In recent years, May Day has come to mean hundreds marching through the streets, getting a bit shouty with the police and – increasingly – wearing V for Vendetta masks as if that's some kind of profound political statement in itself. This year was much the same as previous years, with an estimated 5,000 people marching from the Karl Marx library in Clerkenwell Green to Trafalgar Square, chanting stuff about socialism and the unions.
However, outside the Google headquarters in St Giles Square, central London, a splinter group of about 50 had broken away to shout about something else. In a largely anaemic May Day, unlike what I’d have expected from a country mired in austerity and potential for social catastrophe, the message coming from the new group – and, apparently, new political party – sounded promising.
Calling themselves the Emergent Service Workers Party (the eSWP), they took their name from one of the results of that BBC class calculator, and were calling for Google to shut down Gmail from 6PM onwards. That way, according to the protesters, their bosses wouldn't be able to email them about work while they were watching Masterchef on iPlayer/having a bath/drinking themselves to sleep.
If you took the BBC class calculator, are aged between 18 to 26 and have a job vaguely relating to the internet, you too were probably labelled an emergent service worker. If not, what it basically means is that you've got an insecure job where you're expected to work very many hours for very little pay.
I spoke to a few of the people at the eSWP protest.
VICE: Why are you here today?
Robin Goodfellow: I'm here because we’re supposed to work 40 hours per week, but we all work 60 hours per week. If we got Google to shut down at 6PM, the boss wouldn't be able to email you and everyone’s happy. We want things back to the way they should be, you know? We don’t want to work 60 hours a week on 40-hour contracts – it’s bullshit.
You took the test on the BBC, right?
Yeah. Everyone turned out to be an emergent service worker. Someone has to represent us people, so here you have it – the eSWP is the future.
Fennes (left) and Robert.
Hey guys, why are you here?
Fennes: We’re here to be entertained by the latest power structure changes laid upon us.
Do you know what the emergent service workers are?
Robert: If I remember correctly, it’s the social class we belong to in the months that she has work.
Fennes: I’m a precariat, so my work is kind of sporadic.
So you guys have taken the BBC test?
And you ended up as emergent service workers?
If we combine our incomes, yes. I’m a freelancer, though, so when I don’t have work I’m a precariat. I’m not sure we are the strict definition of emergent service workers.
Don’t you think this whole thing is a bit too low-key for a May Day?
Adam: It is, yeah. In the past ten years I’ve seen the figures of people turning up for May Day getting smaller and smaller. I think it’s down to a stigma of the protest having some kind of violent tendency. I can't speak for these guys because I didn't help to organise this one, but the main idea of May Day is to kind of let your hair down. The original roots of May Day were all about debauchery – about drinking and sex.
You’re talking about the era when people used to party in the woods, right?
Exactly. It was fun and less about smashing shit up. To be fair, the sentiment is still there for this party. It’s not that different to a march or a protest, it’s just going about it in a different way. It’s engaging with the public, trying to get them into a party, trying to discuss with them the reasons that we’re here and the idea of the emergent worker.
Okay. Thanks, Adam.
I'd arrived at the place around six, minutes after the location of the "party" was announced. Fifty or so people occupied St Giles square, and I thought, 'Well, it’s still early.' But no, apart from a general curiosity and a few late arrivals, their numbers remained stable. I started wondering, amid the cheering crowd, whatever happened to British workers? Is this what de-industrialisation has made of May Day in this country? I certainly don’t expect people to run around in the forests fucking each other – like they did in the really old days – or put themselves in the line of police fire by daring to strike, but hell…
Unfortunately, the London branch of the eSWP (i.e. the only branch) wasn't met with a huge amount of support in its first public appearance. Regardless of the eSWP's reception, the image that its demonstration and others around the rest of Europe presented to the world was disheartening, to say the least.
With unemployment soaring in southern Europe and austerity aggressively pinching at everyone's lives, you might expect to see more people out on the streets having their May Day voices heard. No such luck. We all took the BBC test and many of us – if not most of us – will have been bracketed as emergent service workers. What does this translate into? Precarious labour, ungodly hours, no security, no ability to plan ahead? No future? Hand to mouth, make rent, make bills, repeat? What kind of a life is that?
Maybe it's because May the 1st is a holiday in most European countries, so people saw it as an opportunity to take the day off work rather than protest. But in a time when protest is so desperately needed, it seemed odd that the turnout was so meagre.
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