The first time I tried to celebrate May Day was by waving a black flag at Wills Point High School (about fifty miles east of Dallas, Texas) in 1981. None of the other students had any idea what that was about, and the teachers were probably just glad to know the Class of ‘81 would be gone soon, and my wierdo ass with it.
And for the next quarter century, celebrating May Day in the United States remained a pretty good sign that you were on the political margins. That started to change two years ago. Turnout was lower in 2007. But it’s a good sign when the website of the AFL-CIO’s Washington, DC Metro Council runs an announcement for tomorrow’s protests.
Meanwhile, there are interesting developments elsewhere…
My digital penpal John V. Burke has been sending info about how the dockworkers are going to shut down all West Coast ports on Thursday to protest the war. Postal workers in New York and San Francisco have expressed support for them, and port truck drivers are calling for a day of protest against fuel prices.
This counts for a lot more than the reclaiming of the original Labor Day. (A holiday that began as commemoration of an event in American labor history, no less.) As John writes in a message he’s sent around to friends:
I well remember how indignant a lot of antiwar people were at US organized labor’s late, feeble, and sometimes dead wrong positions during the Vietnam War. Much of the then AFL-CIO leadership supported the war (though this support grew less vocal as the war dragged on under a Republican administration); so did a lot of union members, notably the building trades “hard hats” who waded into an antiwar rally in Manhattan in 1969. There were exceptions, including the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on the West Coast and, eventually, the United Auto Workers and a number of public employee unions; there was a labor coalition against the war, which formed a contingent at rallies, bought ads in the print media, and lent support to antiwar candidates.
What there wasn’t, though, was any use of labor’s economic strength—the strike weapon—to express opposition to the war, and that baffled and irritated some antiwar activists, especially those who didn’t know much about labor law or labor history. (I know this doesn’t apply to a lot of the recipients of this message; feel free to skip ahead if this is familiar material.) In particular, students from middle-class families weren’t aware that under the Taft-Hartley amendments to the National Labor Relations Act, the use of the strike weapon for any purpose except in disputes about collective bargaining agreements is explicitly prohibited…..In return, major corporate employers would recognize unions and accept contracts that included regular productivity and cost-of-living increases; there were occasional disruptions in this cozy arrangement, but strike activity fell sharply from the big upsurge in 1946-47 and stayed low until the “stagflation” and mass layoffs that began in the mid-70’s.
And now, thirty years later, even that is ancient history.
The Cold War is over, the steady-growth postwar economy is over, union density as a percentage of the workforce is down from 35% to 13% (and less in the once-powerful industrial sector), anti-labor policies have been entrenched at the NLRB for many years, and neither the Carter nor Clinton administrations achieved labor’s goal of legislative reform. (How hard did they try? Good question.)
In short, the deal that undergirded labor’s qualified support for the Vietnam War has fallen apart. The postwar social compact was a tradeoff; the other side went back on the bargain. It’s time for labor to begin reclaiming its full range of tactical options in support of a robust participation in political life, on an agenda of labor’s choosing without the artificial constraints imposed by Taft-Hartley. This will be, inevitably, a gradual process, and it may get ugly; I don’t think there are any US Attorneys dumb enough to try to indict the ILWU leadership, but I may be being too generous.
John—who was a railroad brakeman for fifteen years and a locomotive engineer for another thirteen, before retiring—says he’s going to be out tomorrow “with my United Transportation Union button on, prouder of the labor movement, my movement, than I’ve ever had a chance to feel in my life.” Me? I’m going to be on Capitol Hill, marching around in front of the Republican and Democratic National Committee offices, chanting bilingual slogans about solidarity. That sounds pretty good to me. Beats yelling at the television set.