by Bill Onasch
Time again for the WIR Labor Day balance sheet. A good way to start is spotlighting a brief holiday blog in the Twin Cities Daily Planet by an old friend.
Labor Day History
He understands us and we can understand him. There are few scholars who warrant such praise but Peter Rachleff earned it through decades of teaching and writing about the history of working people–while finding ways to participate in our contemporary struggles as well. His latest timely gem is Looking back at Labor Day’s turbulent origins.
Peter’s narrative logically begins by examining the pressures that led, six score years ago, to the creation of a national holiday dedicated to those who work. The spectacular growth of industrialization from the Civil War on was marked by both ruthless exploitation of labor and worker resistance that at times led to big strikes and even local rebellions–such as the St Louis Commune examined in the last WIR–often influenced by socialist and anarchist ideas brought to this country by European immigrants.
In 1894, a Democrat “friend of labor” in the White House–who had just used the Army to violently break a rail strike–was eager to divert this persistent radicalization in a way that might also refurbish his grossly tarnished image. What better way than to grant a day of leisure to those whose muscle and nerves needed a break? What better time than the end of summer to encourage those who labor to disperse for a last shot at swimming, fishing, picnicking? That timeline, already in place in some areas of the USA and Canada, seemed far more suitable to Grover Cleveland than the May1 International Labor Day–with its American roots–that was beginning to signal the launch of annual spring worker offensives abroad.
In a few compressed paragraphs Peter also describes how the subsequent celebrations of Labor Day have reflected the ups and downs of class warfare. He concludes,
“As we mark the 120th celebration of ‘Labor Day,’ the labor movement is in an extraordinary period of change. The movement is pressed by changes in the structure of the economy and the organization of work, on the one hand, and by virulent anti-union hostility typified by the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, Walmart and many other corporate giants, on the other. But labor is also energized from within by fast food and retail workers who demand a living wage, immigrants who seek to be recognized for their work and paid appropriately for it, public employees who know that their work contributes to the public’s quality of life and are sick of being scorned in the political pulpits and mass media, college professors who want full-time jobs with economic security and the opportunity to control their own classrooms, and home healthcare and daycare providers who want to throw off their invisibility and be appreciated, in our society, for the important work they perform. A great history lies ahead. Happy Labor Day!”
An early celebration of the holiday on Thursday, featuring readings from historic labor speeches, music and current solidarity was one of the first events held at the repurposed East Side Freedom Library in St Paul. Peter and Beth Cleary are renovating an old Carnegie Library that will be stocked with books, films, and other resources, and offer meeting rooms, for the use of the diverse East Side working class community. You can learn more about this worthy project–and a chance to make a financial contribution–by clicking here.
There are two other important areas of concern I want to touch on before taking a short holiday break.
A Climate for Change
The destructive forces of global capitalism threatening our very biosphere with climate disaster at the same time contributes to a new climate that can nurture resurrection of the American working class movement. A good example is the upcoming People’s Climate March in New York City September 21.
The People’s March comes on the eve of a United Nations gathering where Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will call for a global pact for urgent action to drastically reduce carbon emissions. The March call says,
“With our future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history. We’ll take to the streets to demand the world we know is within our reach: a world with an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities. To change everything, we need everyone on board.”
Granted, this is somewhat vague, expressing a broad sentiment without specific demands for how to win this goal. Somewhat disappointing is there will be no rallies at either the beginning or conclusion of the march, no speeches to help fill in the blanks.
But that’s not much different than the earliest mass marches of the civil rights and antiwar movements in the Sixties–that went on to grow, sharpen their objectives, and had a profound impact.
The People’s March is expected to be big–tens, some think hundreds of thousands. That’s a size not easily buried by the media or ignored by politicians in an election year. It will secure a place for climate activism in public discourse rather than being relegated to the fringe. That alone earns our support for the People’s March.
But more important for the long run is the entrance of substantial components of organized labor in the early stages of what promises to be a growing, visible mass movement. On the national level this includes the biggest transit union, the ATU; the biggest RN union, National Nurses United; and the biggest of all non-teacher unions–the two million strong Service Employees International Union. (The National Writers Union, representing the interests of free lancers, is also on board but is affiliated to the UAW.)
Division, District and Local bodies in other unions are also not just endorsing but actively building the September 21 action. The list in progress includes
From the Teamsters: Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, District Council 16; CWA District 1, Local 1180; Connecticut State Council of Machinists; AFSCME District Council 37; IBEW Local 3; Transport Workers Union Local 100; UAW Region 9. These bodies represent hundreds of thousands of workers–most an easy bus or train ride away from the March site.
The Labor Network for Sustainability has long toiled to help prepare the way for this new opening. A co-founder and current executive director of the Network, Joe Uehlein, has an excellent Labor Day message cross-posted on Common Dreams, Making a Living on a Living Planet. Joe doesn’t fit the starry-eyed tree-hugger stereotype. In his fifty years of rough and tumble of organized labor he held such responsible positions as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, and director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns. In his latest article he writes,
“The future of labor’s growth and vitality will depend on its ability to play a central role in the movement to build a sustainable future for the planet and its people.”
Spot on. As are these further remarks,
“Working people, and communities, have always been the road kill on the path of change. Our nation, our society, has never provided a just transition for working people. This must change. If working people are to support climate protection, then climate protection must mean a way to make a living on a living planet.
“Labor is rightly concerned with our society’s growing inequality. Indeed, American workers face two great crises: global warming and the resulting climate chaos, and the crisis of income inequality and the crushing deficit in family supporting jobs. The good news is, we can solve these two crises with the same set of policies—creating jobs by making the transition to a climate-safe economy.”
In consistently fighting around these two crises we find ourselves confronting one mortal enemy. We’re not in a Pogo comic strip–the enemy is not us. It is true that we all contribute, at least as consumers, to the climate crisis. But this doesn’t make us any more guilty than the nine year old girl inadvertently killing an instructor training her in safe handling of a submachine gun. The class that presently rules makes enormous profits today from climate destruction–and like Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind, frankly don’t give a damn about the future. We have to take power out of their hands.
Our class has to play more than a supporting role in the budding climate movement. We’re the one force that can get the job done. “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn!” Growing awareness of the need for climate justice can reawaken our class identity and a fight for class justice as well.
A Still Inconvenient Truth
An encouraging number of workers and worker organizations are dealing with the issue behind the title of Al Gore’s book and film about climate change. But still to be reckoned with is recognizing and overcoming the unpleasant truth that the twin party political Establishment–including Al Gore–is 100 percent loyal to the One Percent. Even those unions devoting energy to the People’s Climate March, opposing war, standing up for immigrant rights, fighting privatization, working to save the Postal Service, battling for a livable minimum wage, defending public education–all essentially political struggles–are also working hard as usual to elect perfidious Democrat “friends” in the Mid Term elections.
They will have to work harder than ever this time around because the working class majority is far ahead of their leaders in recognizing the scam of this two party ins-and-outs shell game. Never before have these parties, and the institutions of government they control, been held in so much public contempt.
This sentiment broke through in some municipal elections last November with a stunning upset socialist victory in a Seattle City Council race and another razor thin second place finish in a Minneapolis Council contest.
Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant played a leading role in winning a Seattle municipal minimum wage that brings substantial raises to 100,000 low wage workers in that city. Though still small, her party has registered significant growth throughout the country. But while these socialists have won some worthwhile achievements–and earned respect by many–their call for a hundred independent working class candidates in this November election didn’t gain much traction.
We shouldn’t dismiss such campaigns. Even if they only finish third they are useful by introducing more people to alternative solutions to the boss monopoly of politics and help us recover our stolen class identity.
But the fact that Socialist Alternative has so far received more praise than imitation reinforces the long held belief by even many socialists–going back to Eugene V Debs–that the needed sea change in American politics will be first launched by our only existing class based mass organizations–our unions. In short, we need a labor party.
Some readers were part of a once promising Labor Party effort launched in the mid-Nineties at a time when organized labor was furious with Bill Clinton over NAFTA. But the effort never received sufficient material support from a mainstream union leadership that mostly went in to retreat. The Labor Party eventually succumbed to starvation of resources. A good extensive history of this experience was written by the party’s last national officers, Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, Labor Party Time? Not Yet.
NAFTA was bad. But the attacks by the present Democrat administration have been, and continue to be, much worse. Attacks on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; assaults on teacher unions as part of a general undermining of public education; gutting of the US Postal Service; record numbers of deportations of immigrant workers; scaling back of OSHA and USDA protections of workers and consumers; and the undermining of union benefits as part of the signature achievement of this White House–the very un-Affordable Care Act.
And that’s just some of the domestic stuff. The Nobel Peace Prize winning commander-in-chief still has GIs dying in Afghanistan, has resumed bombing in Iraq, used the CIA and armed forces to destabalize Libya, and kept Israel well supplied in their destruction of Gaza. And, yes there have been further NAFTA-like agreements as well.
Of course, if you don’t like what these “friends” have been doing to us you can always turn to the official “opposition”–the cracked tea pots who denounce Obama as a socialist.
This lose-lose trap is why the majority of the working class doesn’t vote. There are even some good people such as my friends in the IWW who don’t vote as a matter of principle. But I believe we must work to do more than snub the class that rules–we have to take political power away from them.
In an article a couple of years ago using a trident metaphor I wrote,
“I believe the class war pursued by the bosses and bankers against us needs to be fought using three distinct tines:
* In the workplace
* In the communities
* In the electoral arena
“While there is some overlap, each has its own constituency, mission, and methods of functioning that need to be respected. On their own, the achievements of each will be tenuous and temporary. Attached to a unifying handle, their synergy can save our world even from the crises that recently led to the Doomsday Clock being advanced perilously closer to Midnight.“
There are always ongoing struggles in the workplace. Sometimes, like with the Fast Food and Retail workers now, they win active support in the working class communities. These communities also at times rally around issues such as racism, as we recently witnessed in Ferguson and Staten Island, and against worker deportations. We expect many to join the People’s Climate March.
But we have no mass party of our own to contest elections–and to also build these other actions. We will not break the chains of class bondage until we forge this missing link. We should begin once more to revive a Labor Party Advocates movement.
Wishing you and yours a safe and happy holiday,
That’s all for this time.
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