May Day Speech To Sacramento CLC By Peter Olney
Peter B. Olney
Institute for Labor and Employment
University of California
May Day Speech May 1, 2004 Sacramento Labor Council Peter Olney, Associate
Director, Institute for Labor and Employment University of California
THANK YOU FOR THE invitation from Cathy Hackett of SEIU 1000 and the
Human Rights Committee of the Sacramento Central Labor Council to address
this excellent labor council on this important day for the working people of
the world. Any time that May Day is being properly celebrated I am proud to
be there. This event was advertised as an International Workersı Day
Well, last year on April 30, one day before our Top Gun President stood on
the deck of the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier off the shores of San Diego
and declared Mission Accomplished in Iraq, this same President issued a
proclamation from the White House which read as follows, "The Congress, by
Public Law 85-529 as amended, has designated May 1of each year as "Loyalty
Day", and I ask all Americans to join me in this day of celebration and in
reaffirming our allegiance to our nation." Public Law 85-529 was passed by a
joint session of Congress in 1958. So I ask you is it Loyalty Day? Or is it
May Day? I say itıs May Day and hereıs why:
The history of May Day begins right here in the USA. On May 1, 1886 the
Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared a national strike
to demand an eight-hour work day and 350,000 workers across the US
responded. The country was paralyzed and that paralysis was most severe in
Chicago and in Chicago two days later police fired on strikers killing
four and wounding many more. On May 4 at a peaceful rally in Haymarket
Square that the police attempted to disperse, a bomb went off. In the
aftermath the Chicago police arrested 8 labor leaders, 7 of whom werenıt
even there, and they were all tried on the basis of their radical
syndicalism or unionism beliefs and all 8 were sentenced to death. Four were
hanged and one died a mysterious death in prison. News of these trials and
executions electrified labor groups around the world and in 1889 the
Socialist International declared May 1, a day of demonstrations, and since
1890 rallies have been held all over the world. In many countries on all
continents, May 1 is a national holiday. In 1947 over 500,000 workers
marched in New York City demonstrating laborıs power in post WW II America.
It is no accident that in 1947, the Veterans of Foreign Wars began their
drive to have May Day declared to be Loyalty Day. In 1958 the act was passed
by Congress and President Eisenhower signed it into law.
May Day has been traditionally a day for workers and their organizations to
gather strength, to reflect on their past and take stock of where they are
going. So this year it is important to ask,
"How does labor shape up on the cardinal question of our time, the invasion
and the continuing occupation of Iraq?"
To ignore this question of war and peace, to ignore the invasion and
continuing occupation, would be like persevering in scrubbing the tiles of
your bathroom floor while the whole house is burning!
This war is the defining reality for our labor movement because it is the
defining reality for the economics and politics of our nation. It is the
defining reality for three basic reasons:
Laborıs Response to questions of foreign policy since the merger of the AFL
and the CIO in 1955 has been to straddle an increasingly untenable divide:
"We will support you on foreign policy and foreign military adventures, but
we will fight you on domestic policy issues."
- Who will fight and die in this war? The daughters and sons and
relatives of workers will do the fighting and dying. Union members
themselves will do the fighting and dying because many of them make up the
reserves in this country! Half of the nationıs 3.2 million soldiers are
reservists and when they are activated they take severe pay cuts. Pat
Tillman the ex-Phoenix Cardinal millionaire football star saw his pay as an
elite Army Ranger plummet to $18,000 per year while private contract
mercenaries of who there are 20,000 in Iraq are sometimes making $1000 per
- Who will pay? We will pay for the deficits and the fiscal crisis. We
are already feeling the ripple effect in layoffs and cutbacks. The public
sector is reeling from trickle down cuts in human services, the most vital
services, and your jobs are being slashed. Bush sings of national security
while police and fire are cut.
More ominously cargo containers in the ports go uninspected. Last
Thursday we had an explosion at the TraPac terminal in the port of Los
Angeles. A propane container blew up. Fortunately no one was hurt, but
imagine if it had been an explosive device or a "dirty bomb". The ILWU has
long advocated that its members should inspect container seals on each
container coming into the ports. The government and the giant shipping
carriers see it as too time consuming and expensive! Yet the bill for Iraq
in 2003 alone is $201 billion!
- Political Punch For me the most dangerous aspect of the permanent war
on terrorism and the invasion and occupation of Iraq is the way Bush and his
corporate allies have been able to use it as a political club against the
labor movement. Check out this quote from retired Admiral James Loy, the
Undersecretary of Transportation for Security as he announced that 60,000
airport security screeners were being denied collective bargaining and union
rights, "Mandatory collective bargaining is not compatible with the
flexibility required to wage the war on terrorism" 170,000 federal employee
members of the American Federation of Government Employees have been placed
in the Department of Homeland Security and stripped of union representation.
In the summer and fall of 2002 the ILWU was warned by the Department of
Homeland Security in the person of Tom Ridge that any work stoppage or
slowdown on the docks would be viewed unfavorably as a menace to national
security and a blow to the war on terrorism. Any large scale trade union
struggle has been deemed a threat to national security.
In fact, post 9-11 any one striking was attacked as unpatriotic. In
Minnesota the AFSCME state employees were poised to go out on strike in
November 2001, and were told by then Governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura that
their job action would be an evil act. Fortunately AFSCME Brothers and
sisters who had driven the ambulances and provided EMT services at Ground
Zero in NYC came forward in a display of public support and told the
Minnesota employees that they would deal with the dead in NYC, but that
state employees in Minnesota should fight like hell for the living! They
struck and won!
This has been the official labor movementıs public declaration. So in
this case the AFL-CIO has popped up with a position of support for the war
on terrorism but opposition to the Bush administrationıs attacks on working
people. The break with this "loser logic" started to come on January 11,
2003 in Chicago, Illinois when over 125 labor leaders from all over the
country representing many affiliates of the AFL-CIO came together to declare
their opposition to the impending war on Iraq. They constituted themselves
as US Labor Against the War (USLAW).
As the ramping up to war continued, USLAW galvanized locals, Central Labor
Councils, regional bodies and International unions to stake a stand against
the war so that by the time hostilities began in Iraq on March 20 unions
representing over 6 million workers were on record opposing Bushıs war.
Even the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO itself passed a resolution on
February 27, 2003 in Hollywood, Florida at their winter meeting, opposing
Bushıs unilateralism and linking the war abroad and its cost to the crisis
at home for working people. It was a mild resolution, but it was
historically important in that it was the first AFL-CIO break with the
hegemony of the US governmentıs position and actions in foreign policy.
Of course we know that there was a huge international labor response to the
impending war with massive rallies and in some countries, strategic
strikes. In both Italy and Britain railroad workers refused to carry war
materials bound for Iraq! So on balance our resolutions were a mild response
but a sign that we in US labor are making progress. Here is a dramatic
example of the progress we are making. I like to call it "What a difference
33 years makes!
In May of 1970, Peter Brennan, (later Secretary of Labor under Nixon) the
head of the New York City Building Trades Council, the umbrella organization
of the construction trades in New York City led a famous march of hard hats
on Wall Street to support President Nixon and the Vietnam War. In a scene
that came to symbolize the relationship between the peace movement and
labor, the hard hats brutally attacked a small group of peace protestors.
Now this wasnıt the whole story on laborıs stance on Vietnam. There were
some unions like the independent(of the AFL-CIO) ILWU and the United
Electrical Workers(UE) and the United Auto Workers that broke with the
pro-war stance, but George Meanyıs AFL-CIO was squarely in the camp of the
On March 17 of 2003, three days prior to the beginning of the horrific
bombing in Iraq, the California State Labor Federation and the California
Building Trades Council held their annual joint legislative conference here
in Sacramento. The President and Secretary Treasurer of the Cal Labor
Federation gave speeches talking exclusively to state issues and mundane
lobbying questions. Then it was the turn of Bob Balgenorth, head of the
State Building Trades Council to speak. Donıt forget the topic on everyoneıs
mind is the impending war. Balgenorth, 33 years from Brennanıs fateful
march, rises and delivers a blistering anti-war speech! He attacks Bushıs
judgment in going to war alone and addresses the impact of such action on
the domestic well being of workers! Here is a lengthy quote from
Balgenorthıs speech entitled: "Badges? We donıt need no stinking badges!"
"In a memorable scene from the classic western, "Treasure of the Sierra
Madre," Humphrey Bogart demands to know if the men about to rob him are
bandits or lawmen as they claim. Their response is the famous, "We donıt
need no stinking badges!"
Might makes right.
Bush will have his war, Congress will have to give him the $90-100 billion
he demands for the cost of war. The billions to rebuild Iraq will add to
that sum. And, underlying all of this is the current $400 billion deficit
projected for this year alone.
We support our troops anywhere in the world in which they are in harmıs way.
We pray for their safety particularly in Iraq and the hornetıs nest that
will develop around that doomed region. In the turmoil that follows we can
only hope the loss of life will be minimal. But wars have a strange habit of
getting out of hand"
This speech is incredibly prophetic. Look what has happened a year later,
and indeed what a difference 33 years makes! From Brennan on Wall Street
attacking peaceniks to Balgenorth denouncing the war! And by the way
Balgenorth again took on the Bush foreign policy at this yearıs legislative
conference just completed this past week here in Sacramento!
What factors explain these differences in labor now and labor then? These
are differences that manifest themselves in even the historically most
conservative sections of our labor movement. I think there are three
Right out of the box and prior to 9-11 the Bush administration was on the
attack against labor. The ergonomic standard was the target for the newly
elected Republican Prez. And we are seeing no guns and butter phenomena.
The economy remains in the toilet, and thereıs no military stimulus as in
WWII where military spending when it finally was ramped up represented 130%
of Gross Domestic Product. Even the outrageous billions we are spending on
Iraq are only about 2.5%, at the maximum, of GDP because we have such a
bloated military budget already and GM wonıt be retooling to turn out tanks.
Bush had already alienated the labor movement and most of its leadership
prior to Iraq and the economy and particularly manufacturing has been pretty
harsh on labor and its members.
- The anti-union character of the Bush administration and the poverty of the
- Generational differences in union leadership
We are seeing a generational changing of the guard in union leadership and
many of those matriculating to top positions in locals, regional bodies and
even Internationals are veterans of the anti-war movement and many are
veterans of the Vietnam War whose consciousness has been informed in the
crucible of their experience in battle in Southeast Asia and their
experience in fighting against the Vietnam war upon return to the USA.
The final factor that has moved organization within the labor movement and
worldwide is our ability to get the word and the facts out instantaneously
through the use of the internet. All have heard of the successes of
MoveOn.org in mobilizing grass roots support against the war. They have
translated cyber space to the "Street"!! I was part of a Congressional
delegation to Senator Barbara Boxerıs office on 48 hours notice and arrived
there to unite with 20 others who had been similarly organized in cyberspace
to lobby the Senator. We had never seen each other, but we all signed off on
a similar message in a meeting with Boxer. USLAW was able to organize a
teleconference against the Iraqi war with labor organizations in the US and
around the world representing over 50 million workers by utilizing the
Internet. This kind of phone call would have taken weeks to organize as
recently as ten years ago prior to the full flowering of the internet.
So we have made progress and we should be proud of it, but we need to
recognize our limitations. We have been good at getting resolutions, but we
have been found sorely lacking in resolute mobilization. We have passed
resolutions at Executive Boards but we have lacked an ability to turn out
our members for the anti-war rallies, demonstrations and actions.
What accounts for this lack of ability to turn out members around this the
burning issue of our time? It is important to point out that many of our
members turn out for rallies, but in their capacity as community members,
churchgoers, and voters, but donıt join USLAW and other labor contingents.
To begin to change this I think that there are two very important questions
that we must take seriously and deal with respectfully:
What does it mean to Support the Troops This is a big question among
workers and in the trade unions because the troops are ours. One of the most
powerful components of USLAW has been the work of the Vets and Military
Families Task Force. These folks are hybrids who are both trade unionists
and veterans or relatives of veterans. But only one member of the
millionaireıs club US Senate has a child in Iraq!
- What does it mean to support our troops?
- Why should my union get involved in foreign policy?
The troops in fact are made up largely of working class people who Bushıs
policies are designed to degrade, and in many cases because these folks
canıt attend universities they join the military, a relatively well funded
institution where they can get health care, education, housing and other
benefits for themselves and their families even though the pay is dismally
There is always federal money for war and the defense contractors, but never
enough to provide for veterans. On March 21, 2003(after the beginning of
hostilities in Iraq) Congress passed a resolution expressing the nationıs
gratitude to the armed forces and at the same time the House slashed $25
billion from funding for veteranıs health care and benefits programs.
This is not a new attitude. We remember the attitude of the newly formed
independent government of the former 13 colonies to the workers and farmers
who had fought the Revolutionary War to expel the British. We had the Shaysı
Rebellion in Western Massachusetts.
After World War I we saw the Bonus Marchers in the 1930ıs. They camped out
in Washington, DC demanding the bonuses they had been promised. They were
fired on by federal troops under the command of Douglas McArthur!
Look at the carnage from Vietnam and the Gulf War in our cities where
homeless, injured and seriously ill vets wander the streets! The attitude of
this administration and many before it is:
Use once, praise their service and throw away!
The best support we can give the troops is to bring them home now before
more of their blood is spilt on an illegal and immoral war! The reasons
given for the invasion have been proven false! There were no weapons of mass
destruction capable of being delivered against us or even Iraqıs neighbors.
Furthermore Bush himself has admitted that Saddam had no ties to al Qaeda!
Why should my union get involved? I agree with the war being a problem but
it is not the role of my union to deal with foreign policy As I have said
with the example of the Building and Construction Trades in NYC in May,
1970, unions have always been politically involved whether by marching for
and against or by acquiescing with their silence. All the issues we care
about in our workplace and particularly for those of us in the public sector
are linked to this war and occupation. Budget red ink is flowing as the
blood of our GIıs is being wasted in Iraq. Our ability to act as trade
unionists is curtailed and constrained by the endless war on terrorism. As I
mentioned before, look at the example of my own union the ILWU. Tom Ridge,
head of homeland security threatens ILWU International President Spinosa in
June of 2002 that any disruption, work stoppage or strike on the docks would
be regarded as an act against the war on terrorism!
To answer these questions requires patient education and action. I salute
the brother and sisters of USLAW who are doing this painstaking work in the
Finally I wish to salute this Sacramento Central Labor Council not only for
the fabulous work that it has done on the bread and butter issues of
importance to the Deltaıs working people, but also I want to salute you for
being part of the initial signers of the support statement for US Labor
Against the War. I hope the CLC will continue its involvement on this issue
and be a standard bearer for the whole labor movement.
May Day, the workers day can be our Loyalty Day!
We are loyal to our unions and the fundamental rights of all workers to
organize to better their conditions!
We are loyal to the cause of peace and justice worldwide!
Most importantly we are loyal to the cause of expelling this criminal and
cynical Bush administration from the White House in November!
Long Live May Day, International Workers Day!!