On May Day, Wear #RedForKeyWorkers

Tomorrow, a grassroots trade union campaign is calling for people to wear #RedForKeyWorkers – in recognition of their efforts today, and in demand that their work is respected in the future.

It has been a year of setbacks for socialism. The loss of the general election in December was compounded by Rebecca Long-Bailey’s defeat in the Labour leadership election. Then, across the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders lost out in the presidential election despite much early hope. The fear right now is that the Left gets demoralised, fragments and the cause of socialism retreats for a generation.

Antonio Gramsci famously said that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” It has certainly felt like that recently. After a decade of austerity following the 2008 crash, many of us believed an alternative to capitalism might emerge. Instead we have been plunged into a world of monsters, right-wing demagogues gaining power from from Hungary to Brazil. For these figures, the coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to shut down borders, to stir up racism, to attack workers’ rights and start a new Cold War with China.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Tomorrow is May Day, International Workers’ Day. It takes place on an ancient festival marking the coming of spring. Early socialists believed it could similarly herald a new season for humanity, the coming of a new world. Now more than ever we need to keep that vision on the horizon. 

While coronavirus has brought tragedy to thousands of families, it has also reminded us of deeper truths about our society. After decades of being told it is the bankers, or the stock brokers, or the entrepreneurs who keep Britain running, this pandemic has revealed our real essential workers. They aren’t earning millions of pounds per year and stashing it offshore in a tax haven. They are out delivering our post, collecting our bins, stacking the shelves in our supermarkets and, yes, keeping our loved ones alive – not just as doctors and nurses but as cleaners and porters and care workers.

In many parts of Britain, coronavirus has brought communities together. Mutual aid groups have sprung up across the country. People are working together, sharing food, knowledge and expertise. People are seeing that perhaps consumerism isn’t all it is cracked up to be, and spending time with our families is more important. The virus has made “impossible” things seem possible. The Tory government has been forced to abandon austerity. They’ve even nationalised some railways. That’s because their neoliberal economic philosophy has been shown up. Margaret Thatcher was wrong, we do live in a society after all.

But now is the time to put forward our vision of an alternative: a world where key workers are valued, paid a living wage and put in control of their own lives; a world where the economy is run in the interests of all the people, not of private profits. For workers everywhere, May Day is our day. It’s a day to be proud of the labour movement, and its cause: the struggle for socialism.

The Tory government knows how powerful the ideas embodied by May Day are. That’s why they’ve moved the May Day Bank holiday as far away from the May 1st as possible, lumping it in with VE Day. They don’t want working people to recognise their common interests with each other. They don’t want them to organise. They don’t want us to say, now we know who really runs this place, maybe its time to show them some respect.

That’s why we’ve launched #RedForKeyWorkers, asking people to wear red on May Day to recognise the contributions of key workers – and demand that we build a society where they are respected. It’s not good enough to just clap when over 3 million of our key workers earn less than the living wage, it’s time to show real solidarity with a campaign to improve their conditions.

John McDonnell, former Shadow Chancellor and an early supporter of our campaign, put it very well, “The pandemic makes this May Day extremely poignant. We celebrate the essential role workers play in our society not just as the creators of wealth but also as the carers that sacrifice so much to keep us from harm“

Red For Key Workers are calling on you to take part in #RedForKeyWorkers this May Day. Wear red, write a message of solidarity, take a picture and upload it picture to social media using the #RedForKeyWorkers hashtag. And encourage your colleagues, comrades and co-workers to join you.

May Day is a day to unite workers across sectors, across communities and across social boundaries. We have, of course, immediate demands. Let’s put a special focus on the demand for PPE, testing and contact tracing. But we must also look to the future, workers must not be the ones to shoulder the cost of this crisis as they did in 2008.

Let’s show our solidarity with workers in their tireless efforts during coronavirus. Let’s build a united working class movement that can organise across all workplaces, streets and community halls. Let’s use May Day to celebrate the struggles for dignity and justice in our labour movement and commit to building a new network of trade unionists that revitalise its institutions.

That’s how we keep the red flag flying. Tomorrow, we wear #RedForKeyWorkers.

About the Author

Robert Poole is an activist with the National Education Union (NEU) and the media officer of Bolton North East Constituency Labour Party (CLP).

Henry Fowler is the national campaign manager for the National Education Union (NEU).