By Peter Gellert
MEXICO CITY — Mexican workers marked May Day with huge demonstrations in the country's capital. Workers have plenty to demonstrate about.
At least 70 % of the population lives in poverty, the price of the basic foods and service basket rose 22.4% in the first four months of 1997 alone, and the minimum wage — earned by more than a third of the work force — is insufficient to meet the most basics needs.
Industrial workers in Mexico earn in a day what their US counterparts take home in an hour.
This year's demonstration was of major political significance because, for the first time, it was jointly called by two important currents in the labour movement.
One is the Forum current, which involves powerful contingents such as the electrical, telephone, aviation, teachers, social security employees and steelworkers unions. The two dozen Forista unions are in the process of breaking with official, corporatist unionism and have taken an initial stand against neo-liberal policies, although some its leaders have ties with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The other is the May 1 Inter-Union Coordinating Committee, which unites more radical labour groupings, as well as social and political organisations from the student, women's and urban popular movements, supporters of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas and Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas' Party of the Democratic Revolution.
The Foristas and the May 1 Inter-Union Coordinating Committee held simultaneous marches that converged in downtown Mexico City for joint rallies.
The demonstration had as its central demands: trade union democracy, autonomy and independence; for a renewed labour movement; for a national program to recover lost wage levels; against privatising the national health system; for a just peace in Chiapas; against modifications to the federal labour law; respect for national sovereignty and against the US immigration law; defend individual rights for workers.
The march was a resounding success, with about half a million participants. Along fashionable Reforma Avenue, demonstrators shouted pro-Cuba slogans, burned any US flags flown by hotels along the way and reaffirmed the idea of May Day as an occasion to raise both labour demands and general social and political slogans.
A recurring theme was the need to form a new labour confederation.
For the third consecutive year, the official labour movement, formally affiliated to the PRI, cancelled its traditional May Day parade, openly admitting its fear that worker discontent would overtake the leadership.
The Congress of Labour and the Mexican Workers' Confederation held an indoor, invitation-only rally. Despite the strictly controlled attendance, speeches by official labour leaders were greeted by boos and heckling.
A crowd estimated at more than 1.3 million people marched to the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana on May 1 in a huge show of support for the Cuban Revolution and socialism. Fidel Castro addressed the crowd. The marchers denounced the US economic blockade.
A major theme of this year's celebration was the memory of Ernesto Che Guevara, a central leader of the revolution who sought to extend revolutionary change throughout Latin America, Africa and the Third World. Che was murdered 30 years ago by the Bolivian government.
The trade union movement estimated that 2 million workers mobilised across Japan to protest against high prices and lack of housing.
In Germany, more than 100,000 marched in protest at rising unemployment, right-wing extremism and racism against migrant workers.
More than 100,000 rallied in Istanbul against the policies of the Turkish government. Workers condemned the government's links with right-wing death squads, organised crime and US security agencies.
In South Korea, riot police attacked thousands of workers and students following the May Day rally in Seoul. Police used tear gas to stop members of the militant Korean Confederation of Trade Unions from marching through the capital.