A May Day Without Parades, but Pandemic Fuels Europe’s Left

On International Workers’ Day, European liberals urged elected officials to protect workers, small businesses and the environment.

Protesters wearing masks to protect against coronavirus march during a May Day rally outside the Greek Parliament in Athens on Friday. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(CN) — It was a May Day unlike any before in a Europe under lockdown: In most places, there were no street parades, no squares filled with red banners, no fiery speeches against capitalism, no mass protests.

Despite the silence on the streets, left-wing voices said the coronavirus pandemic made this May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day, even more poignant as political leaders across the world push to restart economies despite a pandemic continuing to rage and leading to the deaths of hundreds of infected workers.

With millions facing unemployment and the world registering economic data not seen since the Great Depression, those on the left urged political leaders to take steps to protect workers, small businesses and the planet as society rebuilds from this catastrophe.

“This May Day we cannot go to the square or to the big concerts, but we have a lot of reflection to do on new themes arising on this workers’ holiday,” said Luciana Castellina, a 90-year-old Italian left-wing politician and writer, in Il Manifesto, an Italian communist daily newspaper.

Echoing the thinking of many on the left, she called for emergency aid to all citizens, green economy jobs, more spending on infrastructure and hospitals, and better wages. She predicted the pandemic will lead to an intensification of class struggle.

Castellina also said the pandemic highlighted the importance of workers in sectors long taken for granted and of those on the frontlines of the pandemic, such as grocers, public transit workers and medical workers.

“We’ve discovered that without the work of others we don’t know how to survive,” she said. “Maybe, in this way, we may re-discover how important it is to celebrate May Day.”

In recent years, the left in Europe has struggled for electoral success and watched its traditional social democratic parties collapse in Germany, France and Italy. Liberals have become fractured and center-left parties, such as Germany’s Social Democrats, have been blamed for policies that weakened social services and public benefits. Some of the support socialists could depend on in the past has shifted toward green parties in Germany, France and other northern European countries.

It is far from clear how politics in Europe will change because of the pandemic, but the lockdowns are causing deep economic problems.

The European Union’s euro zone, which is made up of economies using the euro currency, saw its sharpest fall ever in economic output for the first three months of 2020. European data showed gross domestic product shrinking by 3.8%.

Since the coronavirus outbreak in late February, only France has held a major election. That was a first round in municipal elections and left-leaning green candidates did well, as did France’s far-right party led by Marine Le Pen. France postponed the second round of that election.

Contentiously, Poland plans to hold a presidential election on May 10. Poland is led by a right-wing nationalist government and critics accuse it of forging ahead with the election despite the pandemic to help its candidate, Andrzej Duda, win re-election. Some opposition candidates are calling for a boycott. Still, it may provide a sample of the direction political winds are blowing in Europe.

In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, Europe saw the rise of radical parties on both the right and left. The financial crisis led to severe belt tightening by debt-ridden governments and that, in turn, bolstered support for anti-austerity left-wing parties in several countries, including Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the left-leaning anti-establishment 5-Star Movement in Italy. Podemos and the 5-Stars are now in coalition governments. Syriza was in power between 2015 and July 2019.

Those on the left hope to see a revival of support as the pandemic cripples economies and exposes societal problems.

A man is arrested by police officers during a May Day demonstration in Paris on Friday. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

On Friday, left-wing politicians and activists did what they could to spread their messages despite the pandemic.

In France, people banged on pots and unfurled banners from balconies to express their support for workers. Some banners read: “Confined, but not gagged!” “Free masks! Virological and serological tests!” “Food solidarity! Health and life first!”

At one protest in Paris outside a hospital, activists and caregivers held up signs that read: “SOS Public Hospitals” and “300 euros for everyone, immediately.” They were arrested for violating a ban on gatherings.

Also in Paris, a small group of demonstrators — wearing face masks and standing apart from each other — tried to stage a protest in the Place de la République. They were quickly arrested by police too. The arrest had elements of the absurd as one face-masked protester asked police to not get too close after the demonstrator was asked to produce identification.

“Capitalism is the virus,” one banner read. “Revolution is the vaccine.”

Another protester held a banner that said: “Our lives or their profits.”

Across Europe, businesses and political leaders face accusations that they are putting the lives of workers at risk by demanding they return to work without proper protection from the virus.

There have been sporadic protests, walkouts, sickouts and strikes across Europe, including at hospitals, a Spanish steel mill, Amazon warehouses, food-processing plants and major automobile factories, such as Toyota and Renault.

Many workers have been put at risk by having to work in close quarters with others and needing to take public transportation to work. The pandemic, logically, has been most devastating for medical workers, many of whom have complained from the outset about a lack of protection.

An Italian health care workers’ group reports that 150 doctors and 40 nurses have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus. Pharmacists have reported deaths among their ranks too. Large numbers of medical workers have also died in Spain, France and the United Kingdom, the hardest-hit countries in Europe.

Meanwhile, an Italian state agency overseeing work-related injuries reports that 28,000 workers have reported being infected by the disease with about half of those being nurses, medical workers, doctors and ambulance drivers.

But it’s not just medical workers. Grocers, factory hands and transit workers have all fallen ill from Covid-19 and died, according to news reports.

In the United Kingdom, the trade union Unite has said 27 of its bus drivers have died from the virus. The union says most of the bus drivers who died were in London, but there were deaths in Birmingham, Bristol and northwest England too. A British union representing prison workers says six of its members have died.

“Happy International Workers’ Day! Covid has exposed the people we couldn’t do without, and it’s not the bankers or corporate tax dodgers,” wrote Nadia Whittome, a Labour Party member, on Twitter. At age 23, she became the youngest parliamentarian in the House of Commons when she won a seat in December elections, a rare bright spot for Labour in that election that saw Tory leader Boris Johnson trounce Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and take the U.K. out of the EU.

In Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tried to assure Italian workers that he was listening to their concerns.

“I’m not going to pretend that I haven’t heard your advice, your demands, your anger, your anxiety,” he said. “They are not falling on deaf ears.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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