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May Day Speech To Sacramento CLC By Peter Olney

Peter B. Olney
Associate Director
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 Celebration

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:

  1. 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 day!
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
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."

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 hawks!

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 factors:

  • The anti-union character of the Bush administration and the poverty of the economy
  • Generational differences in union leadership
  • Technology
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.

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 our troops?
  • Why should my union get involved in foreign policy?
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!

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 low.

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 labor movement.

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!!

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