Speech from Branch Secretary Steve North, International Workers Memorial Day 2020

Below is a transcript of the speech delivered by our Branch Secretary Steve North during the Salford City Council International Workers Memorial Day commemoration on Tuesday 28th April 2020.

Thank You City Mayor and Thank You Councillor Hinds.

Please can I start by following you in paying tribute to the late Councillor John Ferguson. He was always a friend to the unions and we miss his presence at this event.

On International Workers Memorial Day, we say “Remember the Dead. Fight for the Living.”

We start with “Remember the Dead” because before anything else, International Workers Memorial Day is an act of remembrance – of memory.

Memory, like all thoughts and emotions, is first experienced as an individual process- as a private act. Our own private grief for the loved ones we have lost. A personal moment to remember their face, their voice and the times we spent with them. This part is crucial in ensuring that nobody becomes a statistic.  So when we commence our one minute silence shortly, I would first ask you to think of the faces, the voices and the lives of those you knew.

But we all experience loss and as humans we are social creatures, who depend on each other for comfort and strength at our darkest times. We remember those we personally knew, but also those who others knew – because we know their loss feels very much like ours. We all have the feelings of loss in common. On International Workers Memorial Day, those we remember create a more specific commonality. We are remembering those who were lost because of their work – because of their contribution to our society.

We remember the factory workers, the construction workers, those in retail and refuse, in transport and agriculture. And yes, this year more than ever, we remember those in health and social care. If the pandemic were a burning building, in which our loved ones were trapped, these would be the people rushing in to save them.

Yet, in this analogy, the rescuers would not be fire fighters; brave and heroic, but nonetheless properly equipped. No, they would bee the person passing by, who crosses the road and runs into the blaze – again and again – risking more each time because they have no protection.

This is why International Workers Memorial Day cannot simply be about remembering the dead, and why it must also be about fighting for the living.

I don’t know how many of you watched “Panorama” last night. It was about the lack of protection afforded to NHS staff during this pandemic. I have spent the last six weeks listening to frightened workers, but there was one line that hit me directly in the chest, like a well placed punch. It was from an NHS worker who said, “They call us heroes, so it is OK when we die.”

Key workers are heroes. But that does not mean they should be martyrs.

They need protection. They need PPE. They need access to testing. They don’t want us to remember them fondly when they are dead – individually or collectively. They want us to keep them alive.

So, as you move through the one minute silence, I would ask you to move on from memory and turn your focus to how we do that – how we keep them alive – and what role you can play, as an individual, or collectively, with your colleagues, through your union or political party.

And then ask yourself what you will do to ensure that their value is not forgotten once we get through this. Just as those who came through the Second World War refused to go back to the poverty of the 1930s, these key workers should and will reject the grinding austerity they have lived under too long and demand their own “land fit for heroes”. We must all help them in that collective struggle – or all our claps, our tears and our tributes will have been for nothing.

Thank You for observing International Workers Memorial Day. Please do remember the dead, but please also help us fight like Hell for the living!