Labor Advocate Online
Drawing a Balance Sheet On the
Million Worker March
by Bill Onasch
[In the spirit of full disclosure I should make clear that although the KC Labor web site was an early endorser of the Million Worker March in the end I was unable to attend because of personal reasons. I have had to rely on newspaper stories, personal accounts sent to me by others, and the limited television coverage of the event by CSPAN, for much of the analysis below.]
Several thousand gathered for a rally at Lincoln Memorial on October 17 that addressed a very wide range of labor and social issues. Normally that would be considered quite an achievement. But the impact of this worthy feat was partially dissipated by a pretentious name for the action, as well as published predictions of 100,000 or more made by some march organizers. Instead of being a self-evident, if modest, success the eventís accomplishments had to be "explained" to many participants and reporters who had considerably higher expectations.
This is only one of several contradictions associated with the Million Worker March. I think it is important, in a constructive and fraternal spirit, to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses, the inspirations and fumbles, of the MWM. Thatís how we learn, thatís how we do better.
Some Major Strengths
An Action Alternative. Even more than usual, the mainstream labor, feminist, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements have been focusing all of their attention and resources on hustling votes for their perceived Democrat friends. This call for independent action in the streets around movement issues was a welcome shot in the arm to revive minds and limbs numbed by phone-banking and neighborhood walking for Bush Lite.
An Impressive List Of Endorsers. The march organizers deserve high praise for pulling together an endorsement list that included some major national unions, as well as numerous local and other labor bodies. A few antiwar groups, and several small socialist organizations were also on board. And there were some big name artists and intellectuals endorsing as individuals as well.
Diversity On the Platform. An excellent job was done in drawing together a list of speakers and performing artists that was much more truly representative of the skin color, gender, age, and occupational diversity of the working class than is typically seen at movement events.
Some Major Problems
A Self-Selected Inner Circle. With the exception of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Day actions in 1981 and 1991, every successful national demonstration in my time was called by a broad-based national coalition and built by similar coalitions on the local level. Such diverse groupings can be a real pain in the backside to function inĖbut thatís part of the overhead price to be paid for truly massive demonstrations.
That didnít happen with MWM. A small group took the initiative and then offered a finished product, to either be accepted as is or rejected. Some of us thought it was a good basic idea and decided to support it regardless of criticisms we might have. We have deferred public discussion of those differences until after the event. But others were suspicious and kept their distance.
A broader coalition from the beginning not only could have turned out more bodies from their constituencies on October 17; their input could have helped avoid some of the political mistakes that the march leaders made along the way.
An Exaggerated Approach To Endorsements. Itís easy for a small group of people to get themselves worked up over any perceived breakthrough. Endorsements can be important in establishing the legitimacy of an action and, as we have already noted, MWM organizers excelled in this regard.
But beyond making an event kosher endorsements donít mean much. I doubt if the resolution adopted by the National Education Association motivated a single one of its 2.6 million members to attend. Endorsements alone donít ensure bodies on the line.
On the other hand, sometimes significant support can be won from groups who donít or canít endorse. In fact there are times when it is best not to ask for endorsement.
I once heard the late Tony Mazzocchi, the "Founding Brother" of the Labor Party, tell of the time he did some arm twisting to get a well-meaning delegate to an AFL-CIO convention to withdraw a resolution of support for the Labor Party. Tony explained that they were far short of having enough support to pass the resolution. The net effect of the vote would have put the federation on record opposing the Labor Party, making it far harder to win affiliations and endorsements for the party from AFL-CIO unions. Much better to keep the fed neutral.
I donít know if the current AFL-CIO leadership was approached for endorsement before they sent out a letter to their affiliates telling them to ignore the MWM distraction and stay the course of hustling votes. There is no question that the fedís memo to affiliates had a chilling effect that should not have been ignored.
Two of the most important progressive formations in the labor movement were put on the spotĖUS Labor Against the War and the Labor Party. Both are based on affiliated unions and rarely endorse actions called by others unless there is a consensus to do so. Clearly, even though some of their affiliates were on board for the October 17 action, there could be no such unanimity around endorsement of MWM. Nevertheless, MWM organizers vigorously pursued endorsement. The end result was votes to reject endorsement.
Despite being backed into this corner the leaderships of both organizations found ways to soften the blow of this needless set back. USLAW issued a sympathetic "advisory" about MWM and, in consultation with his steering committee, USLAW co-convener Gene Bruskin endorsed as an individual. USLAW buttons were worn by nearly every speaker in Washington.
Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic issued this statement in the name of the party Interim National Council: "The Labor Party supports the goals of the Million Worker March. We salute our many affiliates who will use this day to mobilize members around a pro-worker political agenda as well as all of our members and affiliates engaged in grassroots organizing to move this agenda in the post-election period." Two Labor Party national co-chairs were on the speakers list for the event.
There was also a certain lack of sensitivity shown in dealing with the many union activists who said that their unions were so committed to electoral work they couldnít build this march but would like to see such an action after the election. A standard response was "we can walk and chew gum at the same time." No one was persuaded to change their position as a result of this pearl of wisdom and many resented it, viewing it as a undeserved put-down.
Sectarians In the Field Skew the Focus. The public remarks I have heard and seen from some of the most prominent MWM leadersĖsuch as march co-chairs Clarence Thomas and Trent Willis, both of ILWU Local 10, and Brenda Stokely, President, AFSCME District Council 1707, and a New York regional march coordinatorĖdid a pretty good job in articulating the issues of the action and motivating attendance.
But in the absence of a broad based coalition the mantle of leadership between the coasts was sometimes claimed by those with a well earned reputation for dead-end sectarianism. Their priorities seemed to differ from the issues in the march call and the more sensible approach of the national spokespersons. In Chicago they organized a picket line against not Bush, not Kerry, not any boss, butĖthe AFL-CIO executive council meeting. Stories were spread about the "sell-outs" in USLAW and the Labor Party who had "rejected" the march. In the debate within USLAW a charge of racism was leveled against those not lining up for endorsement. And, because of the relatively small size of the action in DC, such elements stood out like a sore thumb.
Such sectarian antics, easily ignored in real mass movements, are a turn-off when they find their way to center stage. The solution is not to ban them. Having to deal with them is also part of the overhead price we pay for democracy. The goal needs to be having a sufficient base of sensible folk in place at the beginning of preparation for any mass action.
All in all, despite its weaknesses, the Million Worker March was a worthy event. Its vision of a coming together of the struggles for peace and equality with the movement of organized labor is powerful. Its initiators should be commended for their initiative, dedication, and energy.
Regardless of who wins the election the issues of MWM will remain. Actions in the streets, as well as the workplace and at the ballot box, are indicated. Thatís why it is important to learn from the experiences of the MWM.
I would urge those who organized the October 17 action to begin a process of discussion and consultation with those who said they would favor action after the election, also including those in formations such as USLAW and the Labor Party who felt they could not endorse October 17 but where there is clearly sentiment for independent working class action.
Letís explore the feasibility of assembling a coalition, with a real mass base, that can fight for the issues of the working class in the very challenging post-election period ahead.