Basic Income Day is a great idea, but not on May Day!

Basic income activists around the world are doing a great job (sic!) putting the idea of granting each individual an unconditional guaranteed income at the frontlines of policy proposals to combat poverty, social exclusion and economic inequality. A basic income is different from a wage precisely in that everyone gets it, independent of whether you are working in company or the public sector or not. One of the strategies to draw attention to basic income is to rethink May 1, traditionally International Worker’s Day, as Basic Income Day.

Having a Basic Income Day to rally everyone around the world together for the cause is a great idea, but opting for May 1 is a serious mistake. International Workers’ Day was chosen during the Second International to coincide with May Day in commemoration of the Chicago Haymarket Massacre, a bombing that took place at a labour demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886. International Workers’ Day pays tribute to the numerous sacrifices made by workers across the world as part of a relentless fight to establish the very workers’ rights that we now take for granted: eight hours working day, limited working week, the right to paid holiday and sick leave, and above all the right to collectively organize in a union and negotiate for better working conditions. At a time when many of these rights are again threatened by the austerity agenda we should remember how much blood and sweat it took to get them in place in the first place. Turning May Day into Basic Income Day seems a tad too disrespectful – surely we can do better.

This brings me to two further points related to political strategy. First off, following directly from my last point, we often face an uphill battle convincing our comrades in the labour union movement to join us in our fight. The trade unions have understandable reservations about what basic income means for workers – and face it, we have ourselves partly to blame for not getting the message across – but there is no doubt in my mind that unions are our natural allies and that we need their support. Lets not give them yet another reason to oppose us: there’s plenty of days to chose from without having to step on the toes of those who should be our allies in the fight for a better world.

Finally, one of the leading worries amongst progressives (not just trade unions) is that basic income might end up replacing rather than complementing social protection systems already in place. Again, we are partly to blame for sending this message. (I have written about this elsewhere, but we should really stop pretending that basic income is a solution that can cross the political divides! Any progressive version of basic income worth having will be resisted by the conservatives.) Taking over May Day reinforces the wrong political message and risks further alienating those who would otherwise happily support us.

So by all means, lets pick a day to celebrate basic income, just not May Day!

EDITOR’S NOTE: We welcome a reply to this piece from anyone of the organizers of Basic Income Day or anyone who believes May Day is the best day for Basic Income Day. Contact Karl Widerquist (

About Jurgen De Wispelaere

Jurgen De Wispelaere has written 2 articles.

Jurgen De Wispelaere is a Fellow with the McGill Institute for Health and Social Policy (IHSP). An occupational therapist turned political philosopher, he holds degrees in occupational therapy and moral sciences, and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Tampere (Finland) on the politics of basic income. He is a founding editor of the journal Basic Income Studies and co-editor of several collections (Palgrave 2003, Routledge 2007, Blackwell 2013). He has written extensively on the politics and public administration of basic income in a range of journals and edited volumes.


  • I disagree.

    May Day is the perfect day for Basic Income awareness because it gives workers bargaining power to leave their job and have something to fall back on.

  • Felix Coeln

    I completely do not agree.

    If unions were our allies, they allready would support an Uncondidional Bais Income. They do not! In Germany we have smaler sections of the Union for the public sector fighting for it – but they don’t get a chance to overcome the resistance within their own folks. So that’s about it.

    I would love to wellcome all the unions. But if I cannot, because they reject even considering this progressive idea of a BIG – well … – I will not stop just to make it comfortable for them ….

    In history redesigning a holiday have happened always and replaced a feast by something else – see Easter (Spring-Celebration), Christmas (Winter-Solstice) and so on.

    Also I don’t consider the BIG only “combating poverty, social exclusion and economic inequality” – I consider BIG a HUMAN RIGHT. I demand human dignity and the realisation of real freedom and real democracy. To get rid of poverty is just a wellcome sideeffect.

    We need to understand:
    there was never a fight for labour – or “work”
    [as we wrongly use that word as it is the “biggest stupidity of the 21st century” (Guy Standing)].

    And no – it is not the saying part, it is the listening part. I can clearly state that I always communicate the need of rethinking “work” (now used as in averything that can be done by any human being) – and also that unions will not be obsolete once we have a BIG, because we still will need organized forces to propose good working conditions.

    But – as always with human beings – those who are active in unions have their own strategy in mind – like minimum wages. Minimum wages are great as long as we don’t have a BIG implemented – after that it not only will be useless, but also hindering.

    Fact is – and we need to face this reality – we are interfering with union’s strategies (at least as long as both groups don’t find a way to build up solidarity – which is not a one-way road).

    Rushing-ahead-obedience is not a strategy that will help anyone – if unions are the natural allies – well, then, let them come; I am waiting for a long time and urgendtly expecting those who “happily support” us
    – but I will not crawl before some “potential” ally.

  • Felix Coeln


    “We need to understand:
    there was never a fight for labour – or “work” – it always was a fight for income!”

  • May 1. was always the perfect opportunity for us basic income activists to introduce the idea to many members of the German labor unions (like DGB & ver.di) and to especially discuss the meaning of »work« with many participants and visitors during the events, that take place in every mayor city in Germany.

    Here are a few impressions from our activities in Cologne …




  • Liane Gale

    As a recent basic income activist and after reading this commentary by Jurgen De Wispelaere and also his forthcoming paper “The Struggle for Strategy: On the Politics of the Basic Income Proposal”, I am getting the impression that the basic income movement really needs to focus on strategy. Even in my little basic income community here in Minnesota, which we started only a month ago, individual members currently favor and promote different approaches to basic income. It really dilutes the effort if we do not have a common message. In addition, it may hurt the whole movement if individuals (or very small groups of individuals) are allowed to make wide-reaching decisions. Does the basic income community have a decision-making process in regards to strategy and, if so, who is currently being invited to these discussion? Again, it is vital, in my opinion that we focus on strategy and internal community building, in which we make sure that wide-reaching decisions are being made democratically and after careful consideration, before going public.

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