Sunday, May 4, 2008

May Day

Aaaah, long weekend, a five day one for me, toiling as an English teacher here in Poznań, Poland, almost exactly at the mid-point between Warsaw and Berlin. While snoozing on the train returning home from a camping trip near Gdansk, I got to thinking about the holiday most everyone here in Europe was enjoying along with me. Did I know why I was able to take this trip, relax for the better part of a week, does anybody know? Foggy memories of May 1st growing up in Canada in the 70's and 80's I can remember the news showing parades in Red Square in Moscow as they put on a show for the world to see the might of the communist system. Soldiers and tanks marching and rolling beside ICBMs as the First Secretary looked down and saluted from time to time. For me, May Day, or International Workers' Day, equalled communism. As my train rolled out of the Gdansk station I could turn my head and just make out the tall cranes in the shipyard, where another association formed in my head, one with the shipyard and the Solidarity movement of the 1980's here in Poland and it's role in bringing down the Iron Curtain and opening the door to capitalism and the American Dream.

Wikipedia describes May Day as "a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labour movement." In Canada and the US, we have a similar day, known as Labour Day (or Labor Day in the US) celebrated on the first Monday of September. Ironically, the reason the rest the world celebrates on the 1st of May arose out of an incident that took place in America. May 1st 1886 was designated as the start of general strike across the US and Canada in support of the 8-hour working day movement. On Tuesday May 4th rallies were held across the continent. Although the intent was peaceful and most of the gatherings produced no problems, the centre of the movement and therefore the biggest rally was held in Chicago, where events took a tragic turn. In what has become known as the Haymarket affair, a bomb was thrown at advancing policemen and shots were fired from both sides resulting in the deaths of seven policemen and an unknown number of civilians.

Unfortunately, the bloody past of this day doesn't end in Chicago. The May Day riots of 1894 and 1919 in Cleveland, Ohio were due in part to what has become known as the First Red Scare, the widespread fear of communism and anarchism following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The Taksim Square massacre in Turkey occurred May 1st, 1977 where between 34 and 42 people were killed when shots were fired leading to security agents responding with lethal force. Curiously, the Taksim events began with unknown people firing gunshots, while the Haymarket affair also began with an unknown assailant throwing the bomb, leading to many conspiracy theories, mostly involving anti-communist agents. In the Taksim affair, shots came from either the water supply company or the Intercontinental hotel leading many to believe it was a plot by the CIA or the Deep State.

The labour movement began as a way to reduce working hours and generally improve working people's lives. The original goal was an 8-hour work day and a 40-hour work week. The mantra of 8 hours of labour, 8 hours of recreation and 8 hours of rest seems to make sense; have we gotten there in 2008. The answer would have to be yes and no. The OECD(organization for economic co-operation and development)The average hours worked is calculated as the total numbers of hours worked over the year divided by the average numbers of people in employment. However, as we all know, statistics don't always tell the whole truth. What is hidden in these numbers is the fact that there are more families where both parents are working therefore lowering the average number of hours worked per person, while the number of hours worked per household has increased. In addition, government data on hours worked don't capture time put in off the job, such as during weekends, or after-hours work that many salaried employees do on laptops, mobile phones and e-mail. Also hidden by the averaging is the growing number of people at both extremes in number of hours worked. The part-timers and the overtimers. Believe it or not, there is a Japanese word, karoshi, and a Chinese word, guolaosi, that literally translate to working yourself to death. A recent study showed that "long working hours increased an individual's chances of illness and injury. It noted that for those doing 12 hours a day, there was a 37% increase in risk compared to those working fewer hours." In another twist, the origins of the labour movement was to decrease the number of hours worked by blue collar workers, whereas today it is the white collar workers who are under the most pressure to work longer hours.

So why are we working so hard? To make more money silly. Why do we need more money? To buy more things silly! All this hard work should at least pay off, so we can head down to the mall and buy some new shoes. Wrong. Huh? How could this be? We're working more hours, and at the same time productivity has never been higher thanks to technology, therefore we should be able to buy more stuff. Not so fast brother. While we're working harder, the money we're earning is worth less and less. Real wages are what's important, how much stuff we can buy with the money we earn. So, if inflation is growing faster than our nominal wages, our real wages are actually shrinking, and yes, this is what's been happening. Measured in 1982 constant dollars, in 1972 the average American's weekly salary was $331.59, in 2004 it was $277.57, and real wages fell again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. You might be thinking, well, that's only in America, but it's happening in a nearly identical fashion over here, even in Germany where real wages are nearly at the same level as they were in 1986.

Worker productivity, the increased output of goods and services per hour worked, is up, the world economy has expanded, yet the workers are no better, or worse, off than a couple of decades ago. In an age where globalization and free markets were to bring an equitable distribution of wealth, we're seeing the opposite happen, and at an accelerating pace. I'm all for the concept of hard work and the American dream when everyone is playing on a level field. Unfortunately the field of play is tilting more and more in favour of the holders of capital. In the US, wages and salaries make up a smaller percentage of GNP than anytime since records began being kept in 1947, while corporate profits are at their highest share since the 60's. At the same time executive salaries are at higher levels than ever before. Plus, I'm sorry to say that the situation will only get worse, not better. The holders of capital are the same people who are shaping economic policies and they don't notice that the price of bread and rice is rising at a pace not seen since the 70's. The labour movement is slowly losing it's strongest component, unions. Union membership. In 1983, unionized workers made up 20% of the American workforce, it's under 12% today. No, I don't love unions, but the fact is, in lieu of decent labour laws, unions are the best option to protect workers and their wages.

Unless you live in Norway or the Netherlands you probably work more hours per day than a 14th century labourer in the UK. If you're lucky enough to live in South Korea, congratulations, you work more hours than anyone else in the world. In my adopted home of Poland, workers are the fifth hardest working according to the OECD. 25 years ago their parents were fighting for a non-communist trade union in a communist country. Martial law was the Soviet response to the demands of the people, but in the end, the will of the people won the day, and many believe helped bring down the Iron Curtain. Today's methods are much more subtle, when I asked my students what they did for the holiday, more of them worked on May 1st than took a vacation. They want to buy a car to drive to work. And me? I just want to catch a train to the next campsite...


Troy said...

Ask people (30's to 40's) to truly consider whether they live better than their parents did, the mobile phones and 15 T.V sets aside and I can't think they could possibly say yes. They work more, earn less and of course have less job stability. This is true for the so-called developing world as the so-called developed world. Ask the young girl whoring in Thailand after being thrown out of her textile job if she lives better than her rural parents.