May 1, 2023
This International Workers’ Day (May Day) the National Farmers Union (NFU) calls on the federal government to immediately adopt the 2018 UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), which defines the rights that must be upheld to ensure that a diversity of food producers are respected and have their voices heard, and which Canada has yet to support. Though Canada abstained from adopting the Declaration, it was nevertheless brought into international human rights law due to overwhelming international support.
On May 1st every year, May Day is recognized as a globally significant day for farmers and workers.
May Day celebrations of working peoples’ struggles for dignity and justice have deeply ecological and agricultural origins. May Day can be traced back to Roman and Gaelic festivals celebrating nature’s rebirth and the arrival of spring. Because May Day falls at a time when seasonal work resumes and labour is in high demand, it was a powerful moment when land workers would collectively down their tools to feast with each other and celebrate in harmony with nature. By the 18th century, Puritans and early industrialists in North America cracked down on May Day revelries to enforce religious adherence and work discipline. May Day celebrations were revived in the late 19th century, and the day became central to international workers movements.
From the start, modern May Day was connected to the rise of resistance to industrial farming. It was a spring-time strike at Cyrus McCormick’s Reaper Works—a factory that built some of the first mechanical harvesters that displaced farmworkers and helped spur on corporate farmland consolidation—that made Chicago a focal point for labour agitation in 1886. On May 1st that year, over 300,000 US workers in 13,000 businesses joined McCormick metalworkers in demanding the 8-hour work day.
From its American beginnings, peasants and workers across the globe took up the cause of labour on May Day. It is an official holiday in 107 countries. In Haiti it is called Labour and Agriculture Day. In India it has become a day to mobilize around farmer struggles. The NFU and allied organizations in La Via Campesina annually demand justice for food system workers on May Day.
Migrant workers revived May Day in twenty-first century North America. In 2006, May Day became “A Day Without Immigrants” as migrant workers coordinated a nationwide protest and economic boycott in demand for legal status for 11 million undocumented U.S. workers. Over 400,000 gathered in Chicago and over a half a million in New York. In California, produce went unpicked and in the Midwest, meatpacking companies were shut down. Protests against Canadian immigration laws were also held in Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal, and Fredericton.
Since 2006, Canadian migrant rights organizations annually recognize May Day by demanding rights and justice denied to undocumented and seasonal migrant workers.
This May Day, the NFU calls on the federal government to implement UNDROP to ensure all resident and migrant agricultural workers are afforded the right to safe and healthy working and living conditions, and the right to unionization. The UNDROP right to “full and meaningful participation” for Canadian temporary foreign workers requires open work permits and permanent residency status for all. We fight not only for basic human dignity in the workplace but for the means to realize our full capacity as creative human beings in relationship with one another and the Earth as outlined in the UNDROP and Nyéléni Declaration on food sovereignty.
“Canada’s abstention from the UNDROP vote [in the United Nations General Assembly] does not give it a free pass to deny the presence of peasant rights violations in this country,” writes Jessie MacInnis, NFU Youth President. “Ensuring the implementation of UNDROP is an integral part of a global struggle to challenge, dismantle, and rebuild the food system in line with food sovereignty.”
Further Reading: Peter Linebaugh, The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day
Jessie MacInnis, The Potential of UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas: Moving towards rights-based agriculture policy in Canada