The workers take centre stage again

Anti-globalisation protests have declined, but May Day isn't finished. It's simply gone back to its

May Day means mayhem. But not this year, we're told, the subtext being that it now means hardly anything at all. "Apathy kills off May Day protest," the BBC trumpeted towards the end of March, reporting that the London Mayday Collective, at the heart of the anti-capitalist protests of the past five years, had decided not to proceed with plans for 2004. The media commentators who reviled the actions of previous years did not waste much time before revelling in their demise. But the obituaries are at the very least premature.

May Day - also known as Labour or International Workers' Day - can be traced back to the 19th century. In 1889, in response to demonstrations for an eight-hour day in Australia and the US, an international workers' congress set 1 May as a day of worldwide action to demand fairer working conditions and better welfare. Workers the world over are still making the same demands. And most of them consider capitalism as the major obstacle to both social justice and global peace.

Since 1890, the usual starting point for London's march has been Clerkenwell Green, a site with a past with which even the most anarchic of today's anti-capitalists should feel some identification. In the 14th century, Wat Tyler and sections of the Peasants' Revolt that had marched on London camped here; in the 19th century, it was the site of Chartist meetings, many of which led to furious clashes with the police. No such clashes are expected on May Day this year: participants are confident their march will not be hijacked, as it has been for the past few years, by other anti-globalisation protesters.

There is even reason to hope that some of those who previously frustrated the traditional march by beating it to Trafalgar Square and hogging the headlines will this year join it instead. According to Roger Sutton of the London May Day organising committee, numbers have been growing in recent years. People's experiences of the anti-war movement have helped change perspectives and highlighted the benefits of making alliances. Uniting a wide variety of people, explains Sutton, is exactly what May Day is all about.

The differences between the rank and file of the traditional march and the anti-capitalist protesters of recent years have often been exaggerated. The May Day marchers have long included all manner of environmentalists, anarchists and socialists, with their banners in green, black and red. But perhaps more important than being multicoloured is being multicultured. One of the most stirring and heartening aspects of the traditional march is the central role played by international communities domiciled in the capital. This year these will include numerous Turkish and Kurdish groups, Iraqis, Iranians, Bangladeshis, Peruvians, Cypriots, Greeks, Spaniards and many more.

The make-up of the march changes year by year, reflecting the highs and lows of international politics. For example, the many Chilean and South African trade unionists who once had a strong presence have mostly returned to their home countries; more prominent this year will be the Colombian contingent.

It is sometimes tough being a trade unionist in Britain. But the Colombians marching in London offer a stark reminder that there are worse things than being marginalised and ignored: in some countries today, trade unionists are persecuted and murdered. In light of this, May Day is about more than claiming rights; it is a defence of the right to make those claims at all.

The international character of the march is significant on a number of levels. It is first a reminder that some of the most exploited workers in Britain are from ethnic-minority and refugee communities. But it also means that May Day is not just about workers in Britain: it is about recognising our country's intimate involvement in pay and conditions overseas - both directly through practices such as outsourcing and indirectly through economic pressures for cheap goods and greater profits. And the international dimension has new relevance this year, as May Day coincides with the accession of ten more states to the European Union - though quite what this means for workers' rights is a bone of contention. The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) supports enlargement but is nevertheless using the day to insist that the EU's success will depend on taking into account the needs of its 450 million citizens.

That the EU has already failed to do so seems lost on the ETUC, but not on many of the trade unionists who will be marching in cities across the continent. The price of accession has been welfare cuts, extensive privatisation and increased unemployment in order to meet the convergence criteria for EU membership - crippling consequences that are well understood by those "apathetic" anti-capitalists. Many are moving May Day to Dublin, for Ireland currently holds the EU presidency. They will protest "for an alternative Europe", with days of action focusing on privatisation, militarism and immigration policy.

Wherever they are, the May Day marchers will get a boost from their day falling at the weekend this year, but there is one thing that frequently puts a dampener on celebrations in Britain: the weather. Let's hope the sun brings out the best in us all.

How are you celebrating May Day?

Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London
I will host a reception at City Hall on the Friday. It will also launch this year's Respect festival, supported by the union movement, celebrating multiculturalism and promoting anti-racism.

Billy Bragg, musician
I almost always get invited to do a gig on May Day. Last year I went to Glasgow and it was pouring with rain. This year I've been invited to do a gig in Salerno, Italy, which my wife is very happy about.

Tony Benn, former Labour MP
I do May Day every year. I accept the first invitation I get. I've been in Bristol, Newcastle, Chesterfield . . . This year, I will be in Barnsley with the NUM.

John Monks, general secretary, European Trade Union Confederation
I shall join Italian trade unions for May Day celebrations on the border of the old and new EU, between Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia.

Tony Blair, Prime Minister
There's nothing I can point to at the moment, and I think that's unlikely to change. [No 10 spokesman]

Michael Howard, Conservative leader
He's busy campaigning around the country for local and European elections. [Party spokesman]

David Hare, playwright
I don't want to tell you.

Julie Burchill, journalist
I shall be sitting by my pool drinking blue cocktails with my cleaner - a perfect balance of smugness and socialism.

Frances O'Grady, deputy general secretary, Trades Union Congress
I'll be speaking at the TUC International Workers' Day rally in Trafalgar Square. I'll be joined by Sarah Abwoja, a Kenyan trade unionist.

Barbara Follett, Labour MP
I shall be taking a rest. May Day, since ancient times, has symbolised renewal of the earth at the end of winter, and of people at the end of oppression.

Labour MP (name withheld)
Should I be going to Aldermaston?

Research by Luminita Holban

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