Updated: Jun 6
May 1st: a day of joy, maypoles and the last days of spring, or the first day of summer depending on your calendar. In this country a day of family and community, a day to relax and look forward to the sunny weather and good months ahead.
In addition to this it is a day of labour, a day to commemorate the achievements of those people who fought for man's right to earn a living humanely and direct his own destiny with dignity and pride. It looks back on people like Robert Owen, the Welsh textile manufacturer who campaigned for the rights of the worker during the industrial revolution, coining the slogan, "Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest", a move away from the institutions of slavery and indentured servitude and towards far greater rights for every person to stand on their own two feet as a sovereign human being.
In Ireland it remembers figures such as Jim Larkin, who formed the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union in 1909 and was involved in the historic Dublin lock-out, in which William Martin Murphy and a group of around 300 employees barred members or suspected members of the ITGWU from work. A turbulent time in Irish history, it was set against the backdrop of a nation in which great numbers of people had migrated to Dublin in order to work and feed their families, suffering the abhorrent conditions of the tenements, where people were forced to live in extremely tight spaces and were beset by terrible disease resulting from poor diet and sanitation.
It is worth looking back on the history of our nation, then, and reflecting on this day of labour on how radically things have changed since then. In 2021 the script seems to have flipped, we are no longer locked out but locked down, and while the situation is vastly different to the days of the first Industrial Revolution we face severe challenges of a different kind facing into what has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0.
Rather than fighting for the right to work humane hours and rest adequately as our ancestors did, we now face a fight to work at all. With unemployment skyrocketing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the vast majority of physical business and anything deemed “non-essential” by the Irish government, people have been taken under the wing of the state, told to stay at home receiving Pandemic Unemployment Payment while the whole thing blows over. There is a real sense that, in a world becoming more digitised by the day, certain industries such as hospitality and tourism have been deemed to have served their purpose and are marked down to be retired and labelled a thing of the past.
Notable in their absence during this time are figures like Owen or Larkin, individuals who will stand up and state with conviction that every living adult has the fundamental right to do a fair day's work for a fair day's pay. With support for those who have lost their jobs due to end on June 30th, it is high time that individuals in their mould came forward to ask hard questions about what the future is of Irish business heading into the rest of this decade.
It is worth considering also that we are still in a level 5 lockdown in this country as of today, with the vast majority of brick and mortar establishments still not allowed to open their doors. While there is talk of easing restrictions on the horizon, there is still no real end in sight, no date where Irish business can get back up and running and begin to pick up the pieces of the economic destruction of the last year of closures.
The hard reality is that the longer we are in this situation the more Irish residents will become dependent on the state to pay their bills, to feed their families. We don't need to look too far back in history to understand why this lack of agency is so inherently dangerous, or where it could likely lead if the problems we face are allowed to continue to develop and deepen.
Our ancestors fought to place the power to decide in the hands of the labourer, to decide how much of their energy they were willing to give to their employers, and to be able to direct his or her own affairs with dignity without the interference of some ruling force. We stand in a much different world in Ireland 2021, but the principle remains the same.