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I WOULD like to wish all working people and their families a very happy May Day. The day, whether we call it the workers’ day, or labour day, is when, right around the world, we show solidarity with the working men and women of every nation.
We have done this every year since the sixth international socialist congress, held in Amsterdam in 1904, called on “all social democratic parties and the trade unions of all countries” to demonstrate on May 1 for the establishment of “an eight hour day, the class demands of the proletariat and universal peace.”
It’s going to be a bit different this year. We will all miss the traditional marches under union banners in which so many of us take part up and down this country.
It’s one of the highlights of the year, for me, meeting so many comrades on Clerkenwell Green, just around the corner from Aslef’s head office in St John Street and an area rich in labour movement history.
Wat Tyler camped here during the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and George Loveless, the first of the Tolpuddle Martyrs to return to these shores after transportation to Australia for having had the temerity to form a trade union down in Dorset, came back to a heroes’ welcome on Clerkenwell Green in 1838.
I have fond memories of speaking on the steps of the Marx Memorial Library in 2017 and enjoying Neil Gore entertaining the crowd with songs from Townsend Productions’ touring hit Dare Devil Rides to Jarama, before moving off at 1pm to march to the rally in Trafalgar Square.
Aslef is a small craft union — we represent train drivers and only train drivers; but our industrial muscle derives from the fact that, although no-one under British law has to belong to a trade union, 96 per cent of the train drivers in England, Scotland and Wales, where we organise, choose to be a member of Aslef.
I don’t mind admitting a real sense of pride when I see so many comrades marching with our branch and district banners every year.
Today, when we cannot celebrate May Day in the traditional way, it is, I believe, more important than ever to raise the concerns of working people, not just here in Britain but right across the world.
I spoke on International Workers’ Memorial Day about the need for the government and employers to protect front-line workers as much as humanly possible, while they are doing everything they can to keep us all healthy and keep our essential services running during this coronavirus pandemic.
It is also important to think about the kind of society we want to live in when the Covid-19 crisis is over. There are a lot of calls — most of them from those who appear keener to turn a profit than to keep people safe — for things to return to normal as soon as possible.
I say no. We do not want things to return to normal. Because we need a new normal.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is about who really keeps this country running. The people we should really value. Workers in the NHS and care sector, looking after our health and our most vulnerable.
Shop workers providing us with food and essential goods for our families. Postal workers and couriers bringing us supplies. Transport workers moving these goods around the country and getting other key workers to their places of work (and back home again).
There are so many key workers I cannot mention them all. They all do very different jobs, but they are all essential jobs. They do, though, have one thing in common. And that is that they have all been undervalued and underpaid, for far too long.
So, when we come out on the other side of this pandemic, it will be time to recalibrate our economy and recalibrate our society. To realise that the real wealth creators in Britain are the men and women who keep us healthy, who get us around, who teach our children and who deliver our goods.
We need to learn from the mistakes of the Conservatives’ last “Age of Austerity” — when David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg implemented a brutal policy of slash and burn — which meant that Britain’s recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was the slowest in history.
The economic challenges we face in the coming months must not be paid for by the working people of this country who have kept us all safe during the coronavirus crisis.
We must remember these key workers in the coming months.
Applause and expressions of gratitude are all very well, but this recognition must become permanent and result in a real recognition of their real value. Better pay, safer working conditions and economic security, for them and their families.
Not the Blue Peter badge some in the cabinet seem to think is appropriate.
Mick Whelan is the general secretary of Aslef.
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