On Sunday, October 17, between five and ten thousand workers converged on Washington D.C. to voice opposition to the policies of big business. Even though the attendance for this event was smaller than the organizers had hoped for, the rally was important because it was based on a radical, working-class program to fight back against corporate America and the attacks of both the corporate-dominated parties.
ILWU Local 10, representing longshore workers in Oakland, California, was the driving force behind the Million Worker March. In the last two years, members of this local were pounded with rubber bullets by Oakland police at an anti-war demonstration; they were locked out by their bosses, and the Bush Administration threatened intervention by the National Guard to break picket lines and scab on the workers of the local.
The potential for the Million Worker March was shown by the anti-war resolutions passed by the two largest unions in the AFL-CIO: AFSCME and SEIU. Socialist Alternative members played a key role in getting the anti-war resolution passed at the AFSCME convention.
The organizers of the Million Worker March took a clear anti-war, anti-occupation stance, but the MWM program also called for free healthcare, free public education, a living wage, full employment, and repealing the Patriot Act. This is a radical program that represents many of the key interests of U.S. workers.
One key point that is missing, however, is that it does not call for the political independence of the working class, and it avoids the upcoming presidential elections, only vaguely saying that “we cannot depend on rich politicians to fight for us.” Unfortunately most of the unions endorsing the MWM, despite giving support to a program that is extremely critical of the Democrats, also supported John Kerry.
The AFL-CIO leadership opposed the Million Worker March because they didn’t want to “embarrass” Kerry. The AFL-CIO has given more money to Kerry’s anti-worker presidential campaign than they have ever given to any other political campaign in history; they are using union dues to try to help elect a corporate politician with a record of attacking working people.
This AFL-CIO strategy led the leadership to actively oppose a mobilization of workers to fight for their own interests. Even the mainstream leadership of the anti-war movement (for example, United for Peace and Justice) stood in the way of the march by organizing voter registration drives (for John Kerry) the same weekend of the march.
Still, many unions defied the AFL-CIO by signing onto the march. The largest nation teachers’ union (the National Education Association) and the largest postal workers’ union both endorsed the march. Numerous other union locals and labor councils endorsed the march as well.
Still, the turnout in DC was only 5,000 to 10,000. It was clear that many endorsing unions, like the NEA and the postal workers, put little to no effort into mobilizing the membership for this demonstration. Only a few local endorsing unions had big mobilizing drives. The ILWU Local 10 and Teamsters Local 808 (Queens, N.Y.) showed up in numbers.
Nevertheless, it is significant that even a few thousand trade unionists were willing to march behind a radical program and defy the AFL-CIO leadership and the Democratic Party. Realizing the significance of this event, Socialist Alternative produced a pamphlet especially for the march called Toward a New Direction for the Labor Movement.
The pamphlet outlines the seriousness of the problems faced by U.S. workers and the strategies needed to fight back. The pamphlet calls for a campaign to organize the fast-growing, low-paid service sector. It outlines the importance of the anti-war resolutions and the Million Worker March and the need to organize and fight for the MWM program within the broader labor movement. The pamphlet also called for a vote for Ralph Nader, the establishment of a workers’ party, and the need for a socialist strategy to transform the U.S. labor movement and struggle against the offensive of big business.
The speakers at the rally presented a variety of different strategies for fighting back, sometimes contradicting each other. There was no consistent coherent message coming from the platform. Some said we must “get Bush out in November,” giving backhanded support to John Kerry. Other speakers attacked the Democrats and AFL-CIO leadership head-on, rejecting any vote for Kerry. Some speakers even talked about the need for workers’ power, revolution, and the overthrow of capitalism.
One leader of the ILWU Local 10 proclaimed that they are about to “drop a bomb” after the elections, perhaps implying that Local 10 might issue a call for a new party to represent workers in the U.S. If such a call were to be issued by even a relatively small section of the labor movement, this would be a huge step forward. It would find an echo among broad sections of the working class who are very disappointed with the Democratic Party. Socialist Alternative would welcome such a call and would work to build a new party on the ground.
The more conscious, fighting forces in the labor movement should continue to work together and coordinate actions. The program of the Million Worker March should be the basis for labor-community committees around the country. These committees can organize forums, demonstrations, and eventually, local electoral campaigns.
If we don’t organize around a fighting program and break with the Democratic Party, then we can expect more Wal-Mart wages, “free trade” agreements, and the further weakening of the labor movement. If we struggle for our own interests, then victories can be won.
We need to transform the unions into what they are supposed to be: democratically run fighting organizations. If we can do this, then a new generation of workers will enter the labor movement with the wind at their backs, ready to take on the bosses.