Thoughts on the Million Worker March

by David Jones

The Million Worker March reaffirmed that the masses of organized workers are in the mainstream labor movement, primarily the AFL-CIO, and that essentially only the federationís leadership can mobilize them in large numbers. This is so obvious that simply stating the proposition seems like asserting the sky is blue. But the MWM initiative was plainly an attempt to test the degree to which this might have been altered.

There seems to be general agreement that the number in attendance was around 10,000, possibly as high as 15,000, but not the 100,000 that had been the organizersí optimistic projection, and certainly not one million. As news coverage noted, the 1991 and 1981 Solidarity Day mobilizations in Washington, D.C., called by the AFL-CIO, far exceeded the MWM.

On the other hand, 1991 was almost 15 years ago, years in which organized laborís strength and scope have continued to decline, and in which workersí wages and entitlements have taken more big hits, and a period in which all major elements of organized labor have continued without alteration their slavish support of the Democratic Party. This includes those national unions that have endorsed the Labor Party.

However, it is also significant that the MWM was supported or endorsed, at least on paper, by many labor bodies, mostly local unions, but including at least several national unions (most notably the American Postal Workers Union, and the National Education Association, which is not part of the AFL-CIO). Further, the AFL-CIO spokespeople took pains to express agreement with the aims of the MWM and not attack the motives of the organizers or to redbait them, despite the fact that among the central organizers were a number of identifiable socialist activists, notably Alan Benjamin and Ralph Schoenman from the Socialist Organizer group.

This restraint undoubtedly expresses the influence of the leaders of the federationís progressive wing, with or without quotation marks, such as Andrew Stern of SEIU, Robert Wilhelm of UNITE-HERE, and others, and their desire to keep their options open. It is reasonable to conclude that they desire to discourage redbaiting as a tool of political debate at this juncture, as they continue to formulate their plans for a challenge to the federationís leadership and policies.

MWM got enthusiastic, spontaneous, and wide support from a grass roots amalgamation of local labor and antiwar organizers, who, despite their limited resources and influence, were able to cobble together a respectable demonstration of national scope. The MWM movement managed to project a fairly clear expression of independence from the political morass of the 2004 presidential elections, despite the undoubted resolution of most of the participants to vote for some non-working class variant of Anybody But Bush. It also projected, which is almost the same thing, a public expression of labor opposition to the Iraq war, which nicely coincided with the news of the refusal of a small group of U.S. Army truck drivers to proceed without adequate protection into an Iraq combat zone.

In general, it is certainly heartening that the MWM was able to project and pull off an independent labor action that met most of its commendable objectives, except massive participation. It has certainly set a positive example that advocates of further action can point to in the course of the above-ground and below-ground process of political differentiation that is germinating in the unions.