We, the People, Came to Indy to “Represent Ourselves”

indianapolis protestsEDITOR’S NOTE: Ira Grupper is the author of “Labor Paens,” a column that appears in FORsooth, the monthly newspaper of the Louisville, Ky., chapter of Fellowship of Reconciliation,  This is his column in the April issue.

There were twenty of us from here in Louisville, Kentucky, active and retired union sisters and brothers from the Communication Workers of America (CWA), United Auto Workers (UAW), and Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers Union (BCTGM). We drove in two vans to Indianapolis, Indiana, to support the thousands and thousands of Indiana workers massed in the Indiana legislature building.

In Indiana, as in Wisconsin and Ohio, the Republican-dominated legislature and a reactionary Republican governor are hell bent on destroying municipal collective bargaining rights, and focused on rolling back union gains won thru many decades of struggle.

We met up with two Louisville union brothers from the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW). Both of them were standing before a massive crowd, a throng that completely filled the main floor of the atrium, and all the floors above. One strummed his guitar and both belted out union songs to a jubilant audience.

Bill Londrigan, state president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, gave a powerful speech in support of our friends to the north: “A few short years ago the workers and unions of Kentucky faced a similar challenge when a newly elected Republican governor made passage of right-to-work-for-less and repeal of prevailing wage two of his top agenda items…

“…And, like the union members of Indiana, (we) came to (our) capitol in Frankfort by the thousands…When it was all over we defeated both right-to-work and repeal of prevailing wage!”

How glorious was this Indiana throng, decked out in union jackets, shirts and caps, chanting and singing. We also stood in support of the Democratic legislators who crossed into a neighboring state to deprive the Republicans of a quorum, and while the Republicans were exposed for their vicious attack on the working class.

The politicians claim to represent the people. We, the people, were there to represent ourselves.

But the outcome of this struggle is not settled. Republican capital and power is formidable. Yet, and as of this writing (March 9), with his disapproval number at nearly 60 percent, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is facing possible mass defections by Republicans from his anti-worker agenda. Then, again, the reactionaries hold state power.

Still, our labor movement for too long has been divided, uncreative, seemingly flummoxed by companies closing in the U.S. and reopening overseas. Unions have for too long attended labor-management seminars, and have embraced that new euphemism, “working families,” instead of that old truth: the “working class.”

There are signs that the U.S. labor movement, divided into two camps—the AFL-CIO, and Change to Win—is beginning to re-energize. But, minus a creative approach to reach masses of workers, is it enough?

Enter the Emergency Labor Meeting (ELM). Ninety-six union leaders and activists from 26 states, and from a cross-section of the labor movement, gathered at the Laborers Local 310 Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 4-5, 2011, in response to an invitation-only letter sent out in January urging them to “explore together what we can do to mount a more militant and robust fight-back campaign to defend the interests of working people.”

Your columnist was there, representing the Kentucky Labor Institute (KLI), a group that hopes to set up classes to teach labor history throughout Kentucky. Here, are some of the fifteen “perspectives” approved by ELM:

The cold-blooded (capital) offensive threatens the very existence of our unions. Labor movement unity in action — public and private sector, the two federations and the independent unions — is indispensable… (T)he key to an effective fight-back is mobilization of the union ranks…in the workplace and in the streets.

…There is plenty of money available without demanding givebacks from public employees, but this requires changing our nation’s priorities to raise taxes on the rich, redirect war dollars to meet human needs, and more… We not only defend the social insurance model — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc. — but demand that these programs be strengthened… Nor can contract negotiations create the 27 million full-time jobs urgently needed today. Since the private sector has failed to do this (in fact, the corporations continue to off-shore good full-time jobs in their continued drive to lower labor costs), we need a public sector that can put America back to work…

…we…champion the needs of the entire working class, including the unemployed, not just our dues-paying members.

…we reject every attempt to divide us by race, skin color, gender, immigration status, religion, or sexual orientation. This means not only politically correct resolutions but active support to all targets of such pernicious discrimination.

A unified, energized working class could reach out (to) students, mom-and-pop businesses, family farmers, and others who are being squeezed by the corporate class. (No) partner(ing) with the Chamber of Commerce and corporate America…

Our goals cannot be met while American blood and vast amounts of our tax dollars are being consumed by unjust wars to advance the global corporate agenda. We say end the wars, bring all of our troops home now…

…The mutual declarations of support between protesters in Madison (Wisconsin) and insurgent independent unions in Egypt are a proud example that deserve wide emulation. **Since many of the attacks we face today have bipartisan support, labor must act independently of these two parties. **We must view organizing the South as fundamental to rebuilding a strong national labor movement in this country.

We close with the words of Abraham Lincoln (1861): “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Ira Grupper

Ira Grupper is a union and civil rights activist from Louisville and a member of the board of directors of the Kentucky Labor Institute. He can be contacted by email at irag@iglou.com.

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