Fake Labor’s Sham Rally Can Become Something Better!

On to the October 2nd Action

Rich Gibson

Substance News

September 2010


In the late 1970's , the AFL-CIO called a “Jobs!” rally in RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.


I was, then, an officer in a fledgling union local that became, today, the largest local in the United Auto Workers’ Union, not auto workers, but State of Michigan employees.


Our local was led by radicals, former civil rights and anti-war activists, ex-SDSers, who took up the old IWW mantras: “An injury to one is an injury to all!” “The working class and the employing class have only contradiction in common!” “No Concessions! Concessions won’t save jobs but make bosses want more!” “For a ferocious defense of every member and equality too!”


What came of that local as it sank into the UAW’s predictable morass is a story for another day.


This is about our trip to the AFL-CIO’s stadium rally and its implications for today.


Our union gang, based in Detroit, had witnessed for years the repeated sellouts of the UAW, now nearly vanished but for a billion dollar bank account held by the UAW bosses. We knew the AFL-CIO wasn’t building a rally to do something, but was calling a rally, rather than a demonstration, in order to contain those who might actually do something. Even so, we felt it important to have nine toes on the scene, and maybe one out.


We organized busloads of workers as well as social service recipients. Arriving early, just past sun-up, we were met by staff from a variety of AFL-CIO affiliates, most of them from the Steelworkers whose president would be a keynoter that day.


One of those staffers came to our core group: “Here, you’ve got to get to work. You’re here early enough, so you’re Security for the dignitaries coming here. Do you know Hubert Humphrey is going to speak?” he said, proudly excited.


Now, there were few people in the world who we hated more than Hubert Humphrey, former Vice President under war-maker-strike-breaker Lyndon Johnson, both of whom had tried to kill quite a few of us for half a decade and more.


We eagerly volunteered to be Humphrey’s Security.


RFK Stadium, to our surprise, began to fill. We never expected a big crowd, given the innumerable failures of the labor leadership, and the fact that they couldn’t even get their members to vote right in the electoral arena.


We Securities were given nice armbands and staged in front of some gated fences. Our assignment: keep the gates closed. Help separate the speakers from the listeners.

Behind us, the usual cadre of Dignitary Fat White AFL-CIO Men and Politicians climbed into some temporary riser stands and up onto a speaker’s platform.


Repeated announcements came over the speaker system: “Do not go on the playing field. Please stay in the stands. The grounds must be kept clear for the coming game tomorrow. Do not go on the playing field....”


Before any Dignitary got a chance to speak, a young man ran onto the field, immediately chased by uniformed police. The scofflaw was quick; eluded his pursuers time after time.


The crowd began to chant: “Run! Run! Run!”


“Do not go on the playing field. Stay in the stands. The grounds must be kept clear...” from an unseen mechanical voice.


The uniforms couldn’t catch the culprit. On he ran, always on the field. Others joined in. The field began to fill with rule-breakers. More uniforms gave chase.


“Do not go onto the playing field. Do not go onto the playing field. DO NOT GO ONTO THE PLAYING FIELD!!!”


In the stands from the larger crowd, a new chant: “No sellouts! No sellouts! No sellouts! Fight! Don’t Starve! Fight! Don’t Starve!”


More and more people poured onto the field, chanting the same chants, a sensible mob grew, fists raised.


Then the throng headed for the fences, the gates we guarded, the crowd obviously planning to seize the microphone.


From the Uniformed Security behind us: “Stand firm Security Volunteers! Stand Firm! Hold the gates!”


Miraculously, the gates practically opened on their own. Someone unlocked them. Who would do a thing like that?


The crowd burst through. The Dignitaries fled backwards, suits ruffled, fat rumbling, and they jumped off the back of the risers, never to be seen again that day–one of my most cherished memories, practically on film in my head.


The remainder of the day amounted to a celebration of the rank and file.


What came of North American unionism since then: less than 10 percent of the private sector organized, betrayed strike followed betrayed strike as the union tops used violence and deception against the rank and file: the US Peace Dividend became endless war and mass unemployment.

Now, the AFL-CIO (with the NAACP)  sinks to calling a One Nation rally, complete with gospel singers and the predictable round-up of, now, Not Always Fat and Not Always White Male, but Always Judas Goat, “labor leaders.”


Can the gates open once again? If so, can more come of it than a quick celebration and a return home to more business unionism as usual?


Years later, my knees say a mad dash is not in my future. So, rather than literally opening the gates (whoever did that, anyway?), I hope to offer an opening about why the AFL-CIO is doing what they are doing now, what they don’t want you to know. You decide what to do about that, after your own critical review.


Clearly enough, this is a rally again, more containable than a march.


The AFL-CIO uses a multi-pronged approach: building it and not building it. There is no mention, as of September 20, of the action on the AFL-CIO web site. There is plenty of perseveration about getting out the vote.


Nor does UAW Local 6000, the largest UAW local mentioned above. Nor the American Federation of Teachers. Not a peep on the web site of the largest union in the USA, by a factor of two: the National Education Association whose president in 2008, Reg Weaver, couldn’t memorize a one page press release written for him by staff, but who made $696,949 that year.


However, many AFL-CIO affiliates are organizing busses. For example, the wreckage of the once-proud Detroit Federation of Teachers, now half its size just six years ago, having rolled over for the worst contract in teacher history ($500 per teacher per paycheck pay cut, merit pay, loss of tenure for about 1/3 the work force at least, massive cuts in health and retirement benefits, etc.) will turn make an appearance behind its quisling president, Keith Johnson.


The Chicago Teachers’ Union promotes the rally. CTU, as Substance readers know, is now led by an insurgent caucus, CORE, which defeated a caucus that offered retreat after retreat for years–an unusual election victory in the traditionally undemocratic AFT. CTU boosts not only a free ride, but a T-shirt.


It’s a fair guess that thousands of honest people will be in D.C. for the rally, hoping for unionism.


Unless they act on their own, unionism will not turn up.


North American unionism is not unionism, but a fetish, a myth, about what should be, but is not. Let’s examine how that works.


Labor leaders cynically sell unionism as job, pay, and benefit,  protection through solidarity. It’s something of a vending machine: you pay dues and “they” do things for you. That’s not unity. It’s alienation from the outset.


What’s the reality? Unionized people do get paid a bit more than the far more numerous unorganized mass, although the trajectory for everyone is down (ask an auto worker) and the gap narrows year to year.


However, American unionism is only solidarity in an inverse, really perverse, sense. Not a single major US labor boss believes in the reason most people join unions–the contradictory interests of employers and employees.


Instead, the labor tops promote what former NEA president Bob Chase wrongly termed, “New Unionism,” that is, the unity of government leadership, corporate bosses, and union heads, “in the national interest.” That, of course, is what was once called Company Unionism about 80 years ago. Hence, it is neither new, nor unionism.


It means, at least in theory, the labor chiefs will betray their members when industry or nation is threatened, and in practice it has translated into silly but deadly “Buy American,” campaigns which meant workers should sacrifice in order to prop up international finance capital while cheering nationalism and racism.


Moreover, it has meant in practice that labor tops, most glaringly those of the UAW but all of them, urge their members to forfeit wages and benefits, in order to “save the industry,” while the industry’s bosses rely on the government to bail out their own bonuses, as with GM president Henderson, at $1.3 million a year.


That none of this is particularly new (remember Lee Iacocca and the 70's Chrysler-UAW bailout, or the New York City-AFT bailout?) is true enough, but the project now sits in a far more critical social context: losing imperial wars, vanishing trust in the political class, an emerging corporate state, massive unemployment and booming inequality–a potentially explosive mix.


Meanwhile, the labor dis-organizers enjoy very nice salaries, benefits, expense accounts, and retirement incomes. Perhaps the most recent egregious example: Former NEA president Reg Weaver was paid $686,949 in 2008. Others just slide into other cushy jobs like Wayne State Professor in the Walter Reuther Library or officer in Education International, the inheritor of the CIA sponsored Cold War teacher unions where school worker union presidents drift.


On October 2, the One Nation rally will make one maneuver that sets up the rest of the upside-down rally: it will ignore imperialism, and by ignoring it, support it.


Two reasons are at work here: Labor overseers, who have consistently supported the last decade of wars and the many before that, know their lofty salaries come, in part, from the empire’s successes. The entire AFL was formed behind exclusion: secreting the knowledge of the craft, keeping others out via race, sex, and “blood” lines, and guaranteeing the delusory privileges of American workers by demolishing indigenous worker movements elsewhere via groups like the National Endowment for Democracy, the American Institute for Labor Development, and today’s intelligence fronts, like Solidarity Center, as well. Labor heads sit right on the boards of these groups, assist in planning, and in some cases, carry it out.


Secondly, labor big-wigs need to win poor and working people to sacrifice for, and sometimes fight, the empire’s war–a practical and pedagogical effort that begins with the utterly false notion that we are all in this together–One Nation—when we are most assuredly not all together in what is a social context of class and imperialist war.


The task at hand for the labor big shots, given the above, cannot be organizing a mass class conscious movement to transcend the system of capital, let alone build a union movement for real solidarity, along the lines of the IWW principles, organizing people for control of work places and communities because those people create everything of value.


It follows that they will do whatever they can to march people into voting booths, akin to going to church where someone else will interpret a fictional democratic world and then act for you, rather him/her self, while charging you a tithe–taxes.


The voting shell game, where people choose from the executive committee and armed weapon of the rich, government, who will oppress us best, also has a two-fold twist.


Some people are as religious about capitalist democracy as they are about the icon of unionism. It appeals to people drilled for most of their school lives in its mantras: we are all in the same boat, if you don’t vote you will debase democracy and be responsible for systematic failures from bank bailouts to war; you have to pick the lesser evil, etc.


Secondly, the AFL-CIO and NEA combined say they will spend about $88 million in this voting cycle. Electoral work keeps people busy, thinking they’re being powerful, and money flowing in activities most labor leaders know full well are sheer diversions. “If voting mattered, they wouldn’t let us do it,” said a top NEA political action director to me years ago.


NEA boosted they had more members on the floor of the 2008 Democratic Convention than any other organization. They’re one of the biggest campaign contributors, right up there with the banks. NEA spent more than $25 million on political action, back in 2005. Add to that endless volunteer hours of staff and school workers.


What is the basis of all this money coming in? Union mis-leaders sell labor peace, their ability to control the rank and file at the work places, in exchange for dues check-off. In states with clear collective bargaining laws, that is precisely the trade-off: a “No Strike” clause exchanged for the agency shop. In right to work states, it’s similar, though the dues check off side is far outweighed by NEA’s determination to deliver labor peace (after all, if labor and management don’t have contradictory interests, if the labor bosses incomes are fixed by the regularity of dues income, why not have labor peace–why think of that as a betrayal?).


Solidarity, the idea that an injury to one is an injury to all, is subverted by American unionism. The structure unionism necessarily means that union members will remain divided, not united, even in the vaporish electoral world–divided by industry, craft, and often race. Union members in the private sector, for example, will typically vote against public sector taxation, while school unions will move to tax other workers to pay for what is, too often, the mis-education of workers’ kids—as did the California Teachers’ Association with a failed ballot initiative a year ago.


And what of workers’ international solidarity? As noted above, the AFL-CIO and NEA are both involved with the empire’s intelligence agencies all over the world, on the grounds that US workers will do better if other workers do worse.


But wait, there’s more. War means work. Dozens of AFL-CIO unions are dependant on war contracts, from Boeing and all the airlines to all the feeder plants that supply them, for example.


That’s yet another reason why we see this “One Nation” banner. One nation means against the others–against other workers.


It follows, then, that another reason for this rally, beyond luring in voters to the Democrats, is to tie people’s minds to the interests of their oppressors and the Judas Goats in our midst–to the extent that children of the poor go off to kill other children of the poor on behalf of the rich in their homelands, believing they’re volunteers when in fact they are economic draftees.


The AFL-CIO rally does not have to be as it is planned, no more than US unionism needs to look as upside-down as it looks today.


There are many hints of nascent social movements that could, indeed unite people, offer genuine solidarity, and surcease from the relentless attacks that capital has aimed at people: joblessness, wage cuts, war, and, in ideas, racism and sexism.


One of those movements is the October 7th Day of Action in Schools and Communities, proposed by the students and school workers who led the massive demonstrations, walkouts, occupations, and teach-ins on March 4th.


Another is the virtual uprising in the Chicago Teachers Union which offers hope through the CORE caucus, with close ties not only to school workers but the community and students as well.


What doesn’t the AFL-CIO want you to know?


This is capitalism. It has united the world through systems of production, transportation, marketing, communications, and technology, yet capitalism must rely on exploitation and imperialism. The upshot is what we have, mass misery, racism, nationalism, and war.


It does not have to be this way.


While this is not Our Government, but Theirs, there are more of us than there are of them, and that includes the military.


They, those who own, need us more than we need them. Working people create all value.

It is right to criticize everything–and to rebel.


Everything is at hand for a reversal, upending, of social relations: mass distrust in the rich and their government, financial crises unsolved and failed wars, nor moral base for the world’s rulers existence.


What is missing is organization, an ethic of democracy and equality, and coordinated, wise, action by those who are determined that all should rise together.


Another hopeful event could happen on October 2nd. Open the gates! Up the rebels!