The Significance of the October 2, 2010, One Nation Working Together Demonstration

by Linda Thompson

I want to respond to Glen Ford’s take on the AFL-CIO’s October 2, 2010, One Nation Working Together Rally in Washington DC in the spirit of discussion. I respect the work of Glen Ford and liken him to a modern day prophet such as the biblical prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah and Elijah warning and denouncing Israel for its sins. I enjoy almost everything he writes but I think his assessment of the One Nation Rally October 2, 2010, in Washington misses the mark.

The march came five weeks after a high-profile rally by conservative TV personality Glenn Beck on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Beck claimed, as did the One Nation event, that his rally also represented America’s working and middle classes. took pictures of the crowd at Beck’s rally, and has estimated that there were between 78,000 and 96,000 in attendance at the event although Beck and the right wing claims far more.

Glen Ford in his article certainly hit the negatives and weaknesses of October 2 with which I would not disagree. However I feel that he failed to appreciate the positive aspects of the One Nation Event that are new in my opinion. The coalition consisted of antiwar, civil and human rights groups, unions, immigration advocates, gay rights groups and churches. Over 400 organizations endorsed the event and all were welcome. It was the biggest outpouring of union members and civil rights activists in decades. Thousands of buses from around the country descended on Washington, D.C., on Oct. 2 to demand “jobs, education, and equality” for what organizers billed as the “One Nation Working Together” demonstration. The crowd was estimated at 175,000 to 200,000 people.

I must admit I was disappointed in the turnout since I coordinated the Baltimore union and community contingent for the giant Solidarity Day demonstration for AFSCME and the Baltimore AFL-CIO in 1981. This was the first major event called by the AFL-CIO in twenty- nine years. My experience in that earlier event leads me to draw some notable differences between then and now. The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Day demonstration in Washington, D.C., on September 1981, came a few weeks into the PATCO strike, and drew half a million union people and supporters from community groups. The Solidarity Day event was even bigger than the great MLK 1968 march. Like the One Nation event, then many groups and parties also supported the demonstration including the NAACP and Greenpeace. However it was still overwhelmingly a demonstration of organized labor with contingents from all the major unions.

It was the first major demonstration to have been organized for decades by the AFL-CIO. It is unfortunate that in both cases the AFL-CIO waited decades to hold a protest event. In this I join with Glen Ford’s cynicism. However, the fact is they felt compelled to do so since the political situation that labor faces has become so serious. A large part of the reason the unions called the march was their anger at the Democrats for not passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which the unions have proposed to guarantee workers the right to organize and the layoffs and attacks on union workers. They were also quite correctly sensing that they would have trouble mobilizing people to vote after Obama’s shameful record since his election.

However in contrast to the 1981 Solidarity Day March which was a serious project built over six months which mobilized over 500,000, this event was a rather half-hearted attempt called late in the summer with less than three months to build. This was the reason for the smaller turnout although it again points out what the unions can do if they choose to mobilize the rank and file.

So when Ford writes, “After spending millions to assemble a multitude, Big Labor, the NAACP and the usual Black entertainers — Reverend Sharpton and Jesse Jackson — could not fix their trembling lips to utter one demand to the Power in the White House, whose disfavor they fear even more than they dread the white nationalist hordes of the Tea Party.”

I’m not sure where he was standing. Were we at the same event? Most of the official signs stated “We are here to demand the change we voted for.” The August AFL-CIO Executive Council Statement calling for the action stated clear demands.

“ONE NATION shares the labor movement’s policy agenda: An economy that works for all; good jobs, fair jobs, safe jobs, and more jobs; reforming Wall Street; repairing our immigration system; quality education for every child; and ensuring that everyone in America has the opportunity to contribute to and strengthen our country. Restoring workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively is at the heart of the policy agenda.” Speaker after speaker demanded that Washington create jobs and help those without them, end racial profiling and other discrimination in the criminal justice system, and push for immigration changes and quality, affordable education. These are the demands for a domestic agenda that need to be raised although the action did not officially address international issues.

Ford continues “With all its ostentatious, nervous patriotism and silly yammering about how Saturday’s crowd was just as “American,” if not more so, than the Tea Party, the “One Nation” event felt, in some ways, like a throwback to the days when Negroes were obsessed with proving to whites that they were also true blue for Uncle Sam.”

I won’t deny there was some of that. But there was also a preponderance of expressions of frustration and anger at the state of the economy from the podium and the crowd. At the beginning of the event busloads of people were streaming toward the Lincoln Memorial carrying signs such as “jobs, justice and education” and “fund jobs, not war.” The core of the demonstration was made up of workers who came with their unions. Huge contingents came from the Health Care workers (1199) and Service Employees (SEIU), State, County and Municipal workers (AFSCME), and teachers (AFT and NEA). Practically every union was represented, including steelworkers, transportation and mineworkers. Most of the signs that they carried were on point and militant.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council Statement goes on to state:

Our nation stands at a critical crossroads. The 30-year drive for a low-wage, high-consumption society that imports more and more of what it consumes has hit the wall. Millions are unemployed, with little recovery in sight. A record number of Americans who want desperately to work have been jobless for more than 6 months. At the same time, Wall Street continues to roll up big profits.

Banks and corporations have made off with trillions of public dollars, while small businesses can’t get loans and cities are being forced to make cuts to public education and public safety, harming our children and our communities.

Working people are frustrated and angry—incensed by the government’s inability to halt massive job loss and declining living standards on the one hand, and the comparative ease with which Republicans in Congress, with help from some Democrats, have done their best to make the world safe again for JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup, on the other. Just as we have seen through history, fear mongers in our country have seized on that anger and are working hard — unfortunately with some success—to use justifiable anger about a failing economy to divide us.

We have to fight this hateful demagoguery that only benefits our foes, and we can’t do it alone. History has taught us that the best way to fight the forces of hatred is to address the economic policies that led to our economic suffering, and that our fight must draw its strength from an alliance of the poor and the middle class—everyone who works for a living.

Obstructionists in Congress are doing everything they can to stop anything that helps working people, and they are scapegoating workers for the demise of the economy. Public sector workers are being cast as selfish, auto workers are being blamed for the troubles of the auto industry, and teachers are being blamed for an education system in need of support.

I personally have honestly never heard the major union leaders talk like that before in my 50 years in the movement. This is new and a departure from the past. Also there was a big change from the Solidarity Day event in 1981 in that the disabled, gay, women and immigrants were well represented and spoke to their issues. The issues the environmental movement has raised were addressed by Diana Ortiz of the small business association of boulder Colorado who spoke to fighting climate change and the need for green technology among other speakers who addressed the need for green job creation. It was an implicit criticism of the Obama administration that the unions invited Van Jones to speak. Van Jones had been called the “Green Czar” as green jobs advisor to Obama. He resigned his post after the Obama administration failed to defend him from vicious red-baiting attacks aired by Glenn Beck. Jones attacked US dependence on oil and coal and called for wind and solar power to fight global warming.

United Auto Workers chief Bob King told the crowd that “those who want to divide us tell us that we cannot win.” King said the “voices of division” try to divide us by race, gender, age and other ways. “By contrast, those marching here today are leading us on a path of community…of optimism.”

NAACP leader Ben Jealous told the crowd, “too many police officers, teachers and others are losing their jobs. “Let us invest less and less in the (wealthiest) 1% and more and more in jobs and schools for the other 99%.”

Marc Morial, head of the Urban League, spoke to the crowd. “We march today because … too many people are hurting. Without good jobs to support our families, our nation cannot recover.” Morial called for “a targeted jobs program to create 3 million jobs to build our streets and rebuild our cities. … We are for economic empowerment for all. We are one nation working together.”

Lindsey MCClusky chair of the US Student Association decried the fact that the military budget has warped the country’s priorities. This was also a new element since 1981. In spite of the fact that the call for the march neither mentioned or called for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Harry Belafonte, who was invited by 1199 Health Care Workers to speak, turned out to be the real keynote speaker and gave a ringing denunciation of the war.

Glen Ford noted:

Ironically, one of the oldest speakers provided the only dignity to the occasion. Eighty-three year-old Harry Belafonte, alone among the main speakers, confronted President Obama directly on his wars. The famed entertainer, who spent freely of his own money to fund the Black Freedom Movement when it really was a movement, hoped that America “will soon come to the realization that the wars that we wage today in faraway lands are immoral, unconscionable and unwinnable.

On this Ford and I agree. The speech is on the internet and can be read. The talk was without doubt the best at the demonstration. But what Glen Ford failed to point out that it was included and tolerated by the union leadership. Also the sponsorship and feeder marchers by the antiwar movement were an official part of the day and well received by the trade unionists. There were antiwar signs and material blanketing the event. This again was new and highly significant since 1981 and the positive reception to the material I surmise in large part to be due to the excellent work that US Labor Against the War has done over the years.

The speeches went on all afternoon and included representatives of the Teachers Unions who are under attack, Karen Higgins of the militant Nurses United for Healthcare and home care aides who are becoming three of the most dynamic sections of the labor movement. Richard Suarez representing aerospace workers called for people before profits and community before corporations, and Charlie Hill of the Oneida Mohawk Nation put on a great comedy routine seasoned with insightful cultural observations about modern racist America. Colin Whited the President of the Student Body Government of Gallaudet University signed his speech which was then translated for the crowd. Gallaudet University is a federally-chartered university for the education of the deaf and hard of hearing, located in the District of Columbia.

In addition to the most gender and racially represented speakers list I have ever personally witnessed the music and entertainment was spirited and excellent. Urban Nation H.I.P.-H.O.P. Choir of Washington, D.C fired up the crowd with a rendition of Celebration.

I am sure that what upset Ford was the fact that this representative and impressive event was also obvious effort to re-energize voters who elected President Obama two years ago and keep activists tied up in the dead end of the Democratic Party. Polls predicted that the Democrats were in danger of losing their majority in the House in November and the recent Tea Party activity and the seriousness with which it gets treated by the major news is alarming the labor movement.

Glen Ford writes: “The truth is, a real people’s movement could defeat the phony Tea Party ‘movement’ and put fear in the hearts of corporate Democrats, too. But Saturday’s charade was no threat to anyone, and all but guarantees a further strengthening of the Right through a bolder Tea Party and ever growing corporate domination of the Democratic Party.” Of course that was a major aspect of the One Nation agenda. The AFL-CIO Executive Council statement ends with the following unfortunate paragraphs:

The ONE NATION march on Washington on October 2, 2010 will charge up an army of tens of thousands of activists who will return to their neighborhoods, churches, schools and, especially, voting booths, with new energy to enact our common agenda. And on the same day, the labor movement will walk door-to-door in targeted states around the country, bringing the same message to union members exactly one month before the fall elections.

The march aims to bring working people, young people, retirees, civil rights activists and many others together on the Mall to show the obstructionists in Congress that we are many and diverse, strong and that united—and we will fight together for the American Dream.

Many of our unions are already committed to work as a part of ONE NATION. The unions of the AFL-CIO proudly join this coalition and pledge to work collectively to add our support to this great effort…

Earlier it states: “Working people are frustrated and angry—incensed by the government’s inability to halt massive job loss and declining living standards on the one hand, and the comparative ease with which Republicans in Congress, with help from some Democrats [my emphasis], have done their best to make the world safe again for JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and CitiGroup, on the other.” This again is new, I have never heard the union leadership acknowledge in public before that the Democrats were any kind of problem and even though they only say “some Democrats,” instead of the party as a whole it is still significant.

The stress that I place on the significance of the march that differs from Glen Ford is as follows.

1.      The fact that the AFL-CIO and the NAACP and the other major reformist organizations even called a demonstration is significant especially in an election year. It indicates that they again feel threatened as they did in 1981 after the attack on the PATCO strikers. My estimation was that the crowd was at least half black, Latino or Asian and Native-American. This again was significant.

2.      This was without doubt the broadest and most representative coalition and gathering yet to be seen in this country. The fact that women, gays, Native-Americans, the disabled, immigrants and Asians, Latinos, students and environmentalists and antiwar activists were all gathered in one place and included in the official program was noteworthy. The fact that antiwar activists and gays were accepted represented a change in union attitudes and culture.

3.      The fact that the union leadership assembled a fairly young and culturally relevant rally was also new in contrast to the boring white male type event the AFL-CIO put on in 1981.

4.      The fact that the keynote address by Harry Belafonte and the fact that many other speakers spoke against the war and the way vets are being treated is highly significant. While the union action and leadership did not openly come out themselves against the war, they invited and had speakers do it for them. They also openly invited the support of all of the major antiwar organizations which UFPJ organized under the name of the Peace Table and the union leadership allowed antiwar feeder marches to take place. This is such a dramatic change from the Cold War Policies of the old AFL-CIO that its ramifications should be discussed further. SEIU and the CWA supported the antiwar contingent and 1199 got Harry Belafonte to speak.

I agree with Ford that Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson did give the most slavish and demagogic speeches of the rally and called for support to the Democratic party, but to point them out as representative I think is a mistake. After all, what does one expect from these figures who have been the major left cheerleaders for the Democrats? Sections of the union movement particularly the rank and file are awakening in the face of the capitalist onslaught and are looking at the Democrats in a newly critical fashion. While other trade union hacks and misguided rank and filers are still sipping Obama Kool-Aid there is a new militancy and skepticism that can only grow as the attack on working people deepens.

Ford ends his article on a cynical note: “That’s as close to speaking Truth to Power as Saturday’s event got — except for those of us Lefties who went down to show that the movement was not yet dead. Unfortunately, our impact was minimal amid a sea of bodies bussed in with no mission other than to serve Barack Obama.”

I think this misses the point. This was the movement, imperfect as it is and what the left in this country has to work with. I would personally rather be in a crowd with 200,000 working-class marchers than on many of the white, middle class antiwar events I have attended. I agree that the left’s impact was limited in the sense that most of the left in this country is still sectarian, divided and therefore ineffective when it comes to maximizing an opportunity such as this One Nation Event to make an impact. I disagree with Ford in that leftists were certainly there and although not represented on the podium were highly visible and well received throughout the crowd. The Black is Back Coalition was there having a visual and political impact. The antiwar activists and material also had a huge visual and political impact. The environmental and civil rights organizations had a visual impact. There was intermingling, discussions and left signs everywhere. Unfortunately there was no clear independent force calling for a third party of working people that could have influenced the crowd in a big way. However it appears that the movement is not dead even if sections of it are still very misguided. If the trends I noted continue and deepen it may just be getting started.

So what is to be done? If the left can ditch its internal sectarian squabbling and unite behind a serious educational campaign to build a third party that truly represents the needs of working people in this country tremendous inroads could be made given the political climate. The potential is developing to break significant sections of labor and the community from the grip of the Democratic Party.

To lay the groundwork for this all trade unionists and leftists with influence in the unions should keep pressure on the union leadership to keep protesting and demonstrating. A serious national effort should be made in the unions and without to demand that the movement hold another Solidarity Day Demonstration in the spring or fall that could surpass the 1981 event called by the AFL-CIO.

A second Solidarity Day is definitely in order that could be larger than the 500,000 the unions mobilized in 1981. To write this work off would be a serious strategic error on the part of the Left.