The Spirit of 21st Century American Labor
June Watson: International Representative, United Auto Workers
Ready to Rumble!
Oganize! Build Power! Win Justice!
Last Saturday the great Unions observed their annual Labor Day celebrations as they marched, banners unfurled down Fifth Avenue, past the grand edifices where the Robber Barons who fancied themselves “Captains of Industry” once resided. It was the ruthless actions these men employed against American workers that spurred the growth of the Union Movement in the US and inspired the creation of “Labor Day.” The first parade celebrating working people was held in 1882, when workers were little more than industrial serfs.
These associations of working people were barely legal in most of the country and were regarded as a conspiracy against the rights of private by the capitalist class, the plutocrats who did not hesitate to employ thugs, private police such as the Pinkerton agency, and strike breakers composed of men who were outside of the particular association that was fighting for better wages and working conditions for their members. Many times these strike breakers were black, because the racist policies of the white dominated Unions denied them membership; which meant they were prevented from earning their daily bread in closed union shops.
Booker T. Washington
He Opposed White Only Unions!
That’s why Booker T. Washington, the most powerful Afro-American leader at the turn of the 20th Century, opposed unionization and counseled black workers to view enlightened capitalists like Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald, who sympathized with black people and were generous in their philanthropy, as their true friends. These racial practices of white labor manufactured opponents even from blacks who were socialist and thus their natural allies. Yet enlightened Afro-Americans clearly understood that objectively white and black workers had the same enemies and interests as a class. That’s why men like A. Phillip Randolph of The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, whose founding is one of the most heroic stories of the labor movement, continued to work with white unionists and eventually became a top official of the giant AFL-CIO.
Nevertheless, the union movement with all its flaws raised all American workers from modern serfs to empowered actors by virtue of the recognition of their right to bargain collectively with the passage of the Wagner Act of 1937. The gains made by labor unions benefits all workers – whether they belong to a union or not. Virtually every benefit American workers now take for granted – sick leave, paid vacations, eight hour work weeks, medical insurance, workplace safety regulations, abolition of child labor, minimum wage, seniority rules, job security, grievances procedures, etc – are the result of union bargaining with the capitalists!
That’s why the Republican shills of the Plutocrats are trying their best – using every sort of lies, subversion and dirty tricks – to destroy unionism in America. It is not for nothing that Billionaires like the Koch brothers, the very incarnation of evil, are spending millions to thwart the efforts by unions to organize workers, and is now targeting the public sector in an attempt to destroy the labor base for the Democratic Party! There is no question that Unions enhance the lives of workers, and President Eisenhower, one of the greatest Republicans, said that unions were a legitimate part of American life and any political party who opposed it would have no future in America.
It is the responsibility of labor to make Ike’s prediction come true by mobilizing the working class against anti-labor Republican shills for plutocrats like the Koch brothers, who are determined to return America to the days of sweat shops. We have seen labor flexing its muscles in Wisconsin and Ohio; now the battle must be waged nationwide. What we need is a new invigorated labor movement. Ironically, a great part of the problem with mobilizing unionized workers for a real fight is that the leadership of organized labor succeeded too well!
American workers have come to expect benefits that are the result of bloody battles in the past, and they have been so well compensated that blue collar workers began to think of themselves as “middle class.” The term “working class” has practically disappeared from our public discourse, so unionized American workers are suffering an identity crisis. It goes without saying that if you don’t know who you are you cannot know what your demands should be. Before his death the late president of the Machinist Union, William Winpisinger, said the AFL-CIO made a serious mistake when they removed the term “class struggle” from their language.
A visionary labor leader who fought the Nazi’s in World War II, “Wimpy” as he was affectionately known to his union brothers, help rid his union of racist policies, was a board member of the Democratic Socialists of America and spoke out against the increasing concentration of wealth in the upper class. Wimpy also called for the US to develop alternative energy sources in order to free the US economy from the tyranny of the oil cartels. He recognized the growing trend of what we now call “globalization” and denounced it as danger to the security and prosperity of American workers.
American workers didn’t fight on the issue then – I mean a real life and death fight that would have included a national strike – and now American corporations have exported much of the manufacturing sector overseas, employing over ten million workers abroad at substandard wages while millions of Americans are unemployed! And to add insult to injury, after the American taxpayers – which include millions of workers – bailed out the private sector they are now sitting on a couple of trillion dollars which they refuse to invest in this country unless we give them even more obscene concessions in terms of tax cuts! Yet inequality in the distribution of wealth is the worst on record.
Wimpey’s 1984 warning reads like prophecy now:
“Worker rights are indivisible from human rights. It should be implicit in all the GATT agreements, in every unilateral trade agreement we have with anybody. How can an American worker maintain an American standard of living if he has to pit himself against a rice and beans, twenty-some a week native somewhere in the world, who is forced to work for starvation conditions of that kind? And produce for our market? And never develops the indigenous consumer power to have us sell him anything? That’s exactly what happens to them.”
It is time for American workers – white and blue collar – to stand and fight! First by organizing against the Republican reactionaries in Congress who refuse to vote for President Obama’s Jobs bill, and working to elect more people to the congress who think like Senator Bernie Sanders, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and members of the Black and Progressive Caucuses. An indispensable element in the growth of any movement is a clear and present enemy who is easily identifiable. In the President’s jobs bill we have the issue that will force everybody to show where they stand, and labor should organize vigorously against their enemies! That is the spirit we need from the working class, a fighting spirit! And progressive international unions like the United Auto Workers are ready to lead this great struggle!
Labor’s Day In New York City
Fighting the Plutocrats!
1932: The Way We Were!
Organized Labor Today!
Still fighting the Plutocrats!
Representin on Fifth Avenue
Elevator Mechanics: Lifting us Higher!
Stepping Out For Labor
If You Hear A Little Noise
It’s Just the Elevator Boys!
For Worker’s Power!
Teamsters: The Real Tough Guys of Labor!
Yo! Hoffa was Right…That’s what it is!!
It’s A Family Affair!
Fighting for their Future
A Different Story at the Labor Day Parade 1909
Fighting Against Child Labor Back in the Day!
How far we have come…but some would take us back!
With a Clash Of Cymbals!
And A Bang Of the Drums!
Led by the UAW Labor Marches On!
“Forward Ever!” “Backward Never”
The Spirit Of Jose Marti: Poet Liberator of Cuba
Blessed the Marchers with his Fighting Soul!
At the Labor Day Parade circa 2011
Member Local 18, District Councol 37, Painters, Plasterers and Allied Trades
Indefatigable Defender of the Working Class!!
On Fifth Avenue, New York City
At the Labor Day Parade
September 9, 2011