September 04, 2006

The AFL-CIO Labor Day Missive Interpreted

A Wobbly Perspective
by richard myers,

Happy Labor Day. In Denver, this will be a day of Wobbly laboring- a little organizing for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who are coming to the mile-high ciudad. There's a labor concert in Lafayette on September 14th. Immigrant workers in Denver hope to reprise their May Day success on September 30, and i'm one member of the outreach committee. It looks like an entire weekend of laboring.

Denver Wobs are in a curious historical circumstance, at least compared to recent decades when a regional director of the AFL-CIO lectured strikers to ignore the radicals among them. (In one example i was present at said lecture; the strikers later lost that strike.)

How times have changed. Today Wobblies are respected participants in Denver's vibrant Jobs With Justice coalition, and ATU bus drivers recently paid tribute on their website to a "Wobbly" who, in some small way, helped them to win their strike. It's even more exhilarating than discovering the AFL-CIO selling "I'm a little Wobbly" T-shirts for children.

While checking for emails relating to ongoing actions, i've encountered an article from the AFL-CIO website which gives me an OMFG moment. The article's title enticingly inquires: Labor Day-A Poor Cousin to May Day?

Perhaps i should resist the temptation to clinically appraise this missive by the AFL-CIO. It isn't exactly ground-breaking that someone speaking for the staid old federation publicly utters the word "proletarian," especially when they're quoting someone else. Yet this article was written by an "AFL-CIO managing editor," and i believe it is noteworthy that a federation long intent on legitimizing the global power of the United States, collaborating with the CIA to subvert radical unionism in
Latin America and elsewhere, and willfully adopting September's Labor Day as a bulwark against the radicalism that May Day represents, should markedly change its own interpretation of May Day (see the AFL-CIO article, below.)

The article admits, "the symbolism of May Day-working people challenging corporate power-still causes fear among the top elite." And, "...just when you think historical events are just that-they come back stronger than ever."

I take issue with a couple of points. Describing May Day 2006 as a day that "...hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers and their supporters took to the streets..." is a curious example of a labor organization downplaying the numbers in an action by working people. I marched- and saw the photos. Across the country, there were millions.

Is the AFL-CIO embarrassed that Labor Day parades have been cancelled (in Denver, for example) for lack of interest, yet an upstart mass movement of mostly un-organized working folk dares to appropriate entire city boulevards as the cops watch helplessly?

For those of us known to describe the AFL philosophy as selling labor peace to the bosses for the life of the contract, there is no marked sea change in the tendencies of mainstream labor. In a federation that derives financial benefit from business activities- selling insurance and issuing credit cards- the ethic of business unionism undoubtedly remains intact. More specifically, the AFL-CIO writer sees promise not so much in massive organizing, but in "political action on the way to the
November elections."

Such tactics may endear labor officials to elected leaders in a pale imitation of their corporate counterparts, but they have brought mainstream labor to the present crisis. Ties to the Democratic Party are more albatross than auspicious fortune. At the merging of the AFL and the CIO, one in three workers in the U.S. was organized. Today it is fewer than one in ten. Union dues should build unions, not line the pockets of politicians.

Meanwhile paychecks diminish, prices rise, and pensions disappear. Union members remain isolated due to organization by craft, and workers are sometimes forced to cross picket lines or be fired. Unions compete for members, and membership raids are all too common.

Borders are barriers to workers, but not to corporations. Jobs are off-shored, visas bring guest workers, and working people have no say in the immigration policy that directly affects their jobs.

AFL-CIO constituent unions may describe themselves as "international," but cross-border ties between the AFL-CIO and foreign unions either remain an illusion or are prone to fail due to AFL-CIO control issues. We live in a global Enron economy, and workers of the world are uptight.

In such times, one cannot help but wonder what crisis mentality- or dare we hope? what spark of awareness- globalization and the AFL-CIO / CTW split may have wrought upon mainstream labor. Forgive us if we're prone to snatching at snippets. In "Labor Day-A Poor Cousin to May Day?" the first sentence that caught my eye includes this observation: "the radical origins of May Day are not contested." There is no immediate distancing to unequivocally protect a respectable mainstream federation from the "R" word. This suggests that, in the opinion of at least one important AFL-CIO writer, the federation may have become comfortable with-indeed may even value- the idea of radical unionism.

And then there's the conclusion to the article, which suggests a rough equivalence between the September holiday sanctioned by the conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the U.S. government, and May Day- the International Labor Day, celebrated by mainstream labor organizations everywhere in this globalized world except in the United States. OMFG.

Let us hope it is more than a spark. But let us also observe whether, next May Day, the AFL-CIO seeks to bask in the bright shining light cast by a real mass movement.

The writer was a member, officer, steward, and safety rep in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers for 33 years, and served briefly as an executive delegate to the Denver Area Labor Federation. He first joined the Industrial Workers of the World as a dual-carder in 1991.


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