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Working class unity vital to face challenges - D.E.W. Gunasekara

*Objective meaning of May Day important

*Trade unions fought for promotions and privileges

*Despite differences in political ideologies, all belong to one class

The struggle of the working class started in May 1886. It was the historic struggle of American workers for an eight hour working day where nine people were killed in the demonstration. Internationally this is known as the Haymarket Massacre.

“Nine people died and after that there were police repressions and eight people were indicted. Of them four were executed. One committed suicide before the execution. Another was sent for 15 years of imprisonment,” explained a stalwart in Sri Lanka’s labour struggle, Senior Minister for Human Resources D.E.W. Gunasekara. Following the Haymarket Massacre, America’s working class started holding commemorative demonstrations on the day, laying the foundation for the International Workers’ Day.

According to historical statements, the eight hour working day campaign was initiated internationally with the 1889 Second International. In 1889 Europe’s socialist parties joined together to create the Second International, with Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s co-founder of socialism and communism, as its honorary President. This was the first Socialist International, an organisation of social and labour parties formed in Paris on July 14, 1889.

Among the Second International’s famous actions were its 1889 declaration of May 1 as International Workers’ Day and its 1910 declaration of March 8 as International Women’s Day.

May Day was formally recognised as an annual event at the Internationals second congress in 1891.

“This is the only occasion on which people belonging to various communities, ethnic groups, religions and colours come together throughout the world,” said Senior Minister Gunasekara. “We hold this day to remember those who sacrificed their lives for the working class and respect and honour them and to demonstrate the unity and solidarity of the working class. This is the day on which the working class present their demands to their employer or the Government. These were the three main issues for which the May Day came in to being,” he added.

Armed with enormous experience gained over the years as a key trade union leader, D.E.W. Gunasekara explained how the May Day came in to being in Sri Lanka. It was in 1933 that Sri Lanka held its first May Day led by the Ceylon Labour Union under A.E. Gunasinghe according to the historical records. There is evidence that in 1934 the Marxist Group had conducted a demonstration regarding May Day. And in 1934, as it is recorded, Dr. S. A. Wickramasinghe, the first state counsellor of Sri Lanka, had been the key-note speaker. Prior to the formation of the Lanka Samasamaja Party in December 1935, they had held a May Day meeting. And this has been Sri Lanka’s first collectively organised Left May Day with the participation of Leftist parties.

Leftist movement

The Sri Lankan May Day had comprised solely Left Movements such as the Ceylon Labour Union led by A.E. Gunasinghe and the demonstrations led by other Left parties (at that time there was only one party – the LSSP) and later the Communist Party set up in the 1940s until the formation of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). “In 1956 the SLFP came in to power and they celebrated May Day for the first time in that year. It was there that May Day was declared a public holiday,” Gunasekara explained.

“The Left Movement continuously demanded the Government to declare May Day as a public holiday because the rest of the world had already declared it as a holiday and by then the International Labour Organization had also recognised May Day as an international workers’ day,” Gunasekara added. And in the 1970s the United National Party started forming trade unions and holding May Day demonstrations.

It is a day on which workers should get on to the streets and demonstrate their unity and solidarity parallel to their counterparts in other countries and a day on which they make their demands to their employer or to the Government, Gunasekara continued to emphasise. Yet, unfortunately, today its meaning and content are all diluted, he said.

“Today few people remain with the trade union movement. Only around 10 percent of the total working class is thus organised according to Labour Department statistics. That it at the lowest ebb. Except for a few unions, others have no bargaining power,” he said.

“May Day has today lost its glamour, its content and its objectives that the founders of the May Day movement expected. It has lost its vigour. Now it has become a day on which political parties test their strength. The themes are different, but May Day is really the workers’ day irrespective of their political ideologies,” said Gunasekara.

“Now it is needed to revive and restore the original content, meaning and objectives of the May Day,” he emphasised, adding that there should be unity among these groups that are too politicised. “Every trade union has the right to have their own political view, but they should not use the May Day as a strength testing ground, because eventually it is the entire working class that gets negatively affected,” he stated. “Generally, we can see that throughout the world the trade union movement is getting weak,” he explained.

Today the working class is facing many new challenges under the neo-liberal economic policies. The bargaining powers of the workers are lost. A large number of trade unions has lost their strength with the introduction of the contract system, explained Gunasekara. Without having all the workers under one roof employers assign certain jobs to outsiders – contractors. This happens with changes in the management structure of such companies under the neo-liberal economy.

New crises are emerging. The world is facing a series of crises in deficit, debit, credit, purchasing power, saving and housing. In this background, facing a series of crises in the modern world and globalisation of the working class, it is necessary that there is solidarity among the working class in a world. That is the only way through which the working class can strengthen their bargaining power.

Unity among workers

It is absolutely necessary to promote unity among the working class. They may have different political ideologies and affiliations, but unity should still be there. Our working class is entirely split and as a result the working class is suffering. Except for a few unions which have greater bargaining power all others have lost their bargaining power, he added.

“Other trends have also crept in – for instance chauvinism and communalism. People have started building trade unions on the basis of community- forming trade unions for Sinhala, Tamil and other ethnicities,” said the Senior Minister. “We can see the trade unions also split in to segments based on ethnicity, he said adding that opportunism, privilege and patronage have crept in emphasising the split. Some join trade unions of a ruling party to get a promotion through MPs and ministers.

“Earlier, it was not like this. It was the trade union that was strong. It was the trade unions that fought for promotions and privileges. Today they find an easy way through the privilege system, through patronage. Due to these factors trade unions have become weak,” he explained.

“That’s why we as the Left parties try to revive and restore the lost spirit of the May Day,” he said. To face the challenges of the modern world there is absolute necessity for the unity of the working class.

Benefits for employers

If there is going to be peace among the working class it will benefit the employer. Today, certain institutes that were used to be on the hot bed of labour unrest have become calm with more benefits to the workers, higher salaries, technologically advanced operating systems and through educating the workers on technological advancements. Today one cannot find load-carrying workers in a miserable state,” The institutes have advanced, benefiting both employers and employes.

The ILO has set up a mechanism called Tri Party system – the employer, the employee and the government. This is a mediation process. After this was introduced, a lesser number of strikes was observed in the world. Earlier, when the employer did not care about the employee, he or she had no other option. However today the employee has the chance to make a complaint against such misconduct to the Labour Department, Labour officers and Industrial Courts even to take legal action. This has made employers less aggressive than before.

The miserable issue is in the private sector. There are 1.3 million public servants in the country, there is not even 100,000 trade unions. To strengthen the working class those who are not in trade unions must join them and the trade unions need to shed petty politics, Minister Gunasekara explained. “Otherwise, in the long run, they are going to lose,” he said, stressing the importance of the immediate joining together of the still disconnected movements.

The past

“When I was a public servant, I remember that May Day was not a public holiday; at twelve noon we walked away to join the demonstrations. We were never bothered about whether we lose our half-pay or not.”

“But as I see now, after May Day was made a holiday, the workers take it as a day to relax at home. They don’t make use of the day properly. It was made a holiday for the working class to demonstrate their strength and solidarity. We had to carry out a big struggle to make it a holiday,” said the Senior Minister.

“1945, 1946, 1947 would be the most decisive years of the Sri Lankan labour struggle. We were students then, but as we remember and as written records state the trade Union movement then was very militant and they were fighting against the colonial government. The struggles were combined with the independence movement as well”.

Turning point

In 1953, the strike-turned-Harthal was another turning point in Sri Lanka’s working class history.

People agitated as the prices of main commodities rose – i.e. rice went up from 25 cents to 75 cents. Initially it was 24-hour token strike, but turned out to be a harthal because not only the public servants and private employees but shop owners also closed their shops. Farmers and everyone joined in it. Irrespective of political affiliations all trade unions joined leaders such as A.E. Gunasinghe and Philip Gunawardane in the struggle. The then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had to resign and a new government came in to power.

The 1956 General election was another turning point. It was then that the 1947 strike leaders became ministers. Leaders such as T.B. Ilangarathne who led the public servants in 1947 became the labour minister. He was most instrumental, I think, in making May Day a holiday. And also during period of 1945 to 56 workers won a lot of demands. Earlier they had no casual leave or medical leave, they had to work 12 hours or more. A large number of rights the present working class is enjoying today was won during this period. In 1970 a new government came in to power when workers benefited.

Then, in 1977, one would find another turning point in history and yet another in 1980. It was the general strike which was crushed by the Government. Hundreds and thousands of workers were sacked. And these were the turning points in the downward march of the working class. The fall started with the beginning of the 1980s and the fall seems to continue.

There was complete unity among trade unions in the past. There were different trade unions such as for teachers and clerical staff, but it was a completely disciplined unit. As for teachers there were Sinhala, Tamil and English medium teachers, but all formed one union. There were differences in political ideologies yet it should not be forgotten that we all belong to one class.

Irrespective of party affiliations there was unity. The working class should exercise their independence. Trade unions should not tail behind political parties. Political parties can give directions and advice, but trade unions must act independently. It is the workers who should decide about them.

The aggressive and destructive nature of trade union action is a recent phenomenon. It was absent earlier.

This is solely because of the weakness of the trade union leadership. I can remember in 1958, there was a general strike where the trade union leaders did not pull out workers in the health sector, but fought on their behalf too. It was for the interest of the sick people.

Other unions told the health sector workers that “they will fight for your cause, but you work and look after the sick people.” We are missing that spirit at present. Even in the 1947, and 1956 strikes and all other major strikes, trade union leaders took the decision not to take health sector workers, into the struggle taking in to account the interest of the sick people. Today that consciousness is not there.

“There was general acceptance those days that a strike is the last weapon. First you write, and then you picket, demonstrate, meet the Minister and then the Prime Minister and so on. And exhausting all the processes then finally they resort to strike. Today it is not that. Today we see strikes everyday. That is not correct,” he said.

Quality and discipline

These showcase the quality and discipline of the leadership.

In 1958, during communal disturbances after the introduction of the Sinhala Only Bill, a general strike was to be staged. But the trade union leaders immediately decided to call off the strike because they saw that communalism is coming up, that was against the interests of the working class. They stopped it and went back to work, allowing the Government to handle communalism. To name a few top trade union leaders of those days; Jack Perera the leader of the Postal Union, S. Chellaiah, Regi Godawela, K.C. Nithyanandan, I.J. Wickrama, T.B. Dissanayake and many other trade union leaders and members took these decisions. They were top leaders. When they saw communal disturbance coming up, they immediately called off the strike in the interest of the country.

The indiscipline, lack of consciousness we see in many segments of the society, in the political, judicial and social spheres, has crept in to the trade Union leadership too.

I see today a lot of frustration setting in among the working class. For example, if we take the public sector, appointments, dismissals, disciplinary control and everything should be handled by an independent body such as a commission. I personally think appointments should not be politically made, but made solely on merit. The best option would be to independently select the best suitable people through conducting exams, interviews and properly evaluated. In this background opportunists would look for greener pastures by becoming favourites of politicians.

This is one of the reasons we don’t find independent leaders in the Trade Unions. Trade union leaders must be upright and take independent decisions. I can remember when I was a trade union leader, the heads of institutes had great respect for us. Trade unions should not tail behind political parties. Otherwise it will lead to the degeneration of the public service.

Today every party has a trade union. They all should be allowed to meet together and work together for the best interest of the working class.

Karl Marx once said that revolutions will be made by the majority. In it Karl Marx said, “No revolution can be made by a party, but by a nation.”

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