By Madeleine Baran
As union activists prepare for the October Million Worker March in Washington, DC, the AFL-CIO continues to distance itself from the event, exacerbating tensions between organizers who want to demonstrate for major economic reforms and those who want to focus on electoral politics.
A diverse group of union leaders and rank-and-file members are organizing the march to demand a series of major labor reforms, including universal health care, a living wage, and the cancellation of NAFTA and other “free trade” agreements.
“The time has come to mobilize working people for our own agenda,” the organizers wrote in a statement on their website, www.millionworkermarch.org. “Let us end subservience to the power of the privileged few and their monopoly of the political process in America.”
Despite the organizer’s pro-labor agenda, the AFL-CIO has refused to endorse the march, arguing that the group needs to focus on electing John Kerry in the November presidential election. In June, according to march organizers, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney ordered a memo sent to State Federations and Central Labor Councils asking them not to sponsor or provide resources to the march. “The AFL-CIO is not a co-sponsor of this effort and we will not be devoting resources or energies toward mobilizing demonstrations this fall,” the memo said. “We think it is absolutely critical that we commit the efforts of our labor movement to removing George W. Bush from office.”
Other labor leaders also expressed skepticism. “We’re not against [the march], but we think that the time could be spent more appropriately,” Gerald McEntee, president of the 1.5-million member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) told the Chicago Tribune.
At a recent AFL-CIO executive council meeting in Chicago, march organizers protested outside, chanting, “AFL-CIO, we’re ready, let’s go!” in hopes of convincing the trade federation to endorse the event, the Tribune reports. They were unsuccessful.
Although no national AFL-CIO member union has issued an endorsement, the march has support from individual AFL-CIO members and other local unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the 2.7 million-member National Education Association, and progressive notables like Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Danny Glover.
Organizers are calling for a massive grassroots effort to attract hundreds of thousands of workers from all over the country.
The public debate highlights the growing tension between members of the labor movement who strongly back John Kerry’s bid for the presidency and those who argue that the AFL-CIO should not be so enthusiastic about the Democratic Party. The latter group points out that the candidate supported NAFTA, Clinton-era welfare cutbacks, and wants to send additional troops to Iraq.
“We need not hand politicians a blank check so they can soft soap us at election time and destroy our jobs, benefits and social services all the time in between,” the organizers wrote in a statement released in response to Sweeney’s memo. In the statement, posted on the group’s web-site, organizers argued that, on several issues like poverty, the high prison rates for young black men, anti-union organizing laws and the war in Iraq, a Democratic presidential victory will not usher in significant changes.
Organizers also called the lack of AFL-CIO support “unprecedented,” and added that the decision not to endorse the march went “over the heads of significant sectors of... labor, anti-war, community and inter-faith organizations.”
Clarence Thomas, a longshoreman with Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is one of the march’s leaders. “The labor movement doesn’t want this to happen because it’s a rank-and-file, bottom-up thing,” he told the Tribune.
Many argue that the labor movement has lost touch with ordinary workers, and point to the continuing decline of union membership. They say that the revitalization of unions can only happen through a broad social movement, uniting progressive activists, community groups and workers.
The labor movement has made those connections in the past; but march organizers say the AFL-CIO is more cautious and conservative today. In their statement, the organizers asked, “Would the AFL-CIO dare send out a directive to all of labor to boycott and sabotage the marches and mobilizations of the great civil rights movement, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez?”
The march is scheduled for October 17.
—The New Standard, August 19, 2004