May Day reminds us of the saga of great sacrifices of the workers throughout the world in bringing to focus the extreme exploitation of the working class that they were treated like animals, with no fixed working hours, no justified return of their hard labour, no occupational safety at workplaces and nothing for social security. The day reminds us of the great struggle for the dignity of labour and that workers’ rights are also human rights. In a way, the discourse of human rights is set in human history by the labour movement. This naturally gave the working class the role of leading the aspirations of downtrodden, vulnerable sections, the have-nots of the society. Beginning from the second half of the 19th century, the workers started asserting in the various parts of the world for fixed working hours. In India, such a voice was first raised in 1866, 20 years before the famous Chicago workers’ strike action, which led to severe oppression on workers’ arrest of their eight top trade union leaders. Four of them were hanged to death, one died during the trial and three were given sentences of life-term imprisonment. The message of that agitation spread across the world and the trade union movement grew at a fast pace, facing all odds.
In India, the first strike of Indian workers to draw attention to their exploitative conditions during British rule is registered in history as happened in 1827. Here it would be appropriate to mention that it was the struggle of workers to fight back against exploitation by the ruling classes and the imperialist power, the resistance of the Tribals of India, who were being thrown out of jungles by the rulers to exploit the resources of forests, the struggles of farmers against grab of their lands under various draconian laws being framed by the British masters, all that set the environment for political opposition to the foreign rule on our motherland. The uprisings in 1857, termed the First War of Independence, had those factors as the most significant in the background. There was extreme oppression to suppress the resistance. Five years onward from there in 1866, the voice for fixed working hours was raised. Till then the unionisation had not yet begun in the proper sense of the word. It was more of some welfare measures being suggested by some of the leaders, who were organising labour, sometimes on community bases from outside for some relief to them. It was from the 1870s onwards that sector-based unions started getting organised.
May Day observations in India began after that only with AITUC unions in some areas of present-day Tamil Nadu being the first and then this was spread steadily all over India. The working class got legal status with the promulgation of the Trade Union Act 1926 after a long battle, right to compensation and maintenance through an Act in 1923, changes in Factory Act were brought about with workers actions several times. The RSS-BJP-led regimes at the Centre and the states through their various outfits and vigilante groups are pursuing an agenda of religious polarisation under various slogans and actions. 2022 May Day with such a background imposes greater responsibilities to be shouldered by the unionists. No time to rest. March has to go on until the tyrants are tamed and defeated through the desire and actions of the masses.