Radicals in Isolation: May Day and the Fight for Workers' Rights

Posted by Pete on 1st May 2020

This May Day, the importance of ordinary workers is clear for all to see – let’s build a world which never forgets this again

Over the last month, I’ve been writing to you about isolation and the types of radical history it’s produced over the years.

From Antonio Gramsci’s writing in jail to Harriet Tubman’s life on the run, I hope these emails have helped to keep your spirits up as we all set about adapting to this new normal.

But while we’ve been talking about isolation, there are those who aren’t isolating at all.

They can’t isolate – they’ve a job to do.

A May Day Garland for 1820

These are the nurses and the midwives among us, the postal workers and shop owners, refuse collectors and doctors, fruit pickers and bus drivers.

They’re the people helping to fight this accursed virus by treating patients, maintaining the food supply, and keeping up transport infrastructure.

We’re calling them "essential workers", and how essential they are.

It’s fitting, then, that today is May Day – the international day of the worker.

Walter Crane used his art to inspire workers - he was in favour of social reform as well as condemning the dehumanising effects of industry

Click to view our May Day tea towel

For well over a century, the first day of May has been an occasion to cherish those who toil, by hand and by brain, to give to society what we need to live and thrive.

But since the beginning it has also been a day of struggle.

It was born in the US, out of the late-19th century, working-class struggle for an eight-hour day.

Ever since, May Day has been used to press the ever-changing demands of workers, through marches, strikes, and protests.

This year, the in-person collective action is obviously off the table.

But we can still use this May Day to renew and update our commitment to the struggle of and for workers.

The issues are fast becoming clear.

Those who this pandemic has revealed to be essential to society, like nurses and shop workers, are paid infinitely less than some roles we can do without.

Should pay not better reflect social value?

Health care is a human right – it must be better funded, and absolutely free at the point of use.

Click to view our Universal Declaration of Human Rights tea towel

And, once this is all over, the cost of this government spending cannot be made to fall on ordinary people as it did after the 2008 Crash.

Austerity is a political choice.

With this email, our Radical Isolation series comes to an end.

But, as I return to writing on things like James Connolly and the Peasants’ Revolt, let’s not forget that the world to come out of this pandemic is there to be won!

And, to our essential workers, thank you.

For inspiration during lockdown, read more radical stories on our blog