The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Solidarity Day:
Will the Workers Make the Unions’ Threat a Reality?

Oct 31, 1981

On September 19, somewhere between a quarter of a million and a half a million people turned out for Solidarity Day, a protest organized by the AFL-CIO against many of the economic and social policies of the Reagan administration. Demonstrators came from all over the Eastern and Midwestern parts of the United States in buses, cars and trains that filled the public thoroughfares, for a massive march and rally.

This demonstration was clearly the biggest workers’ demonstration in the United States since the 1930s. The heart of the demonstration was made up of contingents of workers from all the major unions except the Teamsters, whose officials have been supporting the Republican Party for several years now. Drawn in behind the workers were tens of thousands of people from hundreds of working class and petty-bourgeois organizations; including black organizations, women’s rights groups, retirees and senior citizen’s clubs, community and church groups, left organizations, consumer, student and environmental groups.

The organization of the Solidarity Day demonstration was a change from the normal practices of the union officials. Since the 1940s, they have organized no big demonstrations representative of the working class as a whole. Rather, the union officials have tried to limit the struggle of the workers to only one plant, or one company, or at most, to only one industry at a time.

Yet Solidarity Day, organized by these same union officials, was made up of contingents from all sections of the working class and its traditional allies.

The demands of the demonstrators, expressed on the picket signs they carried, reflected the tone of militancy of the demonstration. They ranged from an end to government cuts in social programs (especially Social Security), to the appropriation of less government money for military weapons, to a settlement of the air traffic controllers’ strike on terms favorable to the strikers, to demands for protection of the rights of black people and of women, to an end to the weakening of government regulations concerning on-the-job safety and clean-up of environmental pollution. In general, a militant opposition to the whole range of ruling class attacks on the workers’ standard of living was expressed, along with a tremendous feeling of solidarity with all those sectors of the population that are under attack.

Are the Union Officials Now Going to Lead the Entire Working Class in a Struggle to Defend Itself?

While the union officials organized a demonstration representing the entire working class, they did not call on the entire working class to make a fight. In fact, the union officials were

careful to make sure that the workers did not get this impression from the demonstration.

The officials focused the workers’ protests against the attacks of the entire government and ruling class on Reagan and the conservative Republicans alone. The role of the Democrats and their own role as union officials in helping to carry out these attacks during the past several years was ignored. The slogans printed on the union-supplied picket signs that many workers carried during the demonstration helped to do this. And so did the speeches given by the union officials at the rally.

The union officials did not discuss the fact, for example, that the increased inflation and unemployment victimized the working class as much under the earlier Democratic Carter administration, which they supported, as under the present Reagan administration. They did not mention that the recent cutbacks in government programs beneficial to the working class started under the Democratic Carter administration. And they did not discuss how the Reagan administration’s attacks on the PATCO strikers were carried out with the acceptance or outright approval of many Democratic politicians, and with no effective opposition from themselves.

Above all, the union officials did not mention that it was when Carter was in office and both houses of Congress were controlled by the Democrats that the government helped the Chrysler bosses and the union officials to force Chrysler workers to accept renegotiated contracts that will soon be costing each worker over $8,000 every year in reduced wages and benefits. They also didn’t mention how this take-back from the Chrysler workers helped set the stage for many other contract take-backs that the bosses have demanded since that time.

By hiding the role of the Democrats, and their own role, in these attacks on the workers, the union officials gave the impression that the big problems that the workers face today are caused by the policies of Reagan and the conservative Republicans alone, rather than by policies of the entire ruling class and all its politicians. And despite the fact that the union officials invited no politicians to speak at the Solidarity Day rally, or even to sit on the speakers’ platform, they clearly implied that the solution to these problems is for the workers simply to continue trying to vote so-called Democratic “friends of labor” into public offices.

Why Did the Union Officials Organize this Demonstration at this Time?

The union officials organized this demonstration as a response to the threats, veiled and direct, which Reagan has made against them. Reagan has been charging in public lately that the union officials don’t really represent the attitude of their own union members when they oppose his cutbacks in social programs. Unlike all other Republican and Democratic presidents since the 1930’s, Reagan has also been refusing even to give them advance notice about his policies and actions. In short, Reagan has been making it clear that he doesn’t think union officials are very useful anymore for implementing the government’s policies.

Finally, Reagan has moved to destroy the Professional Association of Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO). If the controllers strike is successfully crushed by the government, most

of the controllers’ now still on strike may get their jobs back, but the officials of PATCO will get

neither their jobs back, nor retain their union positions. Their influence will be ended.

Reagan’s attacks on PATCO represent a potentially mortal threat against all the union officials. He has made the point that if they lead any struggle that seriously challenges his policies or actions, he will move to get rid of them.

The union officials organized the Solidarity Day demonstration to make a counter threat to Reagan and his ruling class supporters. By organizing a demonstration representative of the entire working class, they were able to give the impression that they are the ones who control the power represented by the working class. In effect, they said to Reagan, “Look, if you refuse to deal with us, and even threaten us with political extinction, then we could make big trouble for you. So you better start talking with us, and stop threatening us. Because contrary to your claims, we really are the representatives not just of our own union members, but of the entire working class.”

While the union officials used Solidarity Day to make this threat, it was clear that they were not calling now on the workers to fight as a class. The officials did not, for example, call on the working class to support the PATCO strikers. They could have used the demonstration in this way, if they had wanted to. They could have told the assembled workers, and all those who read about or saw coverage of the rally in the mass media, that a broad fight against Reagan and his policies had to begin right then, starting with a nationwide campaign of actions in support of the PATCO strikers.

The demonstration would have been a good forum from which to call for such a campaign. But the union officials didn’t do this, and they were careful to make sure the PATCO strikers didn’t get the chance at the demonstration to call for such actions themselves.

Thousands of PATCO strikers marched militantly during the demonstration with their fists raised chanting, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” to the cheers of tens of thousands of other workers. But when the time came for the speeches at the rally, little was said about the PATCO strike. And only a single representative of PATCO was allowed to speak for just a couple minutes, calling for no specific acts of support whatsoever.

The Union Officials Left Their Future Options Open

Certainly. the union officials organized Solidarity Day as a response to the threats on them coming from the Reagan administration. Nonetheless, they were also able to make a show to the workers that they were able and willing to do something to defend the working class against the attacks coming down on it.

In fact, the real policy of the union officials has been during the past years to help keep the working class relatively quiet as the ruling class has sharply intensified its exploitation of the workers, driving down the standard of living of the working class as a whole in order to maintain and even increase their profits. The union officials have supported government policies that require only SLIGHTLY less sacrifice on the part of the workers than the sacrifices called for by the policies of Reagan today.

Lately the union officials have more and more frequently joined directly with the corporations, the banks and the government in carrying out the attacks on the workers. During this period of inflation they have negotiated and renegotiated contracts that actually reduce the workers’ wages. In 1980 and 1981, they told the Chrysler workers that they had to accept the severe contract take-backs by the Chrysler bosses and the banks in order to save their jobs. They told the Chrysler workers that there was nothing they could do about this. And in many other industries like rubber, the airlines, trucking and among government employees they have done the same thing.

So far, the only industry in which the workers have put up a big fight against such union-endorsed contract take-backs is in coal mining. The coal miners put up a tremendous struggle in 1977 and 1978 to stop the coal companies (who are mostly owned by the oil and steel bosses), the government and the union officials themselves from stripping the of benefits and rights that were hard-won in earlier struggles. Their strike, lasting almost 4 months and branded “illegal” by the Carter administration, gained the support of many thousands of workers outside of the coal mining industry. While the miners were not able to retain all of the benefits and rights they fought to defend, they were able to retain most of them. And they showed the entire working class just how much a solid, determined struggle could accomplish.

Confronted by the attacks which the bourgeoisie and its government are making on the working class, the union officials had to have some way to respond – if they had not, it’s possible that more sections of the working class other than the miners could begin to look to their own struggle. In this regard, Solidarity Day gave to the bureaucrats the definite appearance of organizing a response. They mobilized an immense demonstration, and if they never discussed making a fight, nonetheless they cloaked themselves in the feelings of militancy, which the demonstration did have.

Certainly the union officials used the demonstration to call on their so-called Democratic “friends of labor” that they should resist the policies of Reagan and the conservative Republicans. The officials may not have openly threatened to bolt from the Democratic Party, if the Democrats don’t follow their wishes. But they did make a sort of veiled warning. UAW President Douglas Fraser devoted a major part of his speech at the rally to criticizing the unions “weak-kneed” friends in Congress. He said that if these friends couldn’t or wouldn’t effectively represent the unions, then the unions would have to explore other means of gaining political representation.

The officials also made a special point of introducing William Winpisinger at the rally – the president of the IAM and the only top officials of a major union who is openly advocating the creation of a labor party at this time – not to speak, just to appear there, demonstratively.

Will Solidarity Day Change the Way Workers View Their Own Situation?

Solidarity Day may prove to have been just another successful maneuver by the union officials to re-assert their own value to the government and the ruling class and to allow the workers to let off a little steam.

But it could also serve to change the way workers view their own prospects for defending themselves against the attacks of the government, the banks and the corporations. Most of the workers who participated in the demonstration had never been at such a large protest before. And none of the younger workers had ever seen any working class demonstration of this size.

Unlike the situation in recent years, where the working class found itself sharply divided against itself, the demonstration showed to the workers a different possibility. Black civil rights activists and white construction workers marched shoulder to shoulder, demanding both an end to racial discrimination in hiring and jobs for all. Women demanding equal rights marched shoulder to shoulder with male steel workers, both demanding passage of the ERA. And machinists and student anti-war activists marched together, demanding “Jobs Not Bombs.”

Consumer and environmental activists were also welcomed at the demonstration, despite the fact that in the past workers often have believed that the demands of such people posed a threat to their jobs.

This overcoming of divisions within the working class and its allies at Solidarity Day may have convinced some of the workers who participated that it is possible for them to unite as an entire class to defend themselves, rather than to stay divided into separate smaller groups of autoworkers, steelworkers, machinists, or as Chrysler workers, Bethlehem Steel workers, etc.

Solidarity Day may also have revealed to many of the workers there that they have tremendous power when they are mobilized as a class. And if Solidarity Day conveys these things to the working class, it may have a much different impact than what the bureaucrats intended for it.