We Need to Redefine the Workers’ Struggle… and Then We Can Celebrate!
What is the meaning and importance of May 1 for organized labor in Eastern Europe? Trade unions and labor organizers increasingly recognize that the meaning of and reasons for celebrating International Labor Day are not only self-evident, but also increasingly problematic. There are two apparent obstacles that Eastern European workers and organizers alike face when attempting to redefine this extremely important day. In Eastern Europe, state socialisms with authoritarian aspects curbed the autonomous self-organization of labor. They even largely limited labor’s space and the opportunities it needed to find its own way of expressing and developing a culture of celebration beyond friend and family circles.
Behind the Iron Curtain, but also in the authoritarian-socialist Yugoslavia, May 1 initially developed into party-led official celebrations whose clear function was to increase the legitimacy of those ruling in the name of workers. This imposed interpretation gradually changed over time, especially from the 1970s onwards when increasing state debts to foreign banks, labor strikes and protests shook the core values of the systems’ economic-modernization projects, especially in the reformed communist countries. After 1989, new challenges came to the fore: reintegration into the global economy amid unfavorable conditions and the loss of markets; the destruction of jobs, skills, professional and personal lives, and deteriorating labor rights. All this left unions and organizers on a slippery slope that they had to navigate. Trade unions, often divided, also struggled to redefine their mission and values. They also had to fight despite their increasingly smaller capacities, typically without education centers or research capacities, and coping with different, increasingly shrinking social spaces.
A recent additional force shaping our idea of and possibilities for conceptualizing International Labor Day came with the Covid-19 pandemic. In both 2020 and 2021, on May 1 there were no public gatherings or celebrations, and protests were also not possible or desirable in the countries of Eastern Europe. These conditions led to experiments and improvisations by labor organizers, and novel events appeared. While we do not provide a thorough overview here of what happened in all the countries of Eastern Europe, we do highlight brief reports from Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, and Slovenia on attempts to deal with the challenge of redefining International Labor Day. These attempts remind workers once again that May 1 is not a day of celebration, but a day for a renewed international workers’ struggle.
Nóra Ugron, Enikő Vincze, and Radu Stochiță