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Sunday, 1 May 2016

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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 period.

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 labouring classes.

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 worked.


Remembering President Ranasinghe Premadasa

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.

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