The “Million Worker March” and the Need for a Class Struggle Left Wing in the Unions

by Tom Barrett

Though no one ever expected a turnout of a million people at the “Million Worker March” in Washington on October 17, 2004, the actual attendance was well below nearly everyone’s expectations. No more than 10,000 attended, by the most generous estimates, and a high percentage of them were committed activists. One participant commented to me, “You know it’s a small demonstration when everyone here knows each other.” The weeks and months to come will show whether the forces which organized the event will continue to plan additional action to advance a radical labor agenda or will become demoralized and cease to struggle against the class-collaborationist leadership of the AFL-CIO, headed by John Sweeney—a body of conservative union officials who continue in the tradition of Samuel Gompers and George Meany. It is to be hoped, however, that the labor militants who put so much energy and hard work into making the demonstration a reality will recognize that they are engaged in a long-term battle for the heart and soul of the U.S. working class, a battle which can be won, though not easily. And a broader class struggle left wing will be needed, going beyond the network of African American trade union officials and a small group of allies among radicals in the unions that organized and led the “Million Worker March.”

The Million Worker March’s attendance was lower than expected.

The current leadership of the U.S. trade unions, based in an administrative bureaucracy rather than in the workplaces where actual production is done, has shown that it is capable of great foresight and creativity when it comes to defending its power against any challenge from within. What working people need is a leadership that is capable of great foresight and creativity when it comes to defending the interests of working men and women against the bosses’ campaign to reduce their living standards. The unions’ rank-and-file members know that their jobs and living standards are being eroded. They also know that their unions are not holding their own against the employers. They know that their elected officials are not doing a good job. They will follow an alternative leadership, but not until that leadership earns their trust and shows in action that it has a better strategy and a stronger backbone than those who hold union office today. In the meantime, we all have families to support. American workers always find a way, and in the absence of a collective solution, we look for an individual solution. It may be a new job with a higher pay scale; it may be overtime hours on the current job; it may be an additional job, and it may be migrating to a part of the country where the cost of living is lower relative to prevailing wages or where the local economy is able to employ more people. The labor official has the luxury of telling his or her members, “I can’t do any better for you.” Workers don’t have the luxury of telling that to their kids. When the officials say, “we can’t,” our response is, “well, we have to.” And all too often today, when a union organizer attempts to sign up young workers, they respond with a resounding “why?”

The organizers of the “Million Worker March” projected demands that rightly challenged this state of affairs. They are facing an incumbent officialdom which is more interested in its own power and privileges than the living standards of its working membership. They are facing a working class which is distrustful of anyone asking for their vote, whether for union office or governmental office. And they are facing an employing class which has become increasingly emboldened as the union movement and their supposed “friends” in government roll over and play dead as jobs are outsourced, benefits are slashed, and wages either held steady or reduced outright. So no one should be surprised that mobilizing a million workers, or anything close to that, was beyond possibility at this time.

One can make a case that it was tactically inadvisable to call for a mass demonstration at this time and facing the opposition of the AFL-CIO and the indifference of progressive formations within the labor movement. However, first it must be stated unequivocally that Clarence Thomas of ILWU Local 10 and the other organizers of the Million Worker March acted in the interests of the working class as a whole and had no other agenda. Their intent was to carry out mass action in the streets in response to the marked step-up of attacks against workers’ living standards. They attempted to bring together diverse forces from the labor, antiwar, African-American, Latino, and feminist movements in unity against the employers’ offensive. The Million Worker March achieved a measure of success in bringing together a broad coalition of organizations and leaderships. Most of these leaderships gave only a paper endorsement and a platform speaker, and did not turn out their members in significant numbers. Of course, that is not enough. But it is a start.

The challenge facing the organizers of the Million Worker March and anyone looking to make fundamental change in the interests of the working class is to take the existing discontent among working people and organize it. To be sure, this challenge is nothing new: in the 1930s Leon Trotsky proposed organizing a class-struggle left wing in the union movement, to challenge the class-collaborationist leadership which dominated it, then as now. In the decades since then, many well-meaning people have tried a variety of strategies for doing that. None of them, up to now, has been effective.

The Million Worker March attracted larger participation from African-American and Latino/Latina workers than most recent protest demonstrations.

The Million Worker March coalition has potential that previous attempts have lacked: whatever affiliations some of the organizers have with left-wing political groups, fundamentally they are coming from within the labor movement, and from a section of the labor movement which has the most reason to be involved in a class-struggle left wing, that is African-American workers. The Million Worker March drew its inspiration, of course, from the Million Man March of 1995, the most important action of the Black struggle in decades. The Million Worker March, though relatively small, attracted a higher proportion of African American and Latino/Latina workers than most protest demonstrations of the recent past. It attracted the support of a number of leaders from the civil-rights movement: Martin Luther King, III, was one of the speakers at the event, as was comedian Dick Gregory. Many speakers noted that the rally’s location, the Lincoln Memorial, was the site of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

While most of the Million Worker March coalition leaders are supporting John Kerry’s candidacy for president of the United States, the Million Worker March was in no way a Democratic Party campaign rally. Though most of the speakers’ anger was directed at the Bush administration, as it should be, the Democrats came in for plenty of criticism, as they as well deserve. The Nader-Camejo campaign had a strong and visible presence at the Million Worker March, and there was no attempt whatsoever to exclude them. If any speaker suggested that Nader would help Bush be reelected, I did not hear it. The closest thing I heard to a criticism of Nader came from Dick Gregory, who was the clearest in his support for Kerry.

The AFL-CIO officialdom’s opposition to the Million Worker March was motivated by their desire not to create any backlash or divert energy and attention away from the campaign to elect John Kerry. It has been a problem for all movements for social change over the decades during election periods; fortunately, it is less so this year than in years past. The Million Worker March organizers rejected John Sweeney’s conservatism and went ahead, even though other more radically inclined labor formations, such as U.S. Labor Against the War and the Labor Party declined to endorse the demonstration. These two organizations did, in the end, express support for the goals of the march, but did not officially endorse or help build it. Even though these two organizations did not officially endorse the Million Worker March, many of their local groups and leaders worked hard to build it. For example, Carol Gay of New Jersey Labor Against the War sent out notices urging antiwar workers to participate and directing them to the buses leaving from different locations in New Jersey to bring workers to the Lincoln Memorial demonstration site.

The Nader-Camejo campaign had a strong and visible presence at the Million Worker March, and there was no attempt whatsoever to exclude them.

What will determine whether or not the Million Worker March was a waste of time, energy, and money will be the work that will be done to follow up on the organizing work that went into it. The organizers initially proposed a conference for December 3–4 of this year to plan future activity. There has been little information about it since then, however, and there is no reference to it on the Million Worker March website. The “organizing tents” at the rally were little more than covered literature tables for the different groups which wished to promote themselves and their activities: not a bad idea in itself, but hardly a framework for ongoing activity. If the forces which built the Million Worker March can come together in an ongoing organization, or if an existing organization, such as the Labor Party, can provide the framework for continuing the work begun with this demonstration, that would be a great step toward organizing the class-struggle left wing in the labor movement which is so vital for the working class’s future.

The Million Worker March deserved more support than it received, and it should have been bigger. The organizers did not do everything perfectly, but the blame for the demonstration’s disappointing turnout rests squarely with John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO top leadership. The challenge facing all of us in the labor movement is to win the confidence and trust of the millions of workers whose living standards are being hammered today to a leadership which is ready to rely on the strength of those very millions of workers and not depend on politicians’ promises.

October 30, 2004