n May 1, 1886, in Chicago, a workers’ strike with a demand for an eight-hour working day gave birth to ‘May Day’ sometimes called Labour Day or the International Workers’ Day. The rioting that ensued, caused the death of some people including police officers; several more were injured.
The costly protest did not produce the results expected overnight; but with time it did have an impact and an eight-hour working day became the norm. It seeped into other parts of the world including Sri Lanka and May Day became a special day for protests, rallies, and speeches generally related to the working classes meaning ordinary blue-collar workers employed in industries, offices and government departments. However there was some flexibility in that interpretation.
May Day in Sri Lanka
May Day rallies have been a regular feature in this country when workers and their unions made their voices heard on their needs and aspirations. The authorities were expected to take heed and provide answers to this large section of the population that held the country’s economy aloft in varied ways. To what degree governments reciprocated in negating workers’ shortcomings was another matter. Generally the reciprocations did not make starling headlines but appeared in mitigated forms. However, while May Day rallies in other countries were used by workers to draw the attention of their governments to policy matters concerning health, education, environment, immigration, trade, globalisation and so on, May Day agendas in Sri Lanka have been transformed to a day of political competition. Political parties are using May Day to play power games involving numbers that have turned into measuring gauges as to party popularity and its potential for future political successes. While that contention is open to debate and even ridicule, the politicisation of May Day is fact and patently aimed at influencing impressionable voters of the kind that make statements such as; ‘You should have seen the crowd at the ‘Lokuhamuge Peramuna’ rallys; there was no room even to stand’; “The Pink Party parade was five kilometers long’; ‘200 bus loads had turned up for the ‘Kathuru Party rally’. Imaginative ones; ‘It was sea of blue heads; no ground could be seen’. With this type of political focus, identifying May Day in Sri Lanka as a ‘Workers’ Day’ has become a joke.
“My God,” exclaimed Shelton Perera, the owner of the Wallside Restaurant and Bar, “just look at this crowd wearing blue shirts and caps. There are thousands of them. From where the devil did they come and where are they heading?”
“To the Blue party rally to be held at the Galla Grounds,” explained Joy, his better half. “I think the Greens are having theirs at the Tandem Park and the scarf and national kit crowd are heading somewhere else. The Bells are supposed to be raising red flags at the Clock Tower junction in Maradana. I don’t have a clue where the other rallies are to be held.” Husband and wife were watching May Day parades on national TV.
“What a waste of time and money,” said a frowning Shelton watching endless streams of people marching in May Day parades graced by prominent politicos. “Do you want to watch this madness, Darlo?”
“Of course not, Shelley,” Joy laughed. “I ceased to be a political idiot a long time ago. Let’s switch to BBC.”
"Political parties are using May Day rallies to play numbers games considered as measuring gauges of party popularity and their potential for future political successes"
“That’s a good one, ‘I ceased to be a political idiot,’” purred Tommo a pussycat lying on a rug in his master’s house. “How can anyone blame Mrs Shelton when you consider that our governors’ politics haven’t gone beyond school drama stage? The way their politiccas get about their May Day programmes is also an indication of their priorities and how their minds work. What say you, Ooty?
“Whooom, whooom,” responded. Ooty an owl, pussy’s pal and working partner at Shelton’s restaurant and bar. “Yeeees, and I can’t imagine how easily our governors are been taken for political rides; not joy rides, but plain bumpy ones that hurt. Just think of their May Day rallies…”
“May Day rallies? What poppycock; They are just parades of fat politiccas riding on the backs of workers to political stardom,” laughed pussy the way pussies do.
“How’s that?” hooted the bird, settling more comfortably on a chair nearby.
“Aaaah,” yawned pussy. “Open your blinkers, Ooty. Everything is politicised in our governors’ country. Be it in school admissions, getting ‘ice’ jobs, a bar licence, a bed in a hospital, a jump in a surgery queue, some state land for practically nothing, a road concreted, getting bail after robbing a place or killing someone etc, etc is their democracy, where a political godfather is a must-have. And godfathers are aplenty. For a governor that means licking political slippers, oiling palms, bowing and bending and meeting demands and favours of a personal kind I can’t spell out,” pussy laughed.
“I can imagine what involves the favours you ‘cannot spell out’” winked the bird.
“Politicians have no qualms pal. They have been using our governors to establish and keep their political powers bubbling artificially for ages. They have been creeping into May Day rallies concerned with ordinary working blokes like you and me they call blue-collar workers. Today they have taken over May Day rallies lock stock and barrel for politicking. And don’t forget, it’s mostly Blue collar governors who get bullied and hoodwinked by politiccas before and after elections. They are also kings at convincing governors that only they can make life better. And our governors get fooled over and over again. I think it’s a genetical problem our governors have,” laughed pussy.
“Whoooomaah. No wonder politiccas are taking piggyback rides on their backs in May Day rallies for political plums,” remarked the bird.
“May Day rallies are concerned with ordinary working blokes like you and me they call blue-collar workers. But, today May Day rallies have been taken over lock stock and barrel for politicking”
“Purshohsure! (Oh sure!), we saw the evidence on TV didn’t we? And why do you think hundreds and thousands attended today’s May Day rally who had nothing to do with workers but politics? And do you think all those marchers were workers? No way; most were political cats coaxed, fed, paid, transported to Colombo from the north, south, east and west and back, supplied with blue, green, red shirts caps badges flags and bottled stuff to have their spirits high throughout May Day. See, the May Day tours organised by politiccas, their clubs and catchers were just to show a huge head count at their rallies to fool the genetically flawed dumbos. It’s a plain and simple canvassing stunt; ‘see the backing we have; vote for us; the people want us; and we will deliver the goods and more’.”
“Ahhaaaa, that means the politiccas have shamelessly taken advantage of May Day to ride on workers’ backs as if they were horses to win the Governor’s Cup at Noora-eliya? But, what about the horses’…I mean the workers and their rights to mark May Day as their special day? ”
“Purrr, that’s for the workers and their unions to decide. But don’t forget, Oots, they have agreed to be treated as horses ridden by political jockeys in a no expenses spared feeler not to win the Governor’s Cup at Noora-eliya as you put it, but to assess their chances of winning a host of cups at the Local Government Cup races to be held soon.”