Happy May Day

Seán Rainford
3 min readMay 1, 2021


There can be no dignity in Labour until Labour knows no master — James Connolly

International Workers’ Day is the day we celebrate and remember all that was accomplished by the international labour movement. This includes things like the Eight-Hour-Day, the Five Day Working Week, and huge changes across the board in protections for workers in the last 100 years. There has been progress, and it’s important we acknowledge that.

But May Day also demands of us that we recognise what hasn’t yet changed — the power of employers over employees is still a fact of life in the workplace today. The power of capital over and above labour is still what defines our economic life. It is still taken for granted that society’s wealth and productive assets should be under the control of a small number of people, all while the workers who produce society’s wealth have little to no say in their workplaces.

And further than that, as many of us are aware, the significant protections in the workplace that once existed in the 20th century have been taken away. Levels of trade union membership in Western countries have declined significantly. Decades of neoliberalism have undermined the idea that workers should be entitled to basic protections, and have banished almost entirely from our collective conscience the idea that workers should have a democratic say in the place in which they work.

Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.

The above quote is not from Marx or Connolly, but from President Abraham Lincoln in a speech to Congress in 1862. It outlines the truth of the relationship between labour and capital. It rejects the common belief of our age— that capital is superior to labour — but it also rejects another belief — that capital and labour are co-equal components of the economy. We shouldn’t be afraid to remind ourselves of the independence and primacy of labour above capital; remembering this fact is crucial to our ability to change the current system.

This May Day, many voices will rightly call for ‘dignity for workers’ — through more protections like sick pay, a four day week, childcare, and perhaps a form of basic income. And while all of these are brilliant policies, they don’t get to the heart of what true dignity requires. Dignity for workers requires first and foremost a right to collective bargaining and worker co-determination. Ultimately, it requires democratisation of the workplace and wider economy to give workers full control over their own lives. For one cannot be truly free if they are under the will of another.

Achieving this goal will need a strong and organised trade union movement, along with a strong and organised cooperative movement. Groups like Trademark Belfast and the Democracy Collaborative are leading the way in this effort today.

Happy International Workers’ Day!



Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.