Labor Advocate Online

Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
March 20, 2006

Sorry To Be Late–I Was Busy
Sometimes participating in events cuts down on the time I have to comment on them. I took my own advice to you and was involved in events around the third anniversary of the war during the time I usually write this column. So we’re a day late, as well, as always, several dollars short.

While I’m at it, I’ll give fair warning that next week’s column will be a day or two late–and there will be a week long break after Tuesday in updating the Daily Labor News Digest as well--as I make a rare visit to the west coast.

Significant Actions–But We Can Do Better
The first fragmentary reports of actions around the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq are in. As always, we need to take numbers in such early stories with a grain of salt. For example, I talked about an immigrant rights march in Chicago in our column last week, using initial figures reported in the press of 100,000. Since then more objective reports from several sources have pegged the size closer to a half-million. Nevertheless, we can make some early generalizations.

A number of major cities in the U.S.–including Chicago, Minneapolis, and San Francisco--had local demonstrations in the 5-10,000 or more range. Smaller cities, such as Hartford and New Haven in Connecticut, had actions of around 1,000. The peace movement in Kansas City attracted several hundred to a memorial vigil. In Reno, Nevada–with a population of only about 200,000--400 demonstrators turned out.

But there were no unified movement activities in New York or Washington, though there were relatively small actions organized by small groups. In general, actions across the country were on the same modest level as those on the second anniversary. That’s disturbing.

There is no question that the overwhelming majority of the American people now oppose this war and feel that it is the number one issue of concern. This year’s demonstrations did not reflect that growth in antiwar sentiment–nor the sense of urgency most people now feel.

For some, demonstrations are a form of personal witness–some religious, others "anti-imperialist." They feel good afterwards, proud of having done their duty. I will speak frankly about a local example.

The anniversary commemoration in Kansas City has become a ritualized affair, sort of like going to church to do your Easter Duty. You meet a lot of folks you haven’t seen since last year. This congregational atmosphere is reinforced by a preponderance of prayer and a speaking list mainly composed of clergy and elected officials. Organizers rejected proposals for a theme of "Bring the Troops Home Now" and insured a character of memorial vigil rather than a lively protest addressing demands to those in power.

Whether or not witnessing is an effective tactic for saving souls I cannot say. But, I will say categorically, it is not an effective approach to mass demonstrations. Demonstrations should have a goal of articulating mass sentiment around clear issues in order to compel those in power to meet their demands.

If you don’t have clear demands a demonstration is meaningless. It’s not enough to say "we’re for peace." No bloody war-monger worth their salt has ever said anything other than their fight is for peace. It’s not enough to say "we must have an exit strategy." Every aggressor looks for an exit strategy to follow completion of their mission. Some of them now cynically talk about "phased withdrawal"–just as LBJ sometimes did during the Vietnam war.

The defining demand for those who think the war is wrong and should be ended is Out Now! There’s no two ways about that one, no room for wiggle, no place to hide for those elected to or running for office. And, as more Americans join the antiwar majority that is the demand that best resonates with them.

In addition to focusing on the Out Now theme, I think it is also necessary to have a more inclusive atmosphere in the movement and our demonstrations. I have great respect for those who oppose war out of religious convictions. I wish there were more of them and they certainly are an important component of the antiwar movement.

But we have to recognize that most of the antiwar majority are not pacifists. Nor are they mainly convinced "anti-imperialists." They are against this war now. We need to accept and embrace them on that level. We need to have events where they feel welcome.

Those are some of the challenges we have to deal with if we are to go beyond "significant events" to the kind of mass movement the politicians cannot afford to defy.

Let’s Learn To Speak French
The other dominant story this week–and still developing–is the massive struggle in France against changes in labor law. The government is proposing a sea change with its First Employment Contract, known by its French initials as CPE. Workers under age 26 would lose the protection that other workers have–at least for now–against firing by the boss without showing just cause.

Of course, American workers have never won such a legal right–most are employed at the employer’s pleasure unless protected by a union contract and grievance procedure. French workers have fought hard over the years for good employment security and are not about to give this up without a fight.

The first to respond were the youth themselves. Students started occupying college campuses, beginning in Paris, shutting them down. They were brutally attacked by the police.

Some of us old-timers, who remember how student demonstrations and police brutality triggered a near revolution in France in May-June 1968, began wondering if this was déjB vu all over again. While whether things will go that far today remains to be seen the union movement has mobilized to fight with the youth against what they properly see as an attack on all workers. More than 1.5 million have marched in coordinated local demonstrations throughout France. (Figuring in the population difference that would be equivalent to 7.5 million in the U.S.) A general strike appears likely.

That’s the kind of language we should all learn–and that the bosses and politicians can understand as well.

That’s all for this week.

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