Million Worker March: El movimiento obrero norteamericano en víspera electoral
Yosef M, desde Estados Unidos
Celeste Murillo, especial para PI
Especial - Panorama Internacional
The Million Worker March:
North American Labor on the Eve of the Elections
On Sunday, October 17, a brilliantly sunny, warm day, some thousands of workers gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for the Million Worker March (MWM). The signs and banners they carried made it clear they were demonstrating against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Most of the demonstrators were trade unionists; many people at the MWM were black or Hispanic. The “March” was actually a rally, as earlier plans for a march between two points were abandoned. The official demands and mission statement of the MWM, which was organized by a layer of dissident trade union leaders, never mentioned the U.S. war against Iraq, since John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, is committed to a U.S. victory in Iraq.
The MWM had an impressive list of sponsors, including the San Francisco Labor Council, the California State Association of Letter Carriers (50,000 strong), the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Building Trades Council, the Teamsters National Black Caucus, the Troy and Albany New York Labor Councils, the ILWU West Coast Longshore Division, 11 locals and 2 district councils (representing over 125,000 workers) of AFSCME (government workers), NALC (letter carriers) Branch 214, Local 535 of the SEIU (service sector workers), Teamsters Local 808, TWU (transit workers) Local 100, UTU (transportation workers) Local 1741, Local 1145 of the IAM (machinists), the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the National Immigrant Solidarity Network, and CWA (communication workers) Local 9410, as well as dozens of other groups.
The March organizers hoped that 100,000 people would attend, but the actual number of participants was much smaller, somewhere between some hundreds and 7,000 - 10,000. I was at the rally site from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., and, if there were 10,000 people there I did not see them, nor do they appear in the pictures I took. Earl Silbar, a leftist who spoke from the platform of the rally, said the crowd appeared to be about 7,000 people; maybe, but looking at the same crowd from a different angle, I thought perhaps 2,000 were there.
The lack of participation in the MWM is puzzling. The organizers announced that the Washington, D.C. police had refused to allow several busses to unload marchers at the rally site, in front of the Lincoln Memorial, so that a few thousand people were prevented from being at the rally. As a comrade pointed out to me, the initiative for the MWM came from California, and many who might have marched, could not make it to the East Coast. Earl Silbar, who made one of the better speeches at the rally, wrote that. “The AFL-CIO leaders actually stopped many workers from even hearing about the March, let alone [participating].”
The two largest organizations on the U.S. left, the Democratic Socialists (DSA) and the International Socialists (ISO) ignored the march. The DSA has endorsed the pro-war multi-millionaire Democrat John Kerry for president, while the ISO is doing everything it can to build the campaign of the bourgeois pacifist Ralph Nader. When asked if he supports the rights of immigrants without documents to remain in the U.S. (“legalization”), Nader replied, “I don’t like the idea of legalization because then the question is how do you stop the next wave and the next?”
The speeches at the rally reflected a variety of views. Speakers were not permitted to campaign for any Democrat directly, so that Jesse Jackson, the Democrat who planned to be the shill (el complice) for Kerry, canceled his appearance at the March. Some speakers indirectly advocated a vote for the Democrats, while others called on workers to repudiate both big bourgeois parties, and one speaker even called for a fight for socialism.
What was missing from the platform of the rally was any explanation of how concretely to go beyond the bourgeois parties. No one explained that the first step towards workers’ self-emancipation is a principled, permanent break with Democrats, precisely the step the left in the U.S. can never bring itself to take. No speaker that I heard called for the organization of a revolutionary workers party to defeat the Democrats and overthrow capitalist exploitation. No one emphasized that our liberation is utterly in our hands, and that, to win anything, workers have to take it all.
* * *
"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
Senior Bush advisor quoted by Ron Suskind
in The New York Times Magazine
There are plenty of reasons that North American labor should be on the march; the reality capitalism has created for U.S. workers today is a nightmare. Millions of jobs have been downsized, so that some workers are fired, while others face speed-up. Even highly-trained technical workers can find their jobs “outsourced.” A lifetime of labor for the same employer does not guarantee any retirement at all: as large corporations go bankrupt, their employees simply lose all the money they had put aside during the course of their careers. (1)
Women and people of color find themselves without any protection against discrimination on the job as affirmative action protections are dismantled with the blessing of the Federal government. Of course, welfare has been abolished, so the families of the poor are thrown on their own resources, in an impossible situation where they must work and do childcare at the same time. Millions of immigrants who lack the proper documents are paid inadequate wages for the hard work that guarantees comfort and convenience for the rest of us; immigrant workers constantly run the risk of deportation. 20,000 workers a year are dismissed and blacklisted for trying to organize unions.
Millions of women who work are paid only two-thirds of what men receive for comparable labor. In addition to being sexually harassed, women face discrimination on the job if they have children or become pregnant, and their health is endangered as their right to reproductive choice is taken away, again with the blessing of the Federal government.
When workers decide to fight, their chances of winning are seriously compromised by the leadership of the unions, the only class organizations U.S. labor has. The San Francisco hotel strike, which was organized in a completely incompetent manner from the start, shows this. On September 29, leaders of Local 2 of UNITE HERE called out a mere fraction of hotel workers in the Bay Area to picket four hotels. As if fighting with greatly reduced forces were not enough, the union leadership proceeded to handicap the hotel workers further: picket captains put down tape lines on the sidewalks in front of the hotel, lines picketers were not allowed to step over, so that scabs and customers could continue to use the hotel, as if there were no strike! One picketer commented that the union leadership seemed determined to teach the picketers that labor cannot win.
The hotel owners, seeing that the union had no intention of waging a serious battle, locked out the remaining 2,600 unionized hotel workers, so that 4,000 workers now run the risk of losing their jobs, thanks to the UNITE HERE leadership, which called the workers out just to pressure local Democratic politicians to make hotel management come to an agreement with the workers. As plenty of experience has shown, relying on the Democrats leads to defeat. The only hope for the hotel workers now is a general strike by the 80,000 trade unionists represented by the San Francisco Labor Council. (2)
Given the ability of union leaders to organize defeats even when workers are eager to fight the bosses, it is not surprising that trade unionism in the U.S. is continuing a twenty-year decline. In 1983, unions represented 20% of U.S. workers. In 2003, unions represented only 12% of workers in the U.S., that is,
15,800,000 workers, a loss of 369,000 in just 12 months, and less than in 1995 when John Sweeney, who leads the AFL-CIO, promised the unions “millions of new members.” U.S. unions represent a mere 8.2% of private sector workers, a 50% decline in only 20 years. The percentage of union membership in the U.S. is lower than in any advanced capitalist country, except for France. (3)
The constant defeats that working people face have real consequences: average hourly earnings are growing at only 2% a year, the lowest rate in four decades; while the cost of housing, health care, transportation and education are rising sharply, workers’ wages are at near-stagnation. Eight million of us are unemployed, and, if we count the under-employed and those who no longer look for work, the total rises to 13 million, nearly 10% of the workforce. (4)
The decline of union power in the US is accompanied by the growth of poverty, the transformation of the working class into an underclass. 45,000,000 people in this country are without health insurance, an increase of 1,400,000 in just two years. In the last four years, 4,300,000 people in the US have fallen below the poverty line, over a million a year on average; in 2003 alone, 1,300,000 people found themselves among the 35,900,000 people in the US who live in poverty, 12.5% of our population. Poverty among children is at its highest point in a decade, 12,900,000, 17.6% of all children. 24.4% of African Americans face poverty, nearly twice the national rate. (5)
Just as workers are prevented from fighting back by the union leadership, so also the U.S. political system offers us no way to change things. Since February 2004, disapproval of the occupation of Iraq has been at 50% or more in the U.S., as measured by the ABC News/Washington Post Poll. The same source reports that in the last eight months, between 54% and 65% of us held that the U.S. is bogged down in Iraq.
According to the Harris Poll, 55% of those asked last month, agreed that what the U.S. government told us before the Iraq war about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and Iraq's links to Al Qaeda was generally misleading; in the most important finding, the Harris Poll announced that, when given a choice between keeping a large number of U.S. troops in Iraq “until there is a stable government there” (in other words, indefinitely), or bringing most U.S. troops home in the next year, between 51% and 56% of those asked in the last six months, favored bringing the troops home within a year. (6)
The antiwar sentiment of millions of people in this country finds no expression in the campaigns of the two big bourgeois parties. To support the Democrat Kerry, peace advocates must disregard Kerry’s post-debate call for “victory in Iraq,” as well as overlooking his vote in the U.S. Senate authorizing Bush to go to war in the first place. Then there is the issue of Kerry’s own personality: researcher Edward Luttwak recently observed, “In the televised debates, when President Bush spoke of ‘defeating terrorism’, Kerry invariably spoke of ‘killing the terrorists’. This was not just an electoral pose: the words accurately reflect the character of the man . . . he is a fighter, and a ferocious one. . . . Perhaps The Guardian and its readers should take a close look at those pictures of Kerry with his shotgun after last week's goose shoot: there goes a genuine American hawk, red in tooth and policy.” (7) Kerry’s own party, the Democrats, acting both legally and illegally, using physical disruption and intimidation, has succeeded in keeping the bourgeois pacifist Nader off the ballot next week in at least 15 states, to ensure that sentiment for peace, having been silenced during the campaign, finds no expression in the election results. The two big bourgeois parties and their candidates are interchangeable; the bourgeois press is so completely tame that it refuses to pursue photographic evidence that Bush the incumbent cheated during the presidential debates by wearing an apparatus that allowed him to be prompted through an earphone. (8) As the situation in Iraq unravels completely, with every month, if not every week, bringing new horrors, the contest between the two war hawks Bush and Kerry assumes an air of unreality. Anyone who remembers Vietnam knows that the U.S. military will eventually withdraw when the burden of dead and wounded becomes too great even for politicians to bear, but until that point is reached, all the Democrats and Republicans can offer is more aggression, carnage and suffering.
The only way forward for U.S. workers is through the construction of a revolutionary workers party; such a party will transform the unions by challenging the traditional union leadership (who are faithful servants of the exploiters and no friends of labor) and undertaking the mammoth task of organizing the vast majority of private-sector workers who are now without union representation. Our revolutionary workers party will also challenge the exploiters politically; it will break the bourgeois monopoly over U.S. politics and unite the entire working class in struggle against repression at home and military intervention abroad, and when, at last, we march on Washington, D.C., it will be for the purpose of transferring power in society to those who toil, “without whose brain and labor not a single wheel would turn.”
October 28, 2004
 This paragraph and the next two are based on Greg Butler’s apt description of the situation U.S. workers face.
 Thanks to Richard Mellor for tireless up-to-the-minute reporting and commentary on the San Francisco hotel strike.
 Statistics on union membership are courtesy of John Peterson.
 Earning and employment figures are courtesy of John Malden.
 Statistics on poverty were reported by Harold Meyerson in The Washington Post and by CNN Money, on-line.
 Public opinion about the war in Iraq is courtesy of pollingreport.com.