Thoughts on the October 2nd One Nation Working Together Rally
For quite some time, activists in the labor movement have been urging the AFL-CIO leadership to organize a Solidarity Day III rally as a way of fighting back against the attacks on working people and to counter the mobilizations of the right-wing. My own labor council, the Troy Area Labor Council, sent such a request to the national AFL-CIO leadership, urging them to call a national demonstration around the demands of Jobs, Peace and Healthcare. Our resolution was picked up by other labor councils from around the country, and a number of such resolutions were adopted by various labor bodies.
So we were thrilled when we heard that 1199 SEIU and the NAACP were organizing such a rally and that the AFL-CIO was joining the effort. We were sure that this combination between the unions and the largest civil rights organization in the country would attract hundreds of thousands to Washington, maybe more than a million. The reality of this event, unfortunately, fell far short of what it could have been, both in numbers and in political content.
Although it is always great when unions and civil rights organizations call people out to the streets to demonstrate, I found the rally disappointing. In working to build the demonstration, I found that the AFL-CIO seemed to be supporting it only half heartedly. I heard comments to the effect that the day could have been better spent going door-to-door for the candidates.
The politics were also not clear. There was resistance to including peace in the call, and there was a clear absence of any demands on the government. The One Nation Working Together web site had the generic slogans of “good jobs, equal justice, and quality public education.” Of course, we are all for these things but just cheerleading while making no specific demands around which to mobilize people will get us nowhere.
The turnout--somewhere between 100,000 – 150,000—also was disappointing. The organizers claimed that 170,000 people came. Commentators, like the Associated Press, said there were fewer people than those who’d shown up at the Glen Beck rally in August. Glen Beck had the audacity to hold a rally on the same day and at the very spot where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. Glen Beck rallied in opposition to everything that Martin Luther King fought for. King was a champion for civil rights, labor rights, and peace; Beck represents hatred, prejudice, and war. But the labor movement and the left were unable to effectively oppose him, which shows how very weak both are.
Labor is under attack: union membership has dropped to less than 14% in the US; for the private sector, it is below 8%. The so-called economic crisis has allowed the government to attack the public employee unions that were always considered secure. So teachers as well as municipal, state, and federal workers are all under attack. There are layoffs, furloughs, and changes to retirement and healthcare benefits being demanded as private contractors are taking union jobs. This is happening under Republicans as well as Democrats, such as the state government of New York, where I live. It is only through mobilization of the working people that we will be able to stave off these attacks. The October 2nd rally did nothing to point us in this direction.
The national leadership of the labor movement can see only one way forward, which is through the vehicle of the Democratic Party. However, this is not how labor won earlier gains such as the right to organize and collective bargaining. It did so through mobilization, strikes, sit-downs, and even general strikes and organized defense against goon squads. All that we were told at the Oct. 2nd rally was to get out the vote for the Democrats. Yet, for the last two years the Democrats have controlled both houses of congress and the executive branch. Therefore, to make demands of the government means making demands on the Democrats, this could hurt their chances in November. So there were no demands, thereby sacrificing a great opportunity for us for the sake of the Democrats, who have done nothing on our behalf.
In New York State we have a $9 billion deficit while New York’s contribution for the wars for this fiscal year will be $15 billion. Yet not one Democrat, Republican, or major labor leader dares to point out this glaring contradiction.
Despite the rally’s shortcomings, the peace movement had an important presence. We organized peace rallies and than marched as a contingent to the main rally. This along with the distribution of signs and literature gave an antiwar presence at the rally. This is very important, because during this period of neo-liberal globalization, as jobs and investment go overseas our economy will require continued war to protect US corporate interests abroad. This is why it is essential to connect the issues of jobs and the wars.
Some hoped that the October 2nd mobilization would lead to an ongoing coalition between labor, peace activists, and the communities under attack. The only convergence that can come out of this rally is a convergence around electing more democrats, which will not further the fight for jobs or peace. Instead, we need to build movements that are independent of either party and our unions need to learn to rely on the strength of their own membership and allies.