The Death and Disgrace of Sri Lanka’s Labor Movement

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As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

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