Labor Advocate Online

Why No Festive Mood On This Labor Day?

by Bill Onasch

This is probably the gloomiest Labor Day weekend in my memory. Not just because of the lousy weather a lot us are experiencing. Nor is it mainly because gasoline prices are the highest ever. No, a lot of working people are disturbed with the general state of things in our society as well as feeling anxiety about the future.

"Labor Leaders Not Festive On This Holiday," reads one AP headline.
"Labor Day No Picnic for the Unemployed," says another.
"Labor Day 2003: Nothing to Celebrate," is a title chosen by Mark Weisbrot.
"U.S. Workers Struggle in Worst Job Slump Since Great Depression," is a feature story on the AFL-CIO web site.

A Molly Ivins column begins: "This poignant Labor Day, when the numbers are bad, the policies are worse and the jobs are disappearing, it's not so much the economy that riles me as the disrespect and the gratuitous contempt with which this administration treats working Americans."

Laborers International President Terence O'Sullivan is quoted as saying "If things keep up the way they've been going, we're going to be engaged in collective begging, not bargaining. What happens in the next five years defines the next 50."

We could cite many more examples of anger and frustration within the organized labor movement. Bad as our situation is most unorganized workers are faring even worse. Millions feel the “middle class American dream” slipping away from them while others fret about their future. Of course, many in the working class—especially among Blacks, Latinos, and recent immigrants—were never included in the dream.

You would have to go back to the early 1930s to find a period matching the breadth and depth of attacks on virtually all aspects of the living standards, job security, and democratic rights of American workers. Let’s review just a few.

Preemptive War and Colonial Occupation
Workers in uniform are under the gun in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan—sent there under false pretenses. They are used not to defend our national security but to promote the profits of Big Business.1 Good people—Americans, Brits, Iraqis, Afghans, and others—are being killed and wounded. Family lives are being disrupted. The costs of war and occupation are devouring our taxes. And "Homeland Security" exploits fear of terrorism to undermine our democratic rights, including worker rights to organize and bargain.

Jobless Recovery
The recession that began in March, 2001—well before the terrorist attacks of 9/11—is officially over. But fewer people are working. A combination of "offshoring," new labor-saving technology, and plain old speed up of work pace, have largely restored production and profits—but not jobs. Threats of further job loss are used by bosses to extort wage, benefit, and work rule concessions from their workers.

Health Care
Although the U.S. spends far more on health care than any other country our system is a disgrace. More than forty-million Americans have no health insurance. Those of us lucky enough to be insured are facing cost increases ten times the rate of wage increases. Prescription drug prices are a scandal, out of reach for many Americans.

Our rulers are trying to pit younger workers against the older generation through misleading scare stories about Social Security. There is serious discussion about raising the retirement age to seventy. Fewer than twenty percent of the workforce have defined benefit pensions from their employer. Most workers in 401(k) plans lost large sums during stock market "corrections." Many corporate pension funds are being raided and/or underfunded.

There is great inequality among the thousands of school districts in the United States. Property tax base determines how much funding is available to most schools. Curricula varies widely as well. Classroom sizes are generally on the rise. When income and race factors are added in it’s no wonder kids across the country don’t finish up on the same page. Many don’t finish at all. College and vocational school tuitions are soaring. It’s a bleak outlook for working class youth.

The Environment
Science has flagged many of the environmental dangers inherent in the short sighted greed of the global market economy. There are potential practical solutions available to most of these problems. But in recent years there has actually been a retreat from the earlier modest gains won by the environmental movement in air and water pollution and forest, mining, and agricultural practices. Even the timid goals of the Kyoto Treaty to reduce greenhouse gasses have been repudiated. Inhumane and polluting pig and chicken factories and genetically modified crops are overrunning the countryside—already being reduced in area by runaway urban sprawl. Oil companies press for drilling rights in the Arctic Refuge while nonunion coal companies literally blast the tops off mountains to scoop up coal with minimal labor time. SUVs have reversed the progress once made in fuel economy at the same time that transit service is being slashed in many areas. And what is being done here in America is nothing compared to what American corporations are doing to the environment of other lands. What a global mess is being left behind for our kids and grandkids!

What Can We Do?
Most of these challenges are widely recognized. But what—if anything—can be done about them?

Some union leaders are saying that organizing the unorganized is the key task and propose that the lion’s share of union resources be devoted to this effort.

Of course organizing is a good thing. Significant resources should always be allocated to bringing more workers into our unions. But this cannot and should not be our sole, or even top priority.

For one thing, the economic situation, and the repressive labor laws unions abide by, guarantee that significant organizing victories are going to be few and far between—no matter how much money is spent. We are not going to even keep up with the number of union members lost to corporate layoffs and outsourcing.

But even more importantly we have to recognize that none of the challenges named above can be effectively addressed through traditional collective bargaining with individual employers.

That’s true even with health care and pensions. One reason we face such a crisis in these areas is the flawed historical approach of our unions. For decades we have agreed to make our health care and retirement benefits dependent on current employers. In every other industrial country the labor movement successfully fought to get universal health care and pensions as public services, guaranteed to all. Even those of us with the best health insurance are out of luck if we’re laid off. And we, not the boss, pay most of the rising costs of health insurance either directly, through premiums and copays, or indirectly by diverting compensation that could have otherwise gone to wages.

Dealing With Politics
No, our most pressing issues are driven by government policies calculated to serve the employers. Even the AFL-CIO leadership recognizes the fundamentally political character of our problems. Unfortunately, they place all the blame on the Bush administration.

Certainly we have never seen a White House quite so arrogant about pursuing an antiworker agenda.

While Bush & Co. may be more crude they have not strayed all that far from a bipartisan line of march that has given us a kicking the past thirty years or so.

The Democrat ‘Opposition’
With one interesting exception2 the Democrat major players, present and past, have squabbled with the GOP mainly over nuances of difference, sometimes just style.

The best you will hear about health care from Democrat leaders is a cynical "universal health care" scheme that requires everyone to obtain private health insurance. Their prescription plans take public funds to subsidize the unconscionable price gouging of drug companies.

It was a Democrat dominated congress that started pushing up the retirement age from 65 to 67. It was a Democrat president that appointed a Social Security Commission charged with chiseling us out of even more benefits and legitimizing discussion about Social Security privatization.

Have our leaders forgotten that it was Clinton and Gore who drove through NAFTA? Have their memory banks been purged of Gore’s "reinventing government" scam paving the way for the present escalation of privatization? Can they not recall that it was Jimmy Carter who launched deregulation that has devastated so many of our once unionized industries? How about Clinton’s use, and threats of use, of the Railway Labor Act against airline and railroad workers? Or "welfare reform?"

The AFL-CIO leadership, after a brief fling with opposing war, now wants to talk about only "domestic" issues. The main reason for this is that they don’t want to burn any bridges, or needlessly embarrass anyone until the Democrat presidential nominee gets sorted out.

Lieberman is a super-hawk, projecting himself as tougher than Bush. Gephardt doesn’t like to say much more than we should "support the troops." Kerry voted in the senate to support Bush's attack on Iraq and favors more troops being sent there. The recently christened "peace" candidate Dean says Bush’s war drive was wrong but now that we are there we have to use the occupation to do the right thing.

With this kind of "opposition" it’s no wonder that so many workers have become demoralized, convinced that our plight is hopeless. Fortunately there are some who don’t accept "resistance is futile," and are prepared to fight. Populist columnist and radio commentator Jim Hightower sets a good tone with his A Labor Day Call to Arms.

Inspiring struggles, such as Verizon and at the Bush family alma mater Yale, continue on the picket lines.

A National Labor Assembly For Peace is scheduled for October.

There is still plenty of pride and fight left in the American working class waiting to be tapped.

What A Real Opposition Would Say

We should renounce the doctrine of preemptive war. End the occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq and bring our GIs home. Repeal the Patriot Act.
Health Care
Make health care a free public service, supported by taxes, available to all.3
Remove the cap on income subject to Social Security tax, and boost employer contributions, to defend and expand Social Security benefits.
Get rid of school property taxes and fund education from federal funds with a uniform curricula throughout the country. Free college and vocational school education for all qualified students who want it. That's the real way to leave no one behind.4
Put scientists and environmental advocates in charge of the EPA. Emergency action to reduce greenhouse gasses that contribute to global warming. Establish a fund to assist workers displaced by environmental measures. Greatly expand Amtrak and urban transit systems.
Enact a constitutional amendment to guarantee everyone the right to a job with decent pay. Reduce the work week to 35 hours with no cut in pay. Pull out of NAFTA, WTO, and all the other institutions of global capitalism.

Allow workers to choose union representation through card check. Repeal the Taft-Hartley Act with its prohibition of such effective tactics as mass picketing, secondary boycotts, sympathy strikes, and hot cargo embargos.5

This is the direction we must take in my opinion. Half measures, "incremental" progress is insufficient. Our problems are drastic and fundamental—so must be our solutions.

Are such demands impractical? Hardly. Never in the history of humanity has so much wealth been concentrated in such few hands in a single country. The wealth created by the working class is more than sufficient to meet all basic human needs. But we will have to adjust taxation and other measures to pry a little bit more out of the tight fists of the ruling rich.

Building a Working Class Party
There are few mainstream Democrats or Republicans prepared to support any part, much less all, of such a program. They sometimes vacillate between grandiose platitudes and inconsequential "reforms," but in the end nearly all are committed to making this system work—for the bosses.

We can expect a fierce struggle to obtain what we need and deserve. We will get nowhere without a party of our own.
Donna Dewitt leads rally
We have a start toward such a party—the Labor Party. The Labor Party was launched at a 1996 convention that attracted 1400 delegates. It is comprised of both affiliated unions—presently representing about two million members—and community chapters open to all who agree with the party, union member or not.

The Labor Party is strong on analysis and program. It is powerful in developing internal democracy. It is fearless in standing up to our enemies.

Unfortunately, it is still relatively weak in numbers and material resources. LP is not yet in a position to seriously run candidates for office.

But there’s a lot more to politics, at least working class politics, than elections. One thing the Labor Party can do today is to start focusing public debate about real issues and real solutions. For example, the Labor Party is currently initiating two regional conferences around the health care issue.

Labor Party members are also active in solidarity actions, organizing drives—and in opposing the war and occupation in Iraq.

Labor Party national organizer, Mark Dudzic, writes in the current issue of Labor Party Press:

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"What distinguishes the Labor Party is our serious approach to building real power for working people. This approach requires patience, vision, persistence, and principles. We will need to mobilize massive financial resources and millions of people. We will need to confront a system grown fat in its arrogance and sophisticated in its methods of control.

"The road ahead won’t be easy. But we’ve tried the easy roads and they’ve all led to dead ends. Sometimes the toughest path is the only way to go."

The day after Labor Day, as most other folks are returning to work, I will be taking my turn at hitting the road. Not a trip to the lake but a trip to our nation’s capital. I’ll be attending a meeting of the Labor Party Interim National Council (sort of the equivalent of a party national committee.) Along the way I will be stopping for visits with LP chapters in Chicago and Detroit.

While the mood at these gatherings may not be festive it won’t be depressed either. It will be determined, anxious to stir things up among our fellow workers. We are convinced that some day we will get a shot at contending for working class power. We have a lot of work to do to be ready for that inevitable opportunity.

Say, what are you doing these days?


Bill Onasch, webmaster of, is a member of the Labor Party Interim National Council, and chair of the Kansas City LP Local Organizing Committee.

1. For resources analyzing the war from a working class perspective see the KC Labor War Page.
Dennis Kucinich is an interesting maverick with good positions on many working class issues. Of course he hasn't the slightest chance of getting the Democrat nomination. Even if he were elected he would get little support needed from congress. A single good guy can't substitute for a needed mass movement. You can find more information about Kucinich, and all the other contenders, on
See the Labor Party's
Just Health Care campaign.
See the Labor Party's Higher Education campaign.
See the Labor Party's Campaign for Worker Rights.


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