Freedom Socialist â€¢ Vol. 25, No. 5 December 2004-January 2005
Million Worker March in Washington defies AFL-CIO and calls for a fighting labor movement
October 17, 2004 was a milestone for U.S. labor: thousands of unionists, antiwar activists, and students, representing millions more like them, gathered in Washington, D.C., to call for politically independent activism by and for working people. The forward thrust of the event stood in stark contrast to the AFL-CIOâ€™s failed strategy of support for John Kerry.
Defying top national labor officials, rally-goers amassed at the Lincoln Memorial not to promote one capitalist politician over another, but to press their demands regardless of who occupies the White House. This was the class-conscious element of the labor movement, working people determined to speak for themselves â€” and confident that who is president matters less than who is in the streets.
Inspired by the march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, the Million Worker March was spearheaded by International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in San Francisco. "For too long has the labor movement been defensive and concessionary," said Trent Willis. "The Million Worker March is about changing that!"
MWM co-chair Willis and other African American labor leaders from the ILWU and Teamsters Black Caucus provided the spark for the event and were central organizers. Their willingness to go against the tide, along with the predominance of people of color on the rally stage and in the crowd, showed once again where to look for leadership for genuine change: from the most oppressed workers who need it most.
The rallyâ€™s extensive demands included jobs, healthcare, and housing for all; quality public education; a clean environment; and an end to Iraq war. (See www.millionworkermarch.org for more.) In addressing how to achieve these aims, many speakers discussed the history of U.S. labor radicalism, including the massive strikes of the 1930s.
Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) leader Heidi Durham, a key organizer in the Northwest MWM committee, delivered a scathing indictment of the Democrats, including their rollback of unemployment benefits in Washington state. To roaring applause, she called for socialism as the ultimate solution to the attacks on workers. Said Durham, "The time is now to rock the house of labor, no matter who gets elected."
Standing up to bureaucrats. The thousands of people who came to D.C., and the hundreds of unions that endorsed, did so despite the very vocal disapproval of the AFL-CIO labor federation.
AFL-CIO leaders, believing that resources would be better used in the effort to elect John Kerry, explicitly instructed federation-affiliated unions not to support the MWM. This undoubtedly had an effect, but didnâ€™t stop the event. As Seattle ILWU member Celso Tolman remarked, "If they are not willing to lead, then we will lead and they can follow."
Giselle Quezada, a phone tech who travelled from San Francisco to be in D.C., observed, "My union, the Communications Workers of America, does more to represent the company than to represent its members. Our voices are not being heard."
The determination of unionists like Quezada and Tolman to breathe new life into labor made the MWM not only possible, but historic.
For a world without war. Prominent themes were opposition to the Iraq war and occupation and the need for internationalism in confronting corporate globalization and U.S. imperialism.
Picket signs demanded, "Union Jobs and Health Benefits, Not War!" Other signs and banners expressed solidarity with Iraqis, Palestinians, and the U.S. soldiers who three days earlier had refused to run a suicidal convoy.
Angela C. Davis, an African American unionist from New York City, expressed the urgency of protesting, "especially at a time when most of the antiwar movement is putting their energy into electing Kerry." Women of color, Davis said, play a crucial leadership role. "We are disproportionately affected by poverty, lack of healthcare, and by going to war."
From the podium, Larry Holmes, chair of the International Action Center, called for work stoppages, boycotts and student walkouts to "end this war right now!"
A woman from Haiti brought news of murder and repression following the U.S.-backed coup against Aristide. Lybon Mabasa, a socialist from South Africa, explained how the international debt racked up under apartheid still cripples his countryâ€™s economy. Messages of solidarity were delivered from countries including Brazil, Peru, Venezuela, the Philippines, Pakistan, and England.
A new generation springs forward. Another heartening feature of the day was the number of young people in attendance. "We need the hip-hop nation to rise up!" declared MWM co-chair Willis. And, indeed, it was striking how many of the students participating in the rally are doing just that, as activists back home in campus groups.
"Itâ€™s inspiring to see people my age who have labor on their minds," said Danielle Weeks, 23, a student at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. "The youth are important in this movement."
Naâ€™Dina Mosley, 21, flew to D.C. from Seattle to represent Political Staff Workers Union, made up of staffers for the FSP, Radical Women (RW), and this newspaper. She and her co-unionists organized a raffle and sold tickets to raise funds for her trip. For Mosley, the event held special significance. Her mother, a former Black Panther, was part of the movement fighting for equal opportunity over 20 years ago.
In our hands is placed the power. Following the demonstration, at a packed reception hosted by FSP and RW participants at their hotel, Japanese railway workers and MWM organizers talked with unionists from around the U.S. Everyone agreed the rally was a victory, but only a beginning.
What was clear was the potential of the power of those who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, and the need to push forward despite all odds.
As MWM co-chair Clarence Thomas said, "It is critical for working people to understand that the only time we gain any concessions from the system is when we organize independently of the two parties." The inglorious defeat of the Democratic Party in 2004 creates a new opportunity to develop something that has been a long time coming: workingclass political leadership independent of that party, and of the AFL-CIO officials who are bound to it.
Jonathon Hurd, an electrical trainee and Northwest MWM Organizing Committee member, can be reached at email@example.com.