THIS weekend socialists, communists, trade unionists and working people across the world will gather to celebrate International Workers’ Day.
When the sixth congress of the Second International, meeting in 1904, called on “all social democratic party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the first of May for the legal establishment of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace,” they faced declining living standards, state brutality and the drive to war.
Since then, working people have won many advances in the teeth of entrenched opposition from the ruling class. Weekends, limits on working hours, a minimum wage, maternity pay, sick pay, equal pay legislation and limited employment protection are just some of the victories we have had to fight for and win.
But in spite of these advances, working people, in Britain and internationally, still face oppression and exploitation. The top 1 per cent own 21 per cent of the total wealth in Britain and Northern Ireland while the top 10 per cent own over half. Similarly, the richest 1 per cent own an average £15 million of property assets here, while the middle 1 per cent own an average of £90,000 and the poorest 30 per cent nothing.
This class inequality is crystallised in each new generation, with Britain having greater levels of child poverty than any other developed economy except for the US, while the tiny proportion of the population who are privately educated stand to earn significantly more than their state-educated peers with the same results.
We can also boast the second-largest number of young people not in education, employment or training of any developed economy (once again tailing the US).
And as to the demand for an eight-hour day, the TUC estimates that the average is well in excess of that, despite Britain finally opting into the 48-hour working time directive, and £31.5 billion of unpaid overtime was worked last year.
These figures are a shocking indictment of our society and the economic system on which it rests.
But this is not enough for the current government of the rich, for the rich, by the rich. They are engaged in the largest transfer of wealth and power from the majority of the population to the super-rich since the early 20th century.
The use of austerity to line the pockets of the bankers and the financiers has seen CEOs’ pay rise to 183 times that of their employees, compared to 47 times in 1998. At the same time, the fabric of our society, the public services on which the vast majority of us rely, are ripped out or privatised.
Whichever way you look at it, this is class war.
With doctors on strike, and teachers balloting for action, working people are beginning to fight back. But these fights cannot afford to be isolated battles. We urgently need to link together workers’ defence of their pay and conditions with community defence of our public services; to take out the message of the People’s Assembly Against Austerity and build a social movement trade unionism that links together working people in the fight for social and economic justice.
Ultimately, that fight will be for a different system — one which puts the collective needs of people before the individual appetites of capital. But it begins with the fight we mount against the current ruling-class assault.
As we raise our banners high, and remember the fight of those who went before us, we must look to the future we want to build and steel ourselves for the fight to realise it.
In the words of James Connolly, “Our demands most moderate are — We only want the earth!”