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 (Karl@Widerquist.com).