Workers have created the society we live in. Not only have they carried out the actual work of visionaries and entrepreneurs. They have also fought for the most fundamental of rights, and so created a fair, functional, educated and peaceful society which have made further economic growth possible. Today is May 1, or International Workers’ Day. In many parts of the world this is a holiday and the streets and city squares are full of people celebrating historical accomplishments of the workers’ and union movements, as well as demonstrating for further rights. This is also a day of working together to be stronger, and of international unity and solidarity. The most common song at these demonstrations, is the anthem The Internationale. Here is the first verse of an updated version by British (and self-proclaimed socialist), singer and songwriter Billy Bragg:

Stand up all victims of oppression
For the tyrants fear your might
Don’t cling so hard to your possessions
For you have nothing if you have no rights
Let racist ignorance be ended
For respect makes the empires fall
Freedom is merely privilege extended
Unless enjoyed by one and all

May 1 celebrations actually has its origin in events in the USA and Canada in the late 19th Century. Ironically these are perhaps the countries where the day is now is least celebrated. This has probably to do with the lesser role of the trade unions in North America, which differs sharply from for instance Europe and many parts of Africa and South America. In Canada about 30 % are union members, in the USA only 11 %. The decline has been sharp and steady over the past few decades, especially among men and young people. There has been a decline in other countries too but not nearly as sharp. In Sweden 69 % of all people of working age is a union member, (it used to be 77 % before 2008 when a radical change in membership fees was introduced by the conservative government). In Iceland it is close to 90 %!

In Canada one reason for the lower numbers might be the existence of a very strong human rights-legislation which makes it possible for an employee to be protected without the assistance of the union. Another reason has to do with the differences in unionization. One of the key characteristics of Canadian union membership is the so-called Rand formula; every worker at a unionized workplace, gets the union fee deducted from their wages, regardless if they are members. The reason is that all collective agreements in a workplace will benefit all workers regardless of union membership. In Sweden in comparison, the agreements will only benefit the members. The downside to the Canadian model is that many feel no affiliation with the unions. Perhaps they take the agreements for granted, perhaps they feel negative about the fees. In Sweden on the other hand, there is a real incentive to becoming a member.

In the USA, a worker can only be represented by a union if the entire workplace is unionized. And to make a workplace unionized, it has been decided by the majority in an open vote. And since the USA has a strong tradition of free enterprise, there has been many situations reported where individual workers are being pressured by both reps from the employer (or outsiders), but also by the union reps. And in recent years many republican states have become Right to Work-states, lessening the power of the unions even more. Right to work, is seen as a misnomer, since it makes it harder for employees to get organised and easier for the employer to hire, fire and lower wages. In comparison, every union member in Sweden is an individual member and the unions serves them. In one work place there can be members of several different unions, as well as many non-members. The union members are represented as a whole by collective agreements, and as individuals by a union rep. The non-members are only covered by a general, national wage increase, and by the rules and regulations (but navigating these without representation is difficult). However, the downside to the high level of unionization in the Nordic countries, might be a less flexible job market, which makes it harder for some (especially young, seniors and immigrants) to even get an entry-level job. The inflexible market can also make it harder for companies to adjust their operations according to the international economy.

But May 1 is about more than union membership. As a Swede, a European and a Woman, I have the union of workers (not necessarily A Union), to thank for almost every right I enjoy.  It is a day to commemorate what our parents, and their parents and grand parents went through, for the rights that we take for granted today. The right to vote, the right to not work 7 days a week for 12 hours a day so that we have the time to educate ourselves and raise our family, and not die at 60, the right to a living wage, the right to vacation, the right to parental leave, the right to childcare so we can work while we raise a family, the right to a safe workplace so we do not die from accidents, asbestos, cancer or stress. For us this day is also about coming together, to recognize current social problems (such as the rise in racism), and labour issues that need to change to create a more equal society.

May 1 is obviously political but it is also a historical commemoration of what made our democracy – regardless of political ideology. Europe suffered wars for hundreds of years based on greed. The revolutions were dark moments in history but perhaps necessary to bring about a situation where the governments, the owners and the workers realized how they needed each other to work together in peace, for mutual economic progress. That is the foundation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), unions, employers and governments working together. ILO is instrumental to work for abolishing, child labour (or until then, the protection of the children), and for equal pay and health care for women, the health and safety of miners and manufacturing workers in developing countries who makes it possible for us to have a new smart phone every 6 months. And for the loggers, oil and gas-workers, and farmers who provide us with what we need for food and shelter. The unions around the world are negotiating fair wages and employment rules, and monitor safety regulations which saves the lives of construction workers, electricians and truck drivers, but also our lives as unions negotiate better working conditions for medical staff and emergency services.

Regardless how you feel about unions and of your political ideology, you can probably appreciate all that workers’ have done and are doing, to make sure our nations move forward.

All of what I have written in this post, and much more, can be learned and experienced in museums. So even if you did not march today, try to find the time to visit a Workers’ museum and learn more about the hardships and accomplishments of our ancestors, and of men and women all over the world. Here are a few of these museums online:

  1. The dutch Vakbondsmuseum in Amsterdam. A dutch union history that is recognized by compromise first and foremost, is housed in an architectural gem called the Stronghold.
  2. At Werstas, the Finnish labour Museum, admission is free. A current exhibit features the cooperative movement in Finland, which started in 1917 and made food cheaper and more accessible all over the country. It also “became a significant player in the Finnish economy”, and “a builder of Finnish society”.
  3. The industrial revolution changed Britain – and the world. At Bradford Industrial Museum, in Yorkshire, the UK, visitors can experience the beginning of this development. The machines, the factories, the working conditions for adults and children, the living conditions of the workers’, and for the owner.
  4. The Copenhagen Workers’ museum, in Denmark has unfortunately no website in English but the Copenhagen Museums website tells us more. At the museum we can experience 150 years of history through the perspective of ordinary people. and on the website, which can be understood through Google translate, we can see lots of photos and descriptions about the exhibits.
  5. The award winning Museum of Liverpool, in the UK, features a lot on workers’ history – no wonder considering the social history of the city.
  6. The Workers’ Art and Heritage Centre in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada,  shows some of this historical city for both industry and labour movement.

This list could be a lot longer of course and most of the labour movement history can be found in other museums, and of course the libraries and archives. Do take some time to explore them. It puts our everyday life, in a healthy perspective.

Find out more on International Association of Labour History Institutions. and at the Working Class Movement Library.

Text and photo: Anna Larsson Berke, 2017 ©
(The sculpture “The honour of labour”, by Axel Ebbe, at Möllevångstorget in Malmö. The birth place of the labour movement in Sweden.)