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Labor Day, 2009: Picnics, Parades, and a Pinch of Protest

We are in a situation in America where the working class, and in particular the union working class, has shrunk to the lowest point its ever been, and this is the reality we are going to have to face in a global economy…We’re talking about a Global Labor Movement and that’s the only way American workers are going to survive.

“The only time I see crowds this ethnically diverse is at labor rallies,” observed one man at the 30th Annual Labor Day Parade. One unconfirmed estimate reported that some three thousand to six thousand marchers converged at Banning Park in Wilmington, California, on Monday, September 7th. Someone said past marches drew about ten thousand participants. There was political diversity as well, as will be shown later. But this was evident immediately as shown by many sightings of single-payer healthcare signs -- unlike many Democratic Party sponsored or affiliated events, where such displays are discouraged if not disallowed. Thus, diversity was present here even in political hues.


Racist Anti-Unionism: Then and Now
In the current issue of the Harbor Independent Newspaper, Random Lengths News, a feature article documents incidents showing how racism is at the root of today’s healthcare opposition. This has a parallel to the past, when the Ku Klux Klan, used vicious, violent attacks not only against Blacks, but also against the foreign-born, Jews, Catholics and others—and notably against union organizers as well. At one of the many booths at this event, Harvey Schwartz, author of Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU, referred me to the testimony of John Rodin and Frank Sundstet (p. 64) recounting how the KKK, in search for labor activists, invaded a home in the Long Beach area. Scalding hot coffee was thrown on these two children of labor activists, at least one of whom had to be hospitalized and suffered lifelong scars.

The 30-year commemoration of the Harbor Labor Coalition began in support of a bitter Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) strike in 1979. The venue changed from San Pedro to Wilmington, but the march and rally has continued to the present. Today’s event also commemorated Harry Bridges, the ILWU organizer who was successful, in part, due to the inclusion of Blacks in his union.

Labor’s Day: We Talk; Politicians Listen
Nowadays, most Americans observe Labor Day as a holiday in which they generally picnic somewhere, BBQ at home, or go bargain-shopping. Rallies and marches like this one in Southern California, with its growing labor and unionized labor force, are an exception. At this rally, politicians were not allowed to give speeches. (They made sure, however, that their support for labor was acknowledged from the podium). The sole exception was Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who was instrumental in securing the permits for this event and who presented a scroll for the occasion. (Later in the day, someone showed me a letter to the editor in the current issue of Random Lengths News in which a reader chides Councilwoman Hahn--and Mayor Villaraigosa--for arguing that [Staples owner] AEG should not have to assume costs related to Michael Jackson’s funeral, even “at a time when the City is laying off workers and furloughing employees.”

But this day belonged to Labor, and the only other speakers were from unions. Maria Elena Durazo, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, gave the opening talk. She cited two victories for Labor attained by President Obama: the Lily-Ledbetter-Actandthe re-authorization of federal construction project labor (PLA) agreements that he had promised unions.

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Congressional candidate Marcy Winograd (Photo Myla Reson)

Gratitude and Grumbling at Grassroots
A wide range of booths representing traditional labor unions of teachers, building trades, firefighters and numerous others sponsors were at this event. There was considerable pride on display both for their unions and for America as well. Perhaps the best example of this was the Teamsters. They have two projects supporting returning veterans: Helmets to Hardhats and Patriot Guard Riders. The former seeks to assist returning veterans with expedited employment in construction trades; the latter provides motorcycle escorts to families who have lost loved ones in the war-and for whom funeral services are arranged.

On such occasions, anti-war activists are discouraged from displaying signs, out of respect for the privacy of family members. A Teamster van, on site, had a slogan that reads: “Don’t Condemn the Warrior Because You Are Against the War.” While this position is quite unlike Harry Bridges’ explicit call for trade unions “to oppose war,” it also allows room for dissent. The Teamster members this writer spoke with also concurred that working people have had to shoulder a highly disproportionate--and unfair-- share of its costs.

Many other booths, however, reflected other trends and viewpoints. One popular booth offered hope for those struggling to keep their homes, allegedly by providing competitive rates for mortgage assistance. [Note: no endorsement by this writer is implied]. The Jewish Labor Committee called attention to human trafficking, while another group protested anti-labor actions by US-supported governments in Columbia, Honduras and elsewhere. Radio station KPFK was present, as were such groups as the ANSWER coalition, and National Radical Women, a feminist and socialist organization.

These dissident voices were critical of the political speeches and the solutions presented by traditional organized labor groups. They were seeking ways to unify an independent labor movement, and asked why Labor was no longer calling for strikes and protests. One activist said “We know we can’t call for anything too big or too extreme, like a general strike. But a one-day work stoppage—like the one done recently by dockworkers to protest the war—could be a useful tool to organize.” Another person added “What about a one-day work stoppage to call for the Governor to resign—or to demand his recall?” Another woman chimed in “It would take only forty-one votes in the Assembly to force the issue.” These people were all asking, in one form or another, “Why are there no labor leaders or politicians making such demands?”

Judging by some of the Winograd buttons being worn by such commentators, Marcy Winograd may be a beneficiary of such views. At her booth, brochures note that she is challenging Congresswoman Jane Harman in the 36th District, and cite Winograd’s 15-year history as a UTLA member and activist, as well as her earlier history as a labor organizer with the United Farm Workers Union. [Full disclosure: this writer is a Winograd supporter].

Finally, one quotation that made the rounds was made by Dave Arian, President, ILWU (1991-1993), in a Harbor Labor Coalition brochure:

“We are in a situation in America where the working class, and in particular the union working class, has shrunk to the lowest point its ever been, and this is the reality we are going to have to face in a global economy…We’re talking about a Global Labor Movement and that’s the only way American workers are going to survive.”

Gene Rothman

Gene Rothman, DSW, LCSW, is a retired social worker active with interfaith groups in Culver City and with the Social Action/Social Justice Council of the National Association of Social Workers.