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Alex Villa
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Erster Mai (International Workers' Day)

May 01, 2021

An sculpture of a punk human sitting next to an Earth globe, in the streets of Kreuzberg, Berlin

There is something in the air of Berlin every 1st of May. The city smells of a yearning for justice and baseline equality. Today is May Day.

This day marks the celebration of International Workers' Day. It was established by the Marxist International Socialist Congress in the XIX century, and to this day, it keeps on being s a remembrance of international workers' rights, a day that is commemorated on May 1st in a big majority of the world.

In German, this celebration is called Tag der Arbeit. the fundamentally uprising spirit of this celebration wakes up the socially conscious spirit a city like Berlin, particularly in some of its most left-leaning neighborhoods like Kreuzberg, my own kiez.

It’s hard to even find the right words to describe the grittiness that Berlin exudes today - it’s moving, it contains both beauty and tragedy.

As a lot of things in Germany on this day, it is simultaneously complex to navigate and contagious. The paradox of chaos trying to find a place among order.

The streets have music on May Day, there is also violence. This day features pretty much all the duality that defines this Stadt ("city" in German).

Street posters for the demonstrations of May 1st in Kreuzberg, Berlin

Today I took a long walk around my neighborhood with a friend. The city is still under lockdown and curfew during the COVID-19 pandemic. But we knew that today, we needed to reclaim the streets...whichever street. Even if only for a moment.

For some of us, our primary act of rebellion for the day was something as harmless as trespassing a bottle of beer through the polizei barricades (there were areas where bottles were forbidden - drinking was still legal).

For others, rebellion meant a more violent form of rioting.

Witnessing the demonstrations and spirit of the city, among conversations about the meaning of May Day, in the midst of grittiness, was a very ironic circumstance for me: I am a tech worker, freelancing remotely for an American company. Choosing to work for this company means I am giving up any labour rights that Germany could offer. I take care of my own health insurance and pension, I have less vacation/bank holiday days, if I was let go tomorrow, I wouldn't be able to access any unemployment insurance, neither would I have any sort of right to a severance payment. This all balances out economically, but, what is the limit to economical compensation being good enough that justifies letting go of the baseline of social security that the society you live in has by default?

This is a big cognitive dissonance for me tonight.

The idea of "workers' rights" or "labour laws" has sadly been successfully demonized by libertarianism and neoliberalism in North America. This, of course, affects mostly the US, but leaks into other countries across the world. Many people frown upon the idea of "unions" or labour laws. They are chased by the "communist" stigma, most people tend to see them as blockages that cause inconveniences and lock processes that would help society "advance" (spoiler alert: blocking the common interests of employees only helps those in power).

Street art and demonstration posters in Kreuzberg

Many would also believe that "labour rights" only apply to people that do "labour labour". Physical work, blue collar workers, bus drivers, factory workers...not people who sit in the computer all day. And I believe that perception to be fundamentally wrong.

Knowledge workers, people who spend most of their day doing labour in a computer (marketers, developers, designers, community managers, accountants...you name it), we may not do as much physical labour, but as Seth Godin defined in The Knowledge Project podcast:

...today's labour is mostly emotional labour. And the definition of emotional labour is: "showing up even when you don't want to, emotional labour is smiling when we are grimacing, emotional labour is being kind to a costumer that is not being kind to us"

And perhaps this is why an entire generation (millennials), ended up becoming the burn out generation. Emotional labour causes fatigue, it leads us to the point where we want to give up. We have not been able to acknowledge that we should get to choose what we pour our emotional labour into.

What are the best working conditions? I wish we had more global conversations about it. The internet and globalization has given us the unique opportunity to compare these conditions, understand how they affect and benefit different types of society, and learn together.

All humans deserve working conditions that allow for enough psychological safety to feel comfortable enough to point out things that you do not agree with within your organization, offer your ideas and be able to contribute organically, because that is how we can best move forward.

All humans deserve working conditions where, even if we were fired tomorrow, we would have at least some severance and an unemployment insurance.

All humans deserve access to a health insurance that will not be jeopardized if they loose a specific job.

Emotional labour work should ideally happen under conditions that ensure the social safety of the people building the products and systems that are feeding the biggest worldwide economies.

Many tech companies think that productivity benefits from having more workers caring less about the non-technical side of tech (hello Basecamp).

And perhaps, at the end of the day, treating your workers in an utilitarian fashion always backfires.

Because of the fast paced nature of tech, the downsides of utilitarianism show up even quicker there than in other industries (don’t you want people to “move fast and break things” after all?).

I hope we continue on celebrating International Workers' Day. It is a day for reflection, it is a good day to remember that people can (and should) have the power.

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