The Best Kind of May Day

The more I study history, the more I seem to find
That in every generation there are times just like this time
When folks like you and me who thought that they were all alone
Within this honoured movement found a home.
‘They all sang Bread and Roses’, Si Kahn

Mayday! Mayday! This winter brought a surge of people contacting Better than Zero asking for advice about workplace exploitation, poor conditions, unpaid wages, and unsafe workplaces. Many workers contact the site seeking help, unsure about what the campaign is and what help is on offer. Some of them want rights-advice, or want to call out bad bosses. Quite often, they are surprised by the first advice we give, which is always the same – join a union.

Mayday is a universal signal for danger, when hope is slipping away. When there is nothing you can do for yourself, you send for help. For many people treading along precarious paths, it seems the only option when the ground collapses beneath you: when you’re sacked from work, when your children get sick, when workplace abuse makes it impossible to bring yourself to work.

But in our tradition, May Day is something completely different. It is a show of power – a day that celebrates workers’ own collective struggle. It is about the power of a movement when it stands as one, with raised hands and voices, to overcome the misery and support one another to get the rights, respect, and living we are due from our work. It commemorates those who died when the labour movement was first emerging in the 1880s. It contemplates all that has been achieved, through dark and lighter times, through workers’ struggle. And it celebrates the new forms of building union power to take collective control.

mayday poster

One-off events illuminate the ways that workers are at the mercy of bosses. During the recent red weather snow alert, workers in a number of sites in Livingstone got in touch with Better than Zero to say that they were given no option but to come into work – and they were told in their fast-food restaurants that they could not leave early. Throughout the afternoon, they responded through joining a union and taking action together, winning agreements that they could go home. But for weeks, they were not paid for these hours, and this caused rent arrears for a number of those who had joined in the action. They continued to put pressure on the bosses, and eventually got the wages.

The red alert was just an extreme backdrop for ordinary conditions, where workers are at employers’ mercy. But Cinema workers are reacting to the announcement that the taxi allowance at the end of a late shift will be cut from £8 to £3. Tour-guides are taking the first steps towards taking control of shifts and scheduling. Hotel staff are talking about working-to-rule to protect their beaks. In the recent upsurge workers are taking collective action like this every day. Unions are emerging in places where they have been never been.

This is the principal of hubs – regional-based networks (supported by a new app) where workers from across different workplaces can share testimony and techniques, meet face to face with other active union members, and push back against precarious conditions and work in the place that they’re from.

Better than Zero will be building these hubs and making them into centres of solidarity and collective action for workers, mostly in workplaces where there are not unions like call centres, fast food, hospitality, retail and entertainment.

Their core purpose is to get workers ready to join trade unions and support them to the stage of recognition. They will also build the skills of workers, and uncover and observe what is happening at work in the regions they operate in – Glasgow, Livingstone, etc. They will also campaign on issues they uncover – unpaid trial shifts, unpaid wages.

Today Better than Zero has agreed to meet with Keith Brown, the Scottish Government’s Economy Secretary. The workers who are attending on behalf of the campaign will be demanding action on two areas where the Scottish Government has power. People working in procured public services have unfair contracts and conditions by the government’s own standards – working on zero-hours contracts. And licensing laws stand in the way of safe travel for staff after shifts. On both of these, the government can act quickly and firmly.

But Better than Zero, and trade unions, will not look to government and legislation for solutions. We do not cry Mayday – but look to the meaning of our May Day tradition. Study history, and you’ll find that workers’ rights never came from government, but from collective action. Come and find a home.

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