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The Long March...and the Million Worker March

Tuesday November 2, 2004 - 09:30


History and its symbols having been central in conceptualizing the demonstration for jobs, peace and human needs that took place at the Lincoln Memorial on a crisp afternoon this past October 17, it is worth casting the mind back a bit before proceeding with our story of that event, recalling first the organizational finesse and political discipline of this latest demonstration’s most famous forebear (depicted on its fliers and literature), the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

It is too bad that the 1963 march is so welded in both the liberationist and popular imaginations to Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I have a dream" speech, because "that speech" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overshadows political lessons that aren’t reiterated every January 15 over the radio waves. Lessons that begin with a series of questions, like Why was that march called for that time anyway? To demonstrate a public demand for action on civil rights legislation then before Congress. The dreams were bigger, of course-freedom, equality, economic and every other kind of justice. But when King proposed the idea, on June 1, 1963, less than three months before it would become a reality, he had particular strategic objectives: to "take advantage", as Taylor Branch writes in Parting the Waters, "of the fever he felt sweeping ahead of them" in the form of mass actions throughout the South; to put heat under the Kennedy administration, whose vacillating affinities King rightly gauged; to pressure Congress and spark the national conscience by the display of a unified "mass meeting" the likes of which the country had never seen.

Who was its immediate target? A recalcitrant Congress. King and other organizers initially considered expending equal firepower against the Kennedys and Congress, but made a tactical decision to divide their opposition, appealing to the former as a limited ally, though without many illusions.

Whose resistance did it have to defuse, disarm, defy? The NAACP leadership, much of the liberal establishment, the Kennedy administration. In radical retellings of the march, it’s often recalled that Malcolm X scorned it as the "Farce on Washington"; that SNCC’s Bob Moses disdained political maneuvering (of which he regarded the march an example) and carried a sign declaring "When There Is No Justice, What Is the State but a Robber Band Enlarged?"; that a last-minute hullabaloo resulted in striking a line deemed too incendiary from John Lewis’s speech: "We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own ’scorched earth’ policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground-nonviolently." Less commonly remembered is that NAACP poo-bahs had had an allergy to marches, had worked overtime to denigrate direct action of any kind until history confronted them with the question of their own relevance; that much of organized labor was hostile; that Kennedy, as Branch writes, "toyed briefly with legislating ’a reasonable limitation of the right to demonstrate’", distrusted King, whom he regarded as "so hotthat it’s like Marx coming to the White House", and allowed the FBI to raise an alarum of Negro Violence and warn people to stay away.

Who ultimately defined the march? The masses who answered the call, and the organizers marshaled by Bayard Rustin, working under the aegis of the great labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who made sure they not only heard it but also had a way to make their answer felt in the flesh: 2,000 organizing manuals disbursed to 2,000 local leaders, 200 core volunteers, 2,000 buses, 21 chartered trains, 80,000 cheese-sandwich bag lunches packed by volunteers at Riverside Church, 400 march marshals, a seven-minute limit on speeches and a hook man to enforce it. Rustin had set a goal of 100,000 marchers. Two hours before the scheduled rally, police estimated the crowd at twice that. Buses from the North had been rolling through the Baltimore tunnel at a rate of 100 an hour. The final demonstrator count may have been 300,000, maybe more. While hardly revolutionary, the march was another kind of festival of the oppressed-complete with celebrities, and with the conviction that so many people can’t, at last, be denied. For most of the participants it was their first national demonstration, uniquely cross-racial but majority black, an unprecedented expression of popular will and solidarity; and, as they say, you always remember your first.

It may seem unfair to juxtapose the Million Worker March, as the October 17 demonstration was called, and one of the iconic events of modern American history, but the event’s organizers invited the comparison; they even had a King, MLK III, on the Lincoln steps. The name, on the other hand, they borrowed from the Nation of Islam’s 1995 Million Man March, a clash of symbols, given the Nation’s views on racial separatism; and of politics, given the MMM’s emphasis on personal responsibility and entrepreneurship, and the MWM’s on the collective action of workers, union and nonunion, against structures that depend on racism, exploitation and war. The name was unfortunate for another reason, rousing expectations that the event didn’t, couldn’t, live up to, either in numbers (by generous calculations, there were 3,000 to 5,000 people) or in action (there was no march, which came as a rude surprise to workers I rode on the bus with from New York, who learned they were in for a day-long speechfest only upon disembarking in DC).

And yet the demonstration was important-for the agenda it enunciated, for the prospect it dangles of what one of its organizers, Clarence Thomas of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) executive board, called "the civil rights initiative for the 21st century" and the coalition that would necessitate, for the weaknesses it exposed of both institutional labor (the International unions, the AFL-CIO and its state and local bodies) and rank-and-file formations at this stage.

The idea for the demo emerged this past January within ILWU Local 10 in Oakland. Throughout the proceedings in Washington, it was referred to as "the storied", "the legendary", "the historic" Local 10, justifiably given that it was home base for Harry Bridges, founder of the ILWU and leader of the 1934 West Coast maritime strike (and San Francisco general strike), that it pioneered US labor actions against apartheid in the 1980s, that it has played a central role in shutting down the West Coast ports on behalf of everything from contract grievances to international solidarity to Mumia Abu Jamal. It is a rare bird in labor’s aviary, a militant, black, rich local (it donated $1 million to the Southern California grocery strike earlier this year, and some of its members and retirees shelled out thousands, in one case $50,000, of their own money for the MWM). It is a local that has come to see audacity rewarded, so why shouldn’t it call for a national mobilization? But it is still a local, and without the endorsement of even its International president and executive board, it was clear from the beginning that mounting such a demonstration two weeks before a tooth-and-claw national election would be a mighty, contentious undertaking.

On June 23, the AFL-CIO’s director of field mobilization, Marilyn Schneiderman, sent a memo to all state federations and local labor councils encouraging them "not to sponsor or devote resources to the demonstrations in Washington, DC, but instead to remain focused on the election." As Thomas notes, there’s something badly amiss when mobilizing on behalf of such things as national health care, a living wage, affordable housing, jobs, literacy, Social Security, progressive taxation, democracy and an end to the war in Iraq is considered audacious. (Other demands included cancellation of neoliberal trade agreements, an end to "the criminalization of poverty and the prison-industrial complex", an end to privatization and the "mad race to the bottom", repeal of Taft-Hartley and other impediments to the right to organize, major investment for neighborhood revitalization, environmental restoration, free mass transit, repeal of the Patriot Act and similar repressive legislation, deep cuts in the military budget, open airing of military and intelligence "black budgets", enforcement of all civil rights, resistance against all forms of discrimination, development of democratic media and an end to media monopolization.)

"These are things workers can agree on, no matter what a person’s political persuasion", Thomas says. "We felt it was important to express the urgent demands of workers-organized and unorganized-in the face of assaults on the working class, hardships not seen since the Great Depression, and the failure of either political party to take up a workers’ agenda. Fact is, we need to be making demands on all politicians."

That is the MWM’s short answer to the first of the questions posed earlier, namely Why was the march called for this time? Local 10’s original resolution for the demonstration spoke of it as a necessary adjunct to voter registration, education and get-out-the-vote work, a means of motivating people who might reasonably find the candidates lacking. In the world as it might be, this is what organized labor would do: mobilize voters but also organize mass action to buck up the base, build and leverage power; engage closely enough in the electoral process to influence politicians but independently enough to challenge and, as necessary, punish them. In the world as it is, however, this is not what most of institutional labor has experience in, and union swells were not going to start experimenting in an election year in which the incumbent administration had eliminated workers’ collective bargaining rights, overtime, ergonomic standards, had threatened to eliminate union recognition by card check, equated unionists with terrorists, locked up immigrants, opposed affirmative action, endorsed outsourcing, presided over huge job losses and even greater inequality-not to mention the war, which some of the most powerful affiliates oppose.

In the days before and after the demonstration, AFL HQ on 16th Street was a ghost place, virtually everyone from secretaries to executive vice presidents having gone to "battleground states" to work the phone banks, leaflet communities, get out the vote. In places like Wisconsin, the 5,000-member Teamsters Local 200, with a rank and file TDU leadership, committed all its mobilization efforts in the run-up weeks to the election. Steelworkers in biker leathers were going door-to-door with an enthusiasm longtime labor political operatives say they have never seen. From Philadelphia, the head of the Central Labor Council, which opposed war in Iraq before it began, told Gene Bruskin, co-convener of US Labor Against the War, that they couldn’t spare a single body for the Million Worker March if it were held before the election; everyone was working flat-out, particularly on the weekends. Thomas found it insulting to suggest that unions couldn’t do two things at one time, but realistically even doing one thing is hard for most of them, such is the state of underdevelopment. And Bruskin says he heard the same from other member groups, which, he believed, would have participated enthusiastically at another time.

Along with all those bodies focused on elections flow dollars, millions of them. Donna DeWitt, president of the South Carolina State AFL-CIO, the only state fed to endorse and organize for the MWM, said she understood the importance of the resource question for the federation ("they’re broke!") but, like all the union people I spoke with, resented the memo. (And especially resented Schneiderman gesturing disapprovingly at her MWM T-shirt at an earlier federation gathering, and snapping, "We have to talk.") "If the AFL had supported and mobilized for the march-even tacitly, even by just encouraging affiliates to do what they could and giving a little money," DeWitt continued, "it would have been a lot bigger. As it is, they gave all affiliates an excuse not to participate." And, she added, gave organizations like USLAW and the Labor Party, which depend on unions and state and local labor bodies for their funding, a reason to be fearful about endorsing. Neither did endorse, though Bruskin did personally, as did individual Labor Party members, like DeWitt and Brenda Stokely, a march organizer who is also president of AFSCME District Council 1707 in New York.

It might be countered that march planners allowed the AFL its excuse; a post-election demo would have deprived them of it. Even if this stirred no more official support (and no one would want so much support that it translated into control), it would have made opposition more awkward, placing class concerns at the center of the table, prodding labor officials who might want to relax if Kerry wins and capitalizing on the public assertions of those like SEIU’s Andy Stern that no matter who is president, labor will need to fight. In a switch from previous periods, labor strategists began talking seriously in October about organized pressure on a putative President-elect Kerry. Back in October 1992, when Jesse Jackson called for national civil rights and labor leaders to meet two weeks after the election to figure out how to put some concentrated heat on Bill Clinton, none of labor’s representatives could make it.

As the rally on October 17 actually played out, there was no compelling sign that it would have made any difference whether the event occurred before or after the election. Who was its immediate target? It’s hard to say. Speakers thundered against Bush but also against the Democrats. Some urged the crowd to vote for change and get their friends to do the same; others said not to worry about the election. None that I heard made a tactical United Front-style argument for voting for Kerry, followed by a clear program of resistance and pressure from the left on the issues. None I heard advocated for Nader or Cobb or anyone. A few floated dreams of a real labor party, of a general strike, requisite sky-castle of sectarian newspaper floggers and hangers-on. There were a couple of Kerry signs, multiple anti-Bush insignia, a few digs at union bureaucrats. The best speeches stuck to the heart of the matter: the war on workers, the war on the world.

Afterward, rally organizers said the election wasn’t the issue; the demands transcend it. Certainly, but then what was the strategic value of the timing? When most of the organized working class is highly interested in an election outcome and the rest of the working class is made no stronger by disenfranchisement in a system where the rich do vote, being fuzzy about that election, on the cusp of the election, indicates a disconnect from the base. Demonstrations do need some kind of message discipline and critical mass if they are to be political interventions at a moment in time. Like politicians, workers can count.

Clearly, it was the AFL’s resistance that demonstration organizers had to defuse, disarm, defy. Perhaps as important, though-because the day the AFL is a rank-and-file organization, the revolution will already have happened-is what one union electrician at the march called "activistism", the tendency of some left activists, because they spend so much time talking to each other, to convince themselves of a reality at an angle to actual fact. There is a perdurable romance about the rank and file’s willingness, consciousness to move, often detectable by pronouncements beginning, "Working people know" In the summer there was talk among march organizers about rethinking the event if the numbers weren’t building, if the money wasn’t coming in sufficiently. It was never pursued further, mostly because nobody wanted to be seen as throwing cold water on the project. In the weeks before the march some activists involved with the planning, particularly those connected with International ANSWER, continued to insist that there would be 100,000 demonstrators, even when the buses so far on order would hold only 2,000. This is classic sectarian fantasism: look at the list of endorsers, who in this case were legion, some real, some not, and extrapolate. American Postal Workers Union, representing 330,000 workers; National Education Association, representing 3.5 million workers, and so on like that. That those organizations have no history of mobilizing workers, even for their own causes, is ignored.

Who defined the march? The activists, but perhaps just for now. Ralph Schoenman, a fellow long in the sectarian trenches who somehow became the MWM’s communications chair, hogged the mic, affecting the cadences of a Southern minister as he made introductions, among them his "best friend" Dick Gregory. Even as the day lengthened and the crowd thinned, there seemed to be no adjustment of the program. A representative of twenty-six trade unionists who had come all the way from Japan for the march was kept waiting until the very end, when most of the audience had already headed off to meet their buses. ANSWER’s Larry Holmes said afterward, "We hit a homerun." Because the event was broadcast over CSPAN, Clarence Thomas could justifiably say, "We may not have had a million people but we reached a million households." But he didn’t talk about homeruns; like some of the workers from New York waiting for the bus home, he admitted disappointment.

The most hopeful note is that the people who did come were not by and large professional activists. From their jackets and T-shirts, flags and caps, they seemed mostly to be workers or organized immigrants. At least half the crowd was black. Two buses had come from South Carolina (compared with one from Chicago), and the day after, Ken Riley, president of International Longshore Association Local 1422 out of Charleston, said workers who had attended or watched it on TV thanked him for affording them an opportunity rare in their home state. (The local had hired two additional buses based on expressed interest, but in the end, Riley said, a lot of the younger longshoremen decided to take advantage of the older-timers’ absence to get work on the docks.) As Ron Washington of Black Telephone Workers for Justice out of New Jersey said later, the overall success of the event will be determined by whether it begins to construct a skeletal framework on which people can build, uniting workers who are now fragmented and isolated, articulating the interests of the broad working class through specific fights but also helping those struggling to gain power or even just develop a strong left opposition in their unions. The nature of leadership does, after all, influence the nature of engagement.

There’s no rule of politics that says national mobilizations must come only after strong local networks have been built and are active, but it helps. The 1963 March on Washington followed at least eight years of vigorous local militancy. But there’s no saying it can’t work the other way around, especially if the most serious people behind this effort forge good regional leadership, good coalitions, good communication and define a clear aim and enemy. For the past seven years the AFL has been trying to fan interest in the idea of the right to organize as the spark for a new civil rights movement. But as tough, progressive black trade unionists, many of whom participated in the MWM, regularly say, the old civil rights movement is yet unfinished. And there’s no way you’re going to get a person who can’t find a job, can’t feed the kids, has no health care or is about to be sent to jail or Iraq to believe that the most important thing in life is the right to form a union. Now, if the union cut a public presence caring for that job, those kids, that health care, that jail sentence and that war, maybe...

Joann Wypijewski is a writer living in New York. She contributed an essay on Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition to CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. She can be reached at: She can be reached at: jwp@thenation.com


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