Managing the working class
In 1904, it was named by
networks of industrial workers' unions and Leftist activists in the
United States and Europe as the 'International Workers' Day'. But long
before that, for centuries, Western European rural communities had been
celebrating the formal first day of summer on May 1.
Likewise, parallelly, in much of South and South East Asia, rural
communities have, for centuries, celebrated and continue to celebrate
the onset of summer as well as the harvest of basic cereal crops in the
month of Vaishakha, being April-May of the Gregorian calendar. Different
Asian communities would observe Vaishakha festivities on different days
from mid-April to mid-May - usually on the full moon (Poya) day of the
More recently, international Buddhist networks agreed to annually
observe the commemoration of the birth, enlightenment and passing away
of the Buddha on the full moon day in Vaishakha - usually in May.
Clearly, the period of the onset of Summer is one that sees large scale
social observances of a spiritual nature that celebrate the contribution
to society of the common Human, with 'common' implying the mass of the
If Vaishakha and Summer's day celebrate the spirit and labours of the
peasant class, the 'International Workers' Day' commemorates the
constant struggle of the industrial working class for their rights as
the modern primary producers and labourers. This 'class struggle' was
embodied in a tragedy that struck during a workers' agitation in
Chicago, USA, in May, 1887, demanding an 8-hour working day as an
industry standard. Several workers died in the police suppression of the
demonstrations, while subsequently, the death of a policeman in a
bomb-throwing incident saw a rigged trial that resulted in the wrongful
execution of several Left activists. Those martyred activists are
designated as social heroes in the United States today.
In Sri Lanka, trade unions, Leftist political parties and,
subsequently, the mainstream liberal parties, all now have a regular
practice of observing May Day as the workers' day. Although originally
initiated by the world communist movement - the '2nd International', to
be precise - the International Workers Day is no longer the exclusive
preserve of the communist movement. And it should not be so.
After all, decades of communist party dictatorship in various
countries, as well as the sordid manipulation of workers' unions for the
benefit of power interests of communist politicians, have long ago
disqualified the communist movement from any claims to exclusive
leadership of the workers' movements. Whether it is the Right or the
Left, no one can make such exclusive claims any more. Rather, it is far
more important that both the Right and the Left do engage with the
working classes and be equally challenged to meet up with, and fulfil,
the expectations of the workers. The agricultural, industrial and
white-collar working classes, today, remain the primary producers in the
economy and will do so for the foreseeable future.
Managing this vital social force for the overall betterment and
progress of human society is the challenge for all who lay claim to
social and political leadership. As managers of all types know, this is
far more than simply ensuring an adequate minimum remuneration for hours
Remembering President Ranasinghe
Since May 1, 1992, 'May Day' in Sri Lanka has never been the same. On
that day, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa died in a bomb blast
triggered by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber. Since the criminal
investigation of this dastardly assassination was never fully completed,
we do not know what really happened to our late Head of State.
The manner of his assassination symbolised the essence of Premadasa,
as a man from among the people, who lived for the people and, who did so
dedicatedly and tirelessly. He died while on the job, giving leadership
to his people.
Was it surprising that a man who emerged into active politics from an
inner city working class background, the urban 'grassroots', and then
painstakingly climbed a political ladder crowded with more affluent,
better educated politicians, would die while traipsing the streets
marshalling the thousands of party activists and unionists at the start
of his party's May Day march?
Was it surprising that the probable assassin was a man that the late
President had taken in to his household as a retainer whom he trusted
irrespective of his ethnicity or seemingly humble social origins? Was it
surprising that this politician, who grew up in the densely
multi-cultural inner city community of central Colombo, had thrown
caution to the winds even in the midst of an intense civil war, and had
plunged into the motley crowds of participants in the intended May Day
march in order to personally supervise it?
It was this dedicated hard work and meticulous attention to detail
that drove Premadasa ever upward in his party's political hierarchy
overcoming social snobbery and poverty and, finally, drove him to risk
all for his party and the working people. The late President's
ascendance to State power demonstrated the genuinely liberal social
dynamics inside the United National Party which has led the way in
enabling activists from the lower social ranks and less traditional,
non-rustic, demographic origins reach positions of leadership in the
party and, consequently, in government.
While the country's Left parties have often exhibited democratic
liberalism in their internal leadership processes, it has been the UNP
that has better demonstrated a wider social flexibility in enabling
broader social participation in politics from the widest range of social
constituencies - from the lower castes, to diverse religious and ethnic
backgrounds, to diverse geographical origins.
Even if his tenure as President, and, before that, as Prime Minister,
was marked by conditions of brutal political repression, Premadasa's
career and achievements are so broad in scope that his Presidency is
remembered as the historic first step by the Sri Lankan 'Common Man' to
attain positions of power and influence as never before experienced in
our lengthy social history.