Norwegians were celebrating the equivalent of one of their strangest but arguably most creative May 1st Labour Day holidays ever on Friday. With traditional rallies and parades cancelled by the Corona virus threat, workers united online instead and labour leaders delivered digital appeals.
The May Day holiday is often ignored by conservatives but cherished by those keen to celebrate Norway’s social welfare state, which has come in handy indeed during the Corona crisis. With around 400,000 people suddenly out of work, and unemployment rates hitting levels not seen since the 1930s, many were expressing gratitude instead of criticism.
“This is first and foremost a day when we promote our demands about the need for jobs, money and benefits,” Ingunn Gjersted, leader of trade union confederation LO’s chapter in Oslo, told newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this week. “But it’s also a fabulous celebration of being part of a national fellowship, and a very strong feeling of solidarity. It’s a festive day, for being with friends and family and celebrating.”
She was part of organizing this year’s highly unusual format for the holiday, which usually begins with flag-raising, rallies that attract tens of thousands of people and parades that go on for hours. Union members across a wide spectrum from the public and private sectors traditionally march under various national and international slogans, interspersed with band music along the way. There’s lots of partying afterwards.
“In the middle of March we all realized that central city squares and public plazas could be closed down, and we had to find alternative means of celebrating the 1st of May,” Gjersted said, instead of how it usually plays out.
See video from a prior year’s May Day celebrations in Oslo:
Along with chapters in other cities like Stavanger, Trondheim and Fredrikstad, LO in Oslo developed a digital platform (www.1mai.no) that was being used to spread labour-oriented and political appeals and speeches. It even allowed people to “march” in an online parade under the banner they would have chosen in a traditional parade. This year’s slogans ranged from promoting full-time- over part-time work to advocating a six-hour workday, pushing for more affordable housing and boosting pension benefits. International slogans included urging a ban on nuclear weapons, recognizing Palestine as a nation and crushing right-wing extremism.
Union bosses like LO leader Hans Christian Gabrielsen launched his own appeal from a TV studio instead of the podium at Youngstorget in Oslo, this year, telling state broadcaster NRK how “this is very different in so incredibly many ways,” but adding that “we hope to make the best out of this and extend the May 1st message to everyone who has to sit at home this year.” Formally dressed in a suit and red tie, Gabrielsen’s address was dominated by the Corona crisis but praised everyone who’s managed to keep Norway rollling as much as possible after seven weeks of shutdown.
He also took the opportunity to promote even more state compensation to those out of work and businesses sufferering from the shutdown. Gabrielsen called for “adjustments” that would give more compensation to employers so that they can bring their workers back to work. “That can help those laid off get back to work more quickly,” he said, and keep businesses ready to reopen as soon as it’s allowed.
Several top politicians, meanwhile, spoke online from their homes and even a make-shift drive-in theater in Lillestrøm. Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre was also due to speak in mid-afternoon before a parking lot with around 200 cars, whose occupants could pick up his remarks on their smart phones or by tuning in to a special old FM radio channel. “Instead of applauding, they can honk their horns,” Støre chief adviser Jarle Roheim Håkonsen told newspaper Aftenposten. Labour veterans Gro Harlem Brundtland and Thorbjørn Berntsen were being interviewed from their homes, as was former Socialist Left (SV) party leader Kristin Halvorsen.
Marking the day elsewhere
Industrial communities around Norway were clinging to their May Day traditions that go back around 100 years. In the mountain town of Årdal in Sogn og Fjordane, known for its aluminum- and power production, a small group of union leaders paraded quietly down the main street on their way to lay a wreath at the statue known as Rallaren, which honours all those who built up the community over the years.
In the old mining town of Sulitjelma in Nordland, local patriots unrolled banners that have been used in May Day parades for more than a century. This year marked the first time without traditional 1st of May celebrations in the town, but some of the banners were put on display, not least for the benefit of an NRK crew that visited earlier in the week.
“The most important thing is to have a feeling that the day has been marked,” claimed John-Peder Denstad, LO leader in Trondheim. “When we can’t get together and give one another hugs, we have to find alternative ways of creating enthusiasm. We’ll make up for it next year.”