The Million Worker March

The Million Worker March (MWM) scheduled for October 17, 2004 in Washington, DC, was initiated by Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in San Francisco. Described as an “independent mobilization of working people” and their allies to fight for the needs of workers and their families, the mobilization is supported by an impressive list of major trade union bodies across the country including: all ILWU locals in the West Coast; National Education Association (NEA); American Postal Workers Union (APWU); Los Angeles and San Francisco Central Labor Councils; California Federation of Labor (CFL); District Councils 37 and 1707 of American State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), New York; Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Local 1199; Transit Workers Union (TWU), Local 100 in New York; National Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; and several Teamster locals. This represents a very significant development for the labor movement and the working class as whole.

Organized despite opposition from the official AFL-CIO, the agenda for the MWM includes clear demands: a national living wage; universal single payer health care; cancellation of all “free trade” agreements; massive funding for education; calls for taxing the rich; protection of Social Security; guaranteed pensions; amnesty for undocumented workers; repeal of the anti-labor Taft Hartley and Patriot Acts; massive cuts in the military budget; and an immediate end to the US war and occupation in Iraq.

The Million Worker March is seen by its organizers as a move to develop an independent movement of the working class against the domination of big business – in contrast to recent anti-war mobilizations which sought to channel the movement in the direction of the Democratic Party and John Kerry.

Anxious to attack the effort, the official AFL-CIO issued a directive to all State Federations and Central Labor Councils in June not to “sponsor or devote resources” to the Million Workers March. It was seen as a distraction from the massive amounts of money ($160 million!) and effort the AFL-CIO affiliates are spending to support Kerry and the pro-big business Democratic Party in the November election.

Despite the fact that virtually all the unions that are sponsoring and organizing the Million Worker March endorsed Kerry for President, the MWM Organizing Committee responded to the action of the AFL-CIO with a very important statement:

“The Million Worker March is organizing working people to put forth our needs and our agenda independently of politicians and parties. We say that only by acting in our name can we build a movement that advances our needs. The very formation of the trade union movement was the result of independent organizing and mobilizing of working people. The struggle for industrial unionism, the movement for women’s suffrage, the great movements for civil rights – all these flowed from the will to mobilize independently and in our own name.

“Our aims, with which the AFL-CIO leadership purports to agree, include universal single-payer health care from the cradle to the grave – that ends the stranglehold of greedy insurance companies. Will the defeat of George Bush result in this?

“Our aims include an end to the corporate trade agreements that pit workers against each other everywhere in a mad race to the sweat-shop bottom. Will the defeat of George Bush change this when the Democratic Party brought us NAFTA, MAI and Fast Track with Disney and J. C. Penny paying Haitian workers 21 cents per hour?

“Will the defeat of George Bush end privatization and the destruction of unions in the public sector when the Democratic Party privatized and outsourced our jobs under the rubric of ‘downsizing government?’ What were downsized were our social services while corporate profits and the military sucked trillions of dollars taken from the sweat of our collective labor…

“…Will it end the criminalization of poverty or abolish the prison-industrial complex that has destroyed generations of Black and Latino youth?

“Will the defeat of George Bush roll back the bi-partisan union-busting and anti-labor legislation, such as Taft-Hartley, that has been on the books for 67 years?”

After correctly exposing the real nature of the two parties that support big business and capitalism, and the fact that the Democrats offer no real alternative to the Republicans, the Million Workers March Organizing Committee launches a serious attack on John Kerry:

“John Kerry, outflanking Bush from the far right, has called for an intensification of the so-called ‘war on terror’ by targeting people ‘before they act’ – giving explicit sanction to secret arrests, detention without trial and the labeling of opponents as ‘terrorists.’

“Will the removal of George Bush preserve the Bill of Rights, repeal the Patriot Act, Anti-Terrorism Act and all the repressive legislation that has set the stage for a Police State in America?

“Will the defeat of George Bush recover the $4.4 trillion dollars that disappeared from the Pentagon and the Department of Defense as the military industrial complex loots and hijacks government in America?

“John Kerry, the presumptive candidate of the Democratic Party, has demanded a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and the extension of U.S. military control in the Middle East and beyond…

“Today, 71% of U.S. corporations pay no taxes but John Kerry’s principal economic adviser is Wall Street’s Warren Buffett, who, along with George Schultz, performs the identical role for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Do John McCain, who John Kerry sought as his running mate, or Lee Iacocca of General Motors and Chrysler, who endorsed Kerry, represent the interests of labor and working people?

“Working people in America are under siege. The corporate and banking oligarchy that has power in this society is waging class war against us all…”

Hard Times for Workers

MWM organizers model their campaign after the Poor People’s March, organized by the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr., 36 years ago, to inaugurate a “war on poverty at home.” King declared that the vast arsenal of death unleashed by the Pentagon on the people of Vietnam was in reality a war on working people at home and abroad.

His words echo even more true today, with U.S. imperialism occupying Iraq and the vast majority of working Americans under attack by big business and the bi-partisan Patriot Act. Today, the urgency to re-ignite a vast movement of working people to fight for fundamental social change is greater than ever.

Between 1973 and 2000, the average real income of the bottom 90% of the U.S. population declined while the income of the top 1% increased 123%, and of the top 0.01% rose 600% (New York Times, 12/18/03). At the same time, Social services and funding for schools, libraries, affordable housing, and healthcare have been slashed.

Decent-paying jobs are disappearing through outsourcing and privatization, while new jobs that are created pay half what the lost jobs did. In the U.S. and across the globe, sweatshop conditions and starvation wages are proliferating.

The call for the MWM struck a responsive chord among progressive workers across the country. The NEA, representing 2.7 million teachers and educational support staff, voted to endorse the rally at its national convention of 12,000 delegates.

This comes only months after AFSCME and SEIU – the two largest AFL-CIO unions, representing three million public and service sector workers – each passing resolutions at their national conventions calling for an immediate end to the occupation of Iraq and for bringing all U.S. troops home.

The AFL-CIO leadership’s opposition to the MWM is the logical outcome of the “Anybody But Bush” alliance with John Kerry. While no resources were put towards the MWM, the AFL-CIO spent over $160 million to help Kerry and the Democrats. In this alliance the labor’s role is to subordinate itself to the policies and strategy of the big-business Democratic Party. The “partnership” is threatened by a serious labor mobilization like the MWM, because it raises issues “our friends” Kerry and the Democrats completely oppose.

History, however, shows that all the gains we have won – from the 40-hour work week to the right to vote – were due to the independent mobilization of working people. Labor’s enormous investment ( in money and human resources) into Kerry’s election campaign would go much further in advancing the interests of workers in efforts such as building the MWM, launching a massive battle to unionize Wal-Mart, and preparing the ground to run worker candidates across the country .

Two Parties – One Agenda

Bush’s corrupt administration exploited the tragedy of 9/11 to launch two wars to expand U.S. imperial domination, which has only increased the chances of being targeted for terrorism. An August 13, 2004 report from the Congressional Budget Office confirmed that Bush’s $1.7 trillion in tax cuts overwhelmingly benefited the richest 1% of the population. And Bush has aggressively attacked labor unions, women’s reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, civil liberties (especially of Muslim Americans), and environmental regulations.

While millions of Americans are now eager to vote for anybody but Bush – whoever has the best chance of beating him – John Kerry, is no real alternative. Kerry voted for Bush’s war on Iraq, the Patriot Act, “No Child Left Behind,” and the war on Afghanistan. On June 23, 2004, he voted to increase the Pentagon budget to $447 billion to continue Bush’s colonial occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Like Bush, Kerry promises to cut the corporate tax rate and strongly supports so-called “free trade.” He voted for NAFTA and the WTO, accelerating the export of decent jobs from the U.S. and increasing sweatshops and pollution in Mexico and other semi-colonial countries. Kerry also supports Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s apartheid wall that is seizing even more Palestinian land – again, just like Bush.

Of course, differences do exist between the Democratic and Republican parties, but what stands out, especially in this year’s presidential race, is their similarities, not their differences.

On women’s reproductive rights, where Kerry and Bush have differences, Kerry stated that he believes life begins at conception and that he would appoint anti-choice judges to federal courts.

Similarly, Kerry opposes Bush’s bigoted proposal to write discrimination into the Constitution and ban same-sex marriage. But Kerry supports civil unions rather than marriage – a back-of-the-bus compromise that provides LGBT people far fewer rights and benefits. The problem with the “anybody but Bush” strategy, advocated by the liberals, the AFL-CIO leaders, the antiwar movement, and a large section of the left, is that it writes a blank check to John Kerry and the Democrats to do whatever they want. Electing Kerry would change the face in the White House, but it won’t fundamentally change the policies of US imperialism.

The amount of corporate cash flooding into the coffers of both parties, sometimes from the very same corporations, says a lot about why both parties share the same basic corporate agenda. The Bush campaign set a fundraising record of $240 million, but the Kerry campaign also set a record for a challenger, trailing Bush by only $6 million! On top of this, the Republican National Committee has raised $245 million, and the Democratic National Committee has raised $156 million (New York Times, 8/21/04).

Bush succeeded in implementing his right-wing corporate agenda not because most ordinary Americans have enthusiastically supported him. On the contrary, poll after poll shows most Americans oppose Bush’s policies. The key reason Bush has been able to push his unpopular agenda through is because of the active collusion of the Democrats in Congress, including Senator John Kerry.

Almost all the Democrats in Congress voted “to support the president” in the war on terrorism, giving Bush a free hand to wage war on Iraq. Every single Democrat in the Senate voted to increase the Pentagon budget to $447 billion. 193 of 260 Democrats voted for the Patriot Act.

Since a majority of the country opposes Bush’s policies and his approval ratings are the lowest they’ve been since he was handed the presidency, you’d think the Democratic candidate would be creaming this babbling buffoon. The race has remained close, though, because voters cannot get excited about Kerry’s me-too, copy-cat campaign in which he has been trying to out-do Bush’s conservative, militaristic image.

A Historic Opportunity

ILWU and the unions that initiated the Million Worker March have endorsed Kerry for the November elections – a serious mistake. These unions should endorse Ralph Nader whose program is much closer to the program of the Million Worker March than Kerry’s. It’s clear, however, that whichever party wins will seek to impose an austerity program and make workers and the poor pay for the cost of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the crisis of the capitalist system. The fact that these unions are already starting to organize to put pressure on the political establishment with a radical program is an indication of the direction things are headed after the election.

The new administration will most likely not only face the prospect of a serious defeat in Iraq but also a rising tide of working-class discontent and opposition at home. The MWM movement can play an important role in starting to organize all those who want to fight against the bi-partisan corporate-dominated system, the Wal-Martization of the economy, war abroad and the destruction of democratic rights at home.

Given the paralysis of most of the official labor movement, a mass demonstration in Washington, DC, followed by conferences at the local level to bring together all those forces that want to fight back on a common platform, would represent a real step forward for the labor and anti-war movements.

Bitter Experience

ILWU, Local 10 is a small union of about 1000 members but its recent experience, along with its radical traditions, have propelled it to the center of this mobilization. It has played a pivotal role in building for the MWM and is in effect challenging the entire mis-leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Local 10 has been at the forefront of a number of recent battles – including the famous campaign to defend the five longshore workers who were framed up after a violent police riot in Charleston, SC. During contract negotiations in 2002, the Bush administration threatened to send troops to occupy the docks, supposedly on “national security grounds.” In reality, the administration was seeking to suppress protest actions by the dockworkers. Bush’s intervention paved the way for a lockout by the Pacific Coast maritime employers, which shut down the West Coast ports for ten days in 2003. At the request of Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), the administration invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, forcing dock workers back to work under conditions imposed by the employers. No politicians, Democrats or Republicans, spoke out against the attacks on the dockworkers. That April, 50 antiwar demonstrators, including nine members of Local 10, were injured during a violent attack by riot-clad police in the port of Oakland. Several of the victims were shot by rubber bullets and required emergency-room treatment.

The 400,000-member American Postal Workers Union is also motivated by the fact that both Bush and Kerry are in favor of privatizing the Post Office, a move that will result in massive job cuts and new attacks on workers’ living standards.

AFSCME District Council 1707 and DC 37 in New York endorsed the MWM mainly reflecting the discontent of their rank-and-file members. They have gone through years of concessions, without real wage increases, while Republicans and Democrats are competing to outdo each other in attacking municipal workers and public services.

The National Education Association has been at the forefront of defending teachers and public education against the attacks of both Republicans and Democrats. In February of this year, Bush’s Secretary of Education, Rod Paige called the NEA a “terrorist organization” because of its opposition to Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which bears bipartisan support.

The swelling support won by the MWM – which surprised even its organizers – is an indication of what will happen when militant trade unions and the working class begin to seriously challenge the current leadership of the union movement and demand independent political and economic action to benefit workers and their families.

The MWM comes at a time when the labor movement is facing a serious crisis, a decline in membership and a decline in labor struggles as a result of defeats in the face of a ferocious attack by big business. Almost 88 percent of U.S. workers have no union at all, which explains why the organizers of MWM have included organizations from the immigrant rights movement, and other social movements that are not directly affiliated with organized labor.

It is ironic that all the MWM endorsing unions have endorsed John Kerry’s candidacy and at the same time they have endorsed a march that points to the need for labor to break with both parties of big business. It reflects the fact that while millions of rank-and-file workers – many of whom will hold their noses and vote for the Democrats in order to get rid of Bush in November – are also beginning to understand that both big business parties are incapable of offering anything but more suffering, poverty, racism, war and environmental destruction. This realization poses a serious threat to the leaders of the labor movement who see themselves as “partners” with the bosses. At the same time, it represents a very important opening for those who seek to transform unions into democratic, fighting organizations and a movement that can begin to challenge the capitalist class.

“We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with capitalism… Maybe America must move towards democratic socialism.” – Martin Luther King, speech in 1966

“We must see the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are tied together and you can not get rid of one without getting rid of the other.” – Martin Luther King, speech in August 1967