity “at the square of Camões (organised by Mayday Lisbon where more younger people were demonstrating).”  Youth unemployment was, however, a focus of speeches at the rallies.

In Hungary, Domonkos Sik found little youth engagement with the Unions. Does this reflect apathy to the issues, or a failure of the Unions to engage with youth? Questions to be addressed in MYPLACE research no doubt. However, as Florian Sipos discovered, young people were more apparent in other activities; “In Sopron [a MYPLACE field location], a sport event was organized with 600 young participants playing football.”

In Slovakia, young people were not prominent in marches, but were more engaged in “Retros” set up to ridicule the compulsary marches of the old regime. If the theme elsewhere was economic crisis, labour law and austerity, the theme in these “Retros” was simpler: Fun.

The UK also saw branching out from purely economic themes. One group declared Tuesday to be ‘National CC All Your Emails To Theresa May Day’ in protest against planned monitoring of internet use.

Occupy movements were also active around the UK. This was also echoed in Hungary, according to Florian Sipos; “The Occupy Hungary movement organized small flashmobs.”

Astute observation from the Portugese team also perhaps reminds us of the importance of challenging our assumptions, in this instance when viewing protests in the context of the current global economic climate “Protests this year are centring upon changes to worker’s rights and conditions, and in the areas welfare cuts, social security and education. While this can be connected to the recent austerity policies, it should be noted that such concerns were equally prominent prior to the post 2008 economic crisis.”

On a somewhat lighter note, and again on the need to be wary of assumptions, David Cairns, on a whim, or a fit of creative verve, took this photograph of litter in the streets, explained as follows: “For some reason, there was no garbage collection last night (typical pre-holiday tardiness on the part of the local binmen I’m afraid rather than an anti-austerity protest) and there is rubbish everywhere thanks to this morning’s strong winds.”

Portugese litter courtesy of mundane bank holiday logistics, rather than public sector protest, apparently.


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