Defiant rallies for worker rights mark May Day around world

Police detained 70 people in Istanbul as they tried to march

ISTANBUL — Workers and activists marked May Day around the world Monday with defiant rallies and marches for better pay and working conditions.

Police detained 70 people in Istanbul as they tried to march. Garment workers in Cambodia defied a government ban to demand higher wages, and businesses in Puerto Rico were boarded up as the U.S. territory braced for a huge strike over austerity measures. In Paris, police fired tear gas and used clubs on rowdy protesters at a march that included calls to defeat far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

Some May Day events around the world:

FRANCE

A May Day march in Paris turned violent less than a week before the runoff French presidential election as police clashed with a small group of protesters who threw Molotov cocktails at officers.

A few hundred protesters started throwing gasoline bombs and other objects at police at the front end of what started as a peaceful union march in the French capital on Monday.

Police responded with tear gas and truncheons. Riot police clubbed some protesters who were pushed up against a wall on a tree-lined avenue. One police officer was seen spraying a troublemaker in the face.

Four police officers were injured, one seriously burned in the face, Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said, denouncing the “intolerable violence.”

His statement said all would be done to identify and arrest those responsible.

The annual march to celebrate workers’ rights this year included calls to block far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen from winning the presidency during a runoff election on Sunday.

Some of the violent protesters at the May Day event had signs referring to the presidential election and expressing dissatisfaction with both candidates in Sunday’s runoff election.

“Not one or the other; instead it’s the people’s self-defence” read one sign. “Macron=Louis XVI, Le Pen=Le Pen,” read another.

Video showed riot police surrounding the protesters disrupting the march after isolating most of them from the rest of the crowd near the Place de la Bastille. However, some continued to lob firebombs that exploded into flames in the street.

The union activists continued to march separately, although police are interrupting to check bags for gasoline bombs.

PUERTO RICO

Protesters blocked roads and marched in Puerto Rico’s capital to vent their anger over a decade-long economic crisis and looming austerity measures.

Demonstrators denounced the leaders of the U.S. Caribbean territory, blamed their economic troubles on a federal control board overseeing the Puerto Rican government’s finances and demanded an audit to identify those responsible for running up a $70 billion public debt.

The protests affected services at Puerto Rico’s largest public hospital, paralyzed the bus system and forced many businesses to close. Demonstrators also briefly blocked traffic near San Juan’s international airport, prompting some travellers to walk along the highway dragging suitcases.

While the protests began peacefully, toward the end police fired tear gas and smoke bombs and used pepper spray against a small group of protesters who broke several windows of a bank using a pipe and a skateboard. Some in the crowd burned U.S. flags.

A measure that has protected the territory’s public agencies from creditor lawsuits was expiring at midnight as the government struggled to reach a deal with bondholders to restructure part of the debt.

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TURKEY

Police in Istanbul detained 165 people during May Day events around the city, most of them demonstrators trying to march to a symbolic square in defiance of a ban.

A security department statement said 18 other people suspected of planning illegal demonstrations and possible acts of violence Monday were detained in separate police operations.

Turkey declared Taksim Square off-limits to May Day demonstrations for the third year in a row. Police blocked points of entry, allowing only small groups of labour union representatives to lay wreaths at a monument there.

Major trade unions marked the day with rallies at government-designated areas in Istanbul and Ankara. Still, small groups tried to reach the square, leading to scuffles with police.

Taksim holds a symbolic value for Turkey’s labour movement. In 1977, 34 people were killed there during a May Day event when shots were fired into the crowd from a nearby building.

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CUBA

A protester briefly disrupted the start of Cuba’s largest annual political event, sprinting in front of May Day marchers with a U.S. flag before being tackled and dragged away.

President Raul Castro watched along with other military and civilian leaders and foreign dignitaries as the man broke through security and ran ahead of the tens of thousands in the pro-government march.

Plainclothes officers struggled to control the man but eventually lifted him off the ground and hauled him away in front of foreign and Cuban journalists covering the parade.

The protest was a surprising breach of security at a government-organized event where agents line the route.

Castro has said he will step down as president in February, making this his last May Day parade as head of state.

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RUSSIA

Two May Day marches were held in Moscow, both drawing from nostalgia for Soviet times.

First, a crowd that police estimated at about 130,000 people paraded across the cobblestones of Red Square, the site of Soviet-era May Day celebrations. The tradition was revived in 2014 after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and is seen as part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to stoke patriotic feelings.

Marchers, organized by official trade unions, waved the Russian tricolour flag and carried white, blue and red balloons.

The second march was led by the Communists, who over the years have tried to keep the May Day tradition alive. Their march, which skirted Red Square, drew several thousand people.

Many carried red flags with the Soviet hammer and sickle, but there was little honouring of Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin compared to previous years.

The Communist Party still has a faction in the Russian parliament but rarely poses any opposition to the Kremlin.

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SOUTH AFRICA

South African President Jacob Zuma was jeered by labour unionists and his May Day speech was cancelled after scuffles broke out between his supporters and workers chanting for him to step down.

Zuma, who is facing calls to resign after a string of scandals, was expected to call for unity between his ruling party, the African National Congress, and labour unions at the rally in Bloemfontein.

Groups in the crowd booed the president and clashed with his supporters before he could speak.

All speeches scheduled for the event then were cancelled by the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the country’s largest body of unions.

The organization has called for the 75-year-old Zuma to resign.

Zuma once a popular figure among South Africa’s workers, was eventually ushered away by his bodyguards.

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CYPRUS

Greek and Turkish Cypriots marked May Day with a “Rock for Peace” concert in support of talks aimed at reunifying their ethnically divided island.

Monday’s celebrations kicked off with a gathering of hundreds of Greek Cypriot left-wing trade unionists in front of Cyprus’ Finance Ministry to affirm their support for a peace deal that would bring about a united country.

The ambassadors of Palestine and Cuba, as well as the charge d’affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy, were also in attendance.

To the beat of marching bands, union members then marched to the capital’s Ledra Palace checkpoint, where they joined Turkish Cypriot counterparts. The checkpoint connects the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north and the island’s internationally recognized south.

In unison, they entered a soccer field inside the United Nations-controlled buffer zone where Greek and Turkish Cypriot rock acts took to the stage.

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SPAIN

Spain’s two major unions called marches in over 70 cities under the slogan “No More Excuses.” The UGT and CC.OO unions demanded that Spain’s conservative government roll back its labour reforms that made it cheaper to fire workers and increase wages and pensions.

CC.OO general secretary Ignacio Fernandez Toxo said that “Spain has been growing for two years and now it is time for the economy to align itself with the needs of the people.”

He spoke at a march of several thousand people in Madrid, which he led alongside UGT leader Josep Maria Alvarez. Thousands more marched in Barcelona, while other rallies were held in Seville, Valencia and other cities.

Under conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s economy has rebounded and unemployment has dropped from 27 per cent in 2013 to 19 per cent, but that is still the second-highest unemployment rate in the 28-nation European Union behind Greece.

Rajoy thanked Spain’s workers on Twitter: “I appreciate your contribution to the economic recovery. The government is working to create more and better jobs.”

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POLAND

Labour union and left-wing activists appealed for unity in order to oppose Poland’s current conservative government as they marked May Day with a parade in Warsaw.

The rally and a march was by the All-Poland Alliance of Trade Unions and by the Democratic Left Alliance, which lost all parliament seats in the 2015 election that brought the conservative populist Law and Justice party to power.

Sebastian Wierzbicki of the SLD said the left wing needs to protect workers’ rights but also focus on civic rights and human dignity.

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CAMBODIA

Riot police watched carefully as more than 1,000 garment workers defied a government ban on marching to deliver a petition to the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, demanding a higher minimum wage and more freedom of assembly.

The marchers, holding a forest of banners, filled a street a short distance from the parliament complex and advanced noisily until they were stopped by a barricade and lines of police, holding batons, shields and guns capable of firing gas canisters. A standoff of several hours was resolved when a representative from the Assembly came out and accepted the petition.

The workers were from the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union. Among their demands was increasing the minimum wage from $153 to $208 per month. The clothing and footwear industry is Cambodia’s biggest export earner.

The major Cambodian labour unions traditionally have been loosely allied with opposition parties, posing a potential political threat to longtime authoritarian leader Hun Sen.

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GREECE

Several thousand protesters gathered outside Greece’s parliament as unions braced for more austerity measures imposed by bailout lenders.

Two large union-organized rallies were called in Athens on the holiday, with employees at many public services nominally on strike.

As the marches began, government officials prepared for more talks at a central Athens hotel with representatives of bailout creditors as the two sides were near an agreement to maintain draconian spending controls beyond the current rescue program.

The talks had been expected to end Sunday. Future spending cuts will include additional pension cuts and tax increases for Greeks, already hit by seven years of harsh cuts.

Greece’s largest labour union, the GSEE, has called a general strike for May 17 to protest the latest austerity package.

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PHILIPPINES

A few thousand left-wing activists and labourers marched and held noisy rallies to press for higher wages and an end to temporary contractual jobs that deprive workers of many benefits. In sweltering summer heat, the crowds in Manila also protested alleged extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug crackdown.

The activists carried murals of Duterte and President Donald Trump, asking the Philippine leader to stay away from the U.S. president, who has invited Duterte for a U.S. visit. Protest leader Venzer Crisostomo fears an “America First” policy would be disadvantageous to poorer countries like the Philippines. “We would not want Duterte to be in cahoots with Donald Trump in oppressing the country and in implementing policies.”

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TAIWAN

In Taipei, thousands of Taiwanese workers hoisted cardboard signs and banners in a march protesting what they said were unfairly low wages and deteriorating work conditions. A number of them staged a fake funeral procession, carrying a coffin with the words “basic annual pension” written on it, while others waved black flags.

Huang Yu-kai, president of the labour union of the Taiwan High-Speed Rail Corp. and a train conductor, said low wages in Taiwan are “the root of all problems.”

“This is why we take part in this march every year,” Huang said.

President Tsai Ing-wen said in a post on her Facebook page that improvements are being made even if major changes would take time. “Although reform would not be completed in one step, the progress we have made is not small.”

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BANGLADESH

Thousands of garment industry workers in the impoverished South Asian nation gathered to demand better wages and legal protection.

About 4 million people are employed in the country’s garment industry, the second largest in the world. The industry, with about 4,000 factories, earns $25 billion a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe, but working conditions often are grim.

Lovely Yesmin, president of the Readymade Garments Workers Federation, one of several unions representing factory workers, said just increasing salaries is not enough.

She said workers must be provided better living quarters and health benefits, and factories must make provisions so the children of factory workers can be educated.

“These are our demands on the great May Day of 2017,” she said.

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GERMANY

Thousands of people celebrated May Day peacefully in Germany’s capital, but police clashed with far-right demonstrators in the eastern town of Apolda, taking 100 people into custody before declaring the situation under control.

Police told the dpa news agency that about 150 demonstrators who had attended a protest elsewhere started causing problems in Apolda’s town centre after getting off a train. Authorities said they ignored police warnings and started throwing stones and firecrackers at officers.

Meanwhile, several thousand far-left demonstrators marched through Berlin, setting off smoke bombs and firecrackers along their route. The “Revolutionary May 1 Demonstration” was not registered with authorities as required, but police decided to tolerate the evening march.

Primarily dressed in black, the demonstrators chanted slogans like “flood the G20” — referring to the summit of the Group of 20 major economic powers being held in Hamburg this summer.

Some 5,400 police officers, called in from across the country, were on hand.

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PORTUGAL

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Lisbon under the slogan “Value Work and Workers.”

The CGTP-IN union that helped organize the May Day march said in a manifesto that workers must push for “a renegotiation of the (national) debt,” the second-highest in the European Union after Greece despite an improving economy.

Portugal’s national statistics agency reported Friday that the unemployment rate had hit an 8-year low of 9.9 per cent under the current centre-left government. That’s down from the high of 16.2 in 2013.

“I wish Portugal could serve as example,” government worker Jose Goncalves, 42, said while marching in Lisbon. “I have my doubts, but yes, there may be an alternative to the rise of the far right in France, to a state of almost dictatorship in Turkey, or such a dubious situation in Brazil. Workers are still here and willing to fight.”

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VENEZUELA

Venezuelan police and anti-government demonstrators clashed in the streets of the capital as an intensifying protest movement opposing socialist President Nicolas Maduro entered its second month.

Opposition supporters sought to march on government buildings in downtown Caracas, but police blocked their path, as they have done more than a dozen times in four weeks of near-daily protests. Officers launched tear gas and chased people away from main thoroughfares as the peaceful march turned into chaos.

Some demonstrators threw stones and gasoline bombs and dragged trash into the streets to make barricades.

A separate government-sponsored march celebrating May Day went off without incident.

The Associated Press


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