CURRENT POLITICS - May Day 2013 Speech

May Day, 2013 Canberra at Woden Tradies, speech by Humphrey McQueen.

 A month ago, Megalo workshop asked me to launch a book celebrating its thirty-three years of poster and print-making. Megalo had been set-up during 1979-80 as part of Jobless Action. At the time, under Fraser, youth unemployment in the ACT was around twenty percent. Megalo produced protest posters and then began to contract for jobs. The book reproduced a selection of posters that were on display at the Megalo printery in Watson. A poster for the 1981 May Day rally in Civic listed me as one of the speakers.  So I have been at this for over thirty years. Henry Lawson wrote 

 I’ve been union thirty years

And I’m too old to rat.

Well, I reckon, like many of us here, I was union before I was born. But my study of history shows me that no one is ever too old to rat. So what keeps us on the Left track? The answer is comradeship.  ‘It’s the union keeps us strong’. Or in the words of the Eureka Oath, we ‘stand truly by each other’.

            That’s one more reason why I’m grateful for your invitation. We can be sure of keeping honest only for as long as we are part of the struggle. It’s not what we did thirty or more years ago. It’s what we’re doing together today and what we shall do together the day after tomorrow. A. young interviewer asked a Canadian radical on his ninetieth birthday: ‘So you’ve been in for the long haul?’ ‘No,’ he growled back. ‘I’m in for the endless haul.’

 May Day is not a holiday in the ACT as it is in some parts of the world. However, Australia led the way in the nineteenth century with the first public holiday to honour working people. Those holidays celebrated the Eight-hour day.  Engineering workers in Sydney were the first to win ‘the boon’, late in 1855. The next year in Melbourne, on 21st April, stonemasons got eight-hours. They still had to put in a forty-eight hour week.

Some employers had supported the change. But it wasn’t long before the bosses tried to reverse the situation on site. They pushed for piece-rates to get as much value in eight hours as they had out of ten. In 1860, they imported German stonemasons to undercut the Society. No sooner had the Germans learned what was going on than they too stood out for the shorter hours. Yet there are no permanent victories. The Master Builders replaced stone with bricks. Within thirty years, the Stonemasons Society had shrunk to a tenth of its size in 1856.

The contest is intensifying again. Today, we are all time poor. Some workers have high take-home rates of pay. But how much time do they have at home to enjoy it? Eight hours rest and eight hours recreation are as rare in 2013 as the eight-hour day was in 1856.

 Australia was the world-beater. We have had our workers’ holiday under various titles and on several dates. Here it is Eight-hour day. There it is Labour Day. The day has roamed around the calendar from early March to late October. West Australia provides a perfect example. The unionists in Fremantle-Perth in the 1890s held their march late in October on Proclamation (Invasion) Day. The holiday was moved to first week in May. But it rained so much during May that they shifted the holiday again to early March, where it is now. We could think of these shifts as one more sign of the power of workers to improvise.

We are here on May Day, the 1st May. We shall be at the May Day protest outside parliament on Saturday 4th. Does the date matter? Not usually, but it can. We can find out why the date can matter by asking a different question: what is it about the holiday that matter? The answer is that we secure a day to celebrate our struggles and successes. It matters that we hold onto a day which celebrates the creativity of working people. That holiday is one way to remind everyone that our labours built this country. And they still do. Without us, ‘not a single wheel can turn’.

Sad to say, ‘Canberra 100’ pays no attention to the workers who are still making the wheels turn here. From the official programme you wouldn’t know who built the rail line from Queanbeyan to Civic, the roads, the powerhouse and the dams in 1913. What about those workers? It is not too late for unions and activists to get the local struggles and achievements into the celebrations. For instance, there was a running dispute throughout the second half of 1913 at the Cotter dam. The Prime Minister Cook (a Labor rat) detoured to try to settle it in January 1914.

The date and name of the holiday can matter. They matter now in Queensland. The Tories have moved the date of the holiday from the first Monday in May. In my childhood we lined the streets as union floats and contingents of rank-and-filers were stirred on by brass and pipe bands from workplaces. “Printers’ devils” with pitchforks darted in and out of the tens of thousands who lined the streets.

The current hit at working-class traditions is not just about memories. The Tories felt the force of the May Day marches along the coastal cities and mining towns against Workchoices. Only last year, their first round of cuts was met with another surge through the streets. The boss class knows what it has to do. We need to take their example to heart and hit back.

Again the question: does the date or name matter? I was taught one answer to that puzzle a couple of weeks after I arrived in Canberra in January 1970. I met a French revolutionary, Professor Jean Chesneaux. I asked him how his comrades planned to commemorate the Paris Commune of 1871. He exploded: ‘We celebrated the Commune by re-enacting it on the streets in 1968.’ In a manner which we might think of as typically French he declared that confining celebrations to anniversaries is like a bad marriage, celebrated only on the anniversary: “It shows that love is dead.”

If we apply Chesneaux’s rule to the here and now, when was the last ‘May Day’? One answer is earlier today when 200 ANU students marched on the ALP MHR for Fraser to insist that he oppose the ALP cuts to tertiary education.

            When was the ‘May Day’ before today? The loud and clear answer is yesterday in Melbourne against Grocon. 12,000 workers defied threat of $10,000 fines on each of them under the ALP’s coercive powers. They defied the abuse of Mass Murdoch and from pollies of all stripes and shades. It is ‘disgusting’ to politicise killing for profit.

Canberra also celebrated May Day three weeks ago in the win for the Korean building workers. Not only did they get their back money and improved conditions. The contractor coughed up a $1,500 gratuity for each of them. That is real existing internationalism. That is the substance, not the rhetoric, of class warfare.

The struggles that make for a May Day are both strategic and tactical. Teachers are now engaged in both. One strategic drive is to end the serial child abuse that is Naplan. Another is to ‘give a Gonski’. Meanwhile, the AEU presses for specific improvements. For instance, they are campaigning for classroom assistants on $20 an hour, kept casual after twenty years and stood down over the breaks without pay.

There will be many, many May Days of struggle to come. Every public servant will face her or his May Day. The recipients of tonight’s award for workplace delegates of the year show what can be won.  Their counterparts in all the States, whether under ALP or Coalition administrations, already know how much they can lose if they do not educate, agitate and organise.

‘May Day!’ is also a danger call from pilots about to crash. We have to acknowledge that ‘May Day!’ is still a danger cry on health and safety. With four deaths here last year the danger cry of ‘May Day!’ is both painful to recall yet energising. The positive side is that the outcry has got Worksafe active. The ALP has promised an Industrial Magistrate. Yet workers are safe only if we are active ‘on the job’. Support from officials and from the community backs up the determination of rank-and-filers to get home safely.

‘May Day!’ is a warning to the boss class about more than this or that demand. In Europe, May Day comes at the peak of spring. Spring is rebirth. We can make this May Day the rebirth of the vision for a new social order. May Day nourishes re-birth of socialism. For that goal, we need to battle on every front. We need to combine the industrial, the economic, the political and the cultural.

The CFMEU in the ACT is taking a step in keeping with the Labour History Museum. The Division is sponsoring a competition for a short film on some person or event, past or present, from the working class. Entries will close in the middle of March. A substantial prize will be announced.

I’d like to end with a suggestion for one of those films. James Stephens of the Stonemasons’ Society offers a great subject. As an apprentice in England, he fell and injured himself. He joined the Chartists to fight for the vote. In 1839, he was in a demonstration when the soldiery shot and killed twenty of his comrades. He fled to London but was a marked man. He lost jobs as soon as the bosses were informed of his past. He emigrated to become an active unionist in Melbourne. He led the eight-hour protest march on parliament on 21 April 1856. He declared would use ‘physical force’ and not just ‘moral suasion’ to win ‘the boon’. Thirty years later, he was all but forgotten. However, workers rallied and collected £500 for his final years.

The story of James Stephens is one more reason why we need a Museum of Labour History and the film competition. Why has there never been a feature film on the eight-hour day and another based on his life? We have only to ask to know why Foxtel has not put millions into that project. Workers know better than to wait for Mass Murdoch to tell the truth. 

So it is our duty to keep the past alive. That duty is not to enshrine May Day as a ritual commemoration. May Day is not the peak of spring if it resembles a loveless marriage. May Day stimulates the perpetual passion for social equality. To strive for that vision, we are not in for the long haul, but the endless haul. We must make every day a day of menace to the boss-class. We can make every day a May Day of struggle and success for our class.