Signs of the Beginning of the End of the Long Retreat of Labor

Six years ago, I organized a bus from the Albany area to attend the “Million Worker March,” which was an attempt by longshore local ILWU Local 10 and some activist African-American union leaders to present labor’s demands during the 2004 election year.  That rally was not supported by the AFL-CIO and of course fell far short of a million workers in attendance.  Liberal panic was in full swing as almost everyone rallied behind the Kerry presidential campaign.  The MWM was a noble failure, one I am not sorry to have supported.

Six years later, with the Democrats having had two years to carry out an enormous “mandate” following Obama’s blowout election of 2008, the AFL-CIO and its allies like the NAACP found it necessary to rally the troops to present labor’s agenda in an election year that finds deep disappointment in the ranks about the Democrats in power.

The “One Nation” leaders are hoping that the 200,000 or so who boarded buses for the DC rally will be energized to pull the Democrats’ fat out of the fire in time for the congressional election in November.

Mr. Obama, End These Fucking War!
Health Care Is NOT Done
Immigrant Rights
Wage Cuts Don't Work
Photo by Jon Flanders

Whether this attempt will be successful or not I have no idea, but I think that the pictures I took at the event show that the activists and workers who attended this rally shared the Million Worker March desire to not just cheer for the Democrats, but to make demands on them.  This was articulated most clearly from the stage by Harry Belefonte, the singer and civil rights era icon, who forthrightly condemned Obama’s Afghanistan war escalation.  When he did this, the silence that enveloped the grounds was quite striking.  There were no boos however.

Unlike the earlier Glenn Beck rally, the social composition of this event was heavily populated by virtually every minority group except perhaps the “model minority,” the Asians.  There was a striking immigrants-rights participation by workers dressed in prison orange, handcuffed, with signs supported immigration reform.  Cameras surrounded their passage through the crowd.

Speaking of prisons, this is the first DC rally that I have attended where the infamous linked iron fences, “protest pens,” made an appearance.  These affronts to peaceful assembly are now almost always used in New York City.  I will never forget how we were trapped in them during the huge 2003 protest against the Iraq war in the streets of Manhattan.

Broad steps normally open near the front of the Lincoln Memorial grounds were blocked off, you were forced into narrow corridors, and the various unions were each given their own “pen,” where they could not be infected by another union’s presence, I suppose.  At one point, on the side of the rally where I was, the police suddenly and inexplicably closed off all passage, to the anger and dismay of the crowd.  (I have some good video footage of this that I will post shortly.)

Clearly from the union leadership’s view, they were just trying to fire up their activists for what they consider a crucial election, in the face of some serious demoralization in the ranks, given the failure of the Democrats to pass labor’s top priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, and given the terrible economic situation facing millions of workers either unemployed or fearful of unemployment, while thirty years of wage stagnation hit home.

Nonetheless, as evidence from the attendees showed, the fact that the leadership had to do what they didn’t do in 2004 — support a mass mobilization of the ranks — gave the folks on the ground a chance to make demands, and to feel their power, even in a small, one-day-event way.  This in my opinion will sow some seeds for the future, as the overall condition of the capitalist world economy continues to worsen, at the workers’ expense.

On my bus were leaders and activists from IUE/CWA 81359, who despite their rough treatment by their employer Momentive Performance Materials, with wage and benefit cuts hitting them hard, have maintained their resistance and have deepened their understanding of the union structures that hold them back.

In a number of union leadership elections — the huge TWU 100 in New York City, Teamster locals there, and most recently the Amalgamated Transit Union — we have already seen reform candidates who propose fighting the employers’ attacks winning elections.  Even in perhaps the oldest and most conservative union in the US, the venerable Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, insurgent candidate Tom Brennan stands ready to depose the ancien régime there, after the members resoundingly affirmed their desire for direct election of top officers.

At the Labor Notes‘ well-attended reception after the rally, a Washington, DC insurgent candidate for the teachers union told of how the teachers took down a mayor trying to impose Obama’s “Race to the Top” version of education reform.

It all points to signs that the long retreat of labor, which has been the experience of my entire working life, is beginning to end.  This is what I took away from my day in the Washington, DC sunshine on October 2nd.

Jon Flanders Jon Flanders is a member and former president of IAM LL 1145 and a member of the Troy Area Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

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