May 1, 2020

In April 1983, Ray Sentes, a Canadian insulation worker with a lethal dose of asbestos already burning and scratching in his lungs, was driving through Ontario to a union meeting with his friend and fellow activist, Colin Lambert. On the way, they stopped the car for a funeral procession honouring a fire fighter killed in the line of duty. Lambert, a miner and steelworker, wondered why deaths in his own profession were not marked with comparable dignity.

Then he recalled the recent history of the uranium mine in the nearby town of Elliot Lake. From the early 1970s, the Elliot Lake miners knew that their work was killing them prematurely. The authorities, however, showed little interest. In April 1974 the United Steelworkers union called a wildcat strike that resulted in a bitterly critical government inquiry into the mine’s management, and the establishment of an annual ceremony of mourning for those whose lives had been cut short by cancer and scoliosis.

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From this conversation in the car, Lambert and Sentes grew a campaign. In February 1991, the Canadian government passed a private member’s bill naming April 28th as the Day of Mourning for Persons Killed or Injured in the Workplace. The idea spread. Over a hundred countries now recognise International Workers Memorial Day. The UK government gave it official recognition in 2010.

At 11 o’clock on Tuesday morning, Boris Johnson and his Chancellor stood mute in the Cabinet Office, heads bowed. As the seconds ticked by, news cameras relayed images of groups of nurses, ambulance crews, bus drivers and checkout operators, standing separate and observant. The moment was freighted with symbolism. The 11 o’clock silence recalled the Cenotaph, though the Great War’s familiar ceremonies did not stabilise until years after the Armistice. The concluding applause showed that this was the more formal relation of the now-customary Covid carnivalesque of a British Thursday evening, when pots and pans are banged as they are on a Glasgow hen-night.

None of the sonorous TV commentary, however, acknowledged the significance of the timing; that we were watching a Conservative Prime Minister, whose journalistic output could hardly be said to be a long paean to the virtues of Health and Safety, leading a mourning ritual for personnel who had lost their lives because their employers had failed to protect them from danger; a ritual inaugurated, promulgated and promoted by the international labour movement.

Work is a four-letter word. Worker has six, but it’s still one that sounds surprising when uttered, enthusiastically, by a figure whose political home is not on the Left. “We are going to stand by the workers of this country,” declared the Prime Minister, a fortnight before he fell sick. It’s an easy thing to say: you can stand by someone as you watch them tumble from Beachy Head. But his colleagues started to speak the same language. The figure of the worker is now a presence in British Conservative discourse — a place where it has, historically, often been very hard to detect.

The principal festival of the worker, May Day, was inaugurated in 1890 by the first Conference of the Second International, which named May 1st as the day on which the proletariat might eat, drink, be merry and agitate for a radical utopian idea called the eight-hour day. Spain adopted it in 1931: when General Franco came to power he replaced it with a festival in commemoration of himself. Hitler took it up in 1933: it survived him in both post-war Germanys. James Callaghan added it to the British calendar in 1978. (In 2011, David Cameron’s coalition wondered aloud about abolishing it in favour of the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.)

In the Soviet Union, May Day was the foundation of a cult that sometimes sacrificed its own celebrants. When Stalin ballyhooed the achievements of a monstrously productive Ukrainian coal-cutter named Alexey Stakhanov, he condemned him to a place in the realm of the Soviet symbolic. In Moscow they applauded him, garlanded him, and sent him the gift of a horse and cart. In his hometown in Donbass, a gang of miners came after him with knives. Stakhanov died drunk and disappointed, but the beginning of his story is just as instructive. When, in August 1935, he formulated his method for massively increasing the coal yield, his manager told him that he would support him if he succeeded, but disavow him if he failed.

How are we to judge the status of the worker in our own moment? Perhaps ask those who are presently employed on what is known as the “worker contract” — an instrument that suits those for whom flexibility is a supreme priority, but also functions as a mechanism allowing companies and organisations (even respectable ones like the BBC and the NHS) to limit their obligations towards the people upon whose labour they depend. The worker contract provides no sick pay, no holiday pay, no pension, no parental leave, no compassionate leave. It permits an employer to dismiss you without notice, even after years of service. It does not remove your statutory entitlements, but often makes them almost impossible to claim.

This piece of paper was always a potential insult. To this, Covid-19 has added injury. Many of those workers being congratulated for their dedication, professionalism and forbearance, with heartwarming television ads, enthusiastic applause and respectful silence, are engaged on terms for which many of those commissioning those ads, generating that applause or observing the silence would not leave the house, even if it were completely safe to do so.

Corona has changed our politicians: their language; their attitudes to public and state institutions; their relationships with their own ideological traditions. Enthusiasts for deregulation and the weightless state — a key element of the Conservatives’ fanbase — must be reeling, and would be forgiven for recalling those 1950s sci-fi films about covert takeovers by the forces of the Red Planet. Are there Martian transistors behind Rishi Sunak’s magnificent ears, directing the former hedge fund manager to advance Tory War Communism? No. The Chancellor is the Chancellor, and his first budget would have been Keynesian without the influence of the virus. Is the real Dominic Raab trapped inside a frothing alien pod concealed in his conservatory in Thames Ditton? No. The Foreign Secretary who talks with apparent sincerity about “our NHS” is the same Earthling who co-authored a 2012 treatise arguing for the breakup of public healthcare.

These are the new Tories. This is the new normal. Thatcher’s children, talking like Clem Attlee was their real dad all along. If Nigel Lawson once worried that the NHS was the closest thing to a state religion, how he must marvel at the zeal of his successors who lead each night’s 5pm Evensong.

On International Workers Memorial Day 2020, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor delivered the same message. “This morning I took part in a minute’s silence to remember those workers who have tragically died in the coronavirus pandemic,” tweeted Boris Johnson. “The nation will not forget you.” Rishi Sunak delivered his promises to camera. “To the workers who continue to help Britain battle coronavirus, thank you,” he said. “To those who have lost their lives, we won’t forget you.”

In the Great War, many families were left without bodies to bury. Shellfire obliterated them in an instant, scattering the fragments over the mud. Families bereaved by Covid-19 will have autopsy reports, medical data, human remains that must be managed from a safe and painful distance. There will be no Tomb of the Unknown Shelf-Stacker. We will know which employers and authorities behaved honourably, and which did not. We will know where the bodies are buried.

In the 1980s, when Ray Sentes and Colin Lambert were campaigning in Canada, they did so with a phrase that remains the mantra of their movement. “Remember the dead. Fight for the living.”

We should do both.