Labor Day 2012 Week In Review
by Bill Onasch
September 2, 2012
We are having temporary–we hope–problems in publishing updates to the kclabor.org website. This text-only WIR is going out to our Yahoo e-mail list and published as well on the Labor Advocate Blog at this link. We will also resume our Monday-Friday news updates Tuesday, September 4 on the Blog.
On A Personal Note
It’s been about three weeks since the last WIR. Part of that time I devoted to a trip to the Twin Cities where I once resided. My friends in Socialist Action invited me to give a report to the SA convention on workers and climate change–a crucial issue too often neglected by even those on the left. I was pleased not only with the discussion around my assigned topic but also about what SA has been doing in the antiwar, women’s rights, Occupy, and immigrant struggles. There was a well thought out analysis of the world situation that included participation by guests from Canada, Greece, and Ireland. And, in conjunction with the convention, there was a public meeting in defense of civil liberties under attack that featured a broad speakers list and filled the CWA union hall. All in all, a very educational and energizing few days.
My energy boost was soon applied to more mundane activity. My hard-working wife Mary finally took some time off for minor surgery. Her being off her feet for a while has reminded me just how hard-working she is. Fortunately, Mary seems to be healing as expected and, to the relief of all in our household, will likely return to light duty soon.
Labor Day In the USA
In many countries of the world Labor, or Workers Day is celebrated on May 1. This date has its roots in U.S. history. It was chosen to commemorate the bloody Haymarket Affair arising out of the fight for the eight-hour day in Chicago in 1886.
When immigrant workers in this country launched massive actions a few years ago to defend their human rights–some running in the hundreds of thousands–they chose the familiar May Day to down tools and hit the streets.
But a long competing proposal for a first Monday in September, marking the end of summer rather than the flowering of spring, inspired by a traditional festival honoring work in Toronto rather than class struggle in Chicago, was made an official national holiday in 1894 by Democrat President Grover Cleveland.
Cleveland’s recognition of Labor came shortly after he used the U.S. Army to violently break the Pullman Strike that had shut down most of the country’s rail system. The strike’s principal leader, Eugene V Debs, was sentenced to six months in the Woodstock Prison–where he celebrated the Labor Day proclamation. He found the Woodstock experience to be quite educational as he swapped experiences with his fellow class war prisoners and made good use of reading time. Debs went to jail a Democrat but came out well on the way to recognition as the most prominent and influential Socialist in American history.
For decades, in most cities and towns Labor Day was marked by parades and picnics. But such benign mass gatherings of workers and their families started fading away in the Sixties and Seventies. A more mobile working class increasingly used the long holiday weekend to hit the road for seasonal outdoor activities.
An effort was made over the past ten years to resurrect union-sponsored Labor Day gatherings. Even Kansas City joined in this revival. For the past several years the local labor movement has sponsored a mini-parade followed by a big picnic on the expansive grounds of Liberty Memorial–a shrine dedicated to the War to End All Wars, aka World War I.
But not this year. The directory of local events on the AFL-CIO website lists little activity on Labor Day Monday. Most are like the sole listing for the Kansas City area–an August 30 Labor Walk door-to-door in the suburb of Pleasant Valley to explain how evil are the Republicans.
The rhythms of the American labor movement today follow an electoral cycle beat. Most important is the big one every Leap Year that puts the White House up for grabs. The Democrat convention doesn’t officially begin until the morning after Labor Day but every union official who amounts to anything will be in Charlotte well before the opening gavel to do whatever it is they do at such gatherings. It will be a working holiday weekend for most of our labor statespersons.
But there will be some protests at the Dem gathering as well, some of them involving unions. For example, the UE News reports,
“On August 6, one month before the Democratic National Convention comes to this North Carolina city, workers employed by the city picketed the city council to demand recognition of their rights. They plan to continue picketing every week until the convention begins, at which time they will be joined by sisters and brothers from across the South in the Southern Workers Assembly.”
UE reminds us of the public sector labor policy of the state hosting labor’s “friends,”
“North Carolina General Statute (NCGS) § 95-98 continues to deny public employees in the state the fundamental right, under international human rights standards, to bargain collectively and achieve labor contracts with their employers. The City of Charlotte does not have the power on its own to repeal NCGS § 95-98 , but the city does have the authority to initiate a meet-and-confer policy, which would give union members input into decisions affecting them, and to institute voluntary union dues check-off.”
There will also be an important Labor Day Rally in the President’s home town, now ruled by his former Chief-of-Staff. The Chicago Teachers Union is inviting all who support them to come to Daley Plaza to back their demands for Jobs, Dignity & a Fair Contract. After getting an overwhelming strike authorization vote from members the union issued a ten-day strike notice last Wednesday.
As Federal government employee unions such as AFGE and the Postal Workers rushed to endorse Obama just before the back-to-back conventions began the President showed he was thinking about them. He renewed his unilateral imposition of a wage freeze for most civilian Federal employees for another year.
Dark Side Lightens Up
After Dirty Harry and his empty chair warmed up the crowd in Tampa with some semi-risque stand-up, the new Mitt injected some wholesome humor. He got some knee-slaps with,
“President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet.”
After the hearty laughter subsided the GOP standard-bearer assured them,
“My promise is to help you and your family.”
The by then peanut-free crowd arose in a prolonged standing ovation.
The President did indeed express hope about oceans and healing when he accepted his party’s nomination four years ago. His green tinged remark was in contrast to the Republican slogan dejure of Drill Baby Drill, successfully calculated to get the money and foot soldiers of the Pale Greens on board for his campaign.
Of course, on the President’s watch sea levels have continued to rise and our biosphere increasingly suffers irreversible damage. Obama early on decided to put all of his political capital in to two main projects–health care “reform,” and escalation of the war in Afghanistan. There was no more flirtation with even bogus cap-and-trade. At the crucial Copenhagen Climate Summit Obama swooped in for a few hours to veto any kind of meaningful international agreement. Since the Midterm election he has worked with CEOs on reducing “burdensome regulations”--including agencies such as the EPA, OSHA and MSHA. New oil and gas drilling permits have been freely handed out. Fracking has become a household word.
Romney’s ocean joke was at least timely. Simon Butler wrote in the Australian Green Left Weekly,
“More than 2 million square kilometers of Arctic ice that should be there, is not. A few years ago, United Nations models predicted climate change would lead to ice-free Arctic summers within 100 years. Now, some scientists say it could melt away completely within the next few 100 weeks. And there is next to no chance it will recover.”
As Butler puts it, “an ice-free Arctic could trigger events that spin global warming into overdrive.”
NASA climate scientist James Hansen told Bloomberg,
“Our greatest concern is that loss of Arctic sea ice creates a grave threat of passing two other tipping points — the potential instability of the Greenland ice sheet and methane hydrates. These latter two tipping points would have consequences that are practically irreversible on time scales of relevance to humanity.”
Just as is the case with every important issue, the choice presented by the two conventions on climate change is between the Dark Side and the Darker Side.
On March 21, 1960 police in Sharpeville, South Africa opened fire on a mass protest against new Apartheid laws. The official count was 69 people killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Clearly, the presence of families signaled the peaceful expectations of the demonstrators. Most victims had been shot in the back while fleeing.
The government immediately banned the two mass organizations leading national protests–the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress. In the face of brutal suppression, civil disobedience and peaceful demonstrations gave way to decades of armed struggle. An outraged international working class developed numerous forms of solidarity that steadily isolated and weakened the Pretoria regime. In the late Eighties negotiations began that led to an end of Apartheid and a transition to an ANC-led government. March 21 is today a national holiday in South Africa.
I certainly wasn’t the only one to recall the horrors of Sharpeville while watching television coverage of the August 16 massacre of striking mine workers in Marikana, South Africa. This time it was not white racists responsible for shooting down Blacks but the ANC-controlled police. At least 34 strikers died on the spot and more than eighty were wounded.
The official lie was that the police fired in self-defense as strikers with machetes attacked them. The reality verified by eyewitness and film accounts is that the police first trapped a big group of miners. A South African professor explained in an interview,
“And what seems to emerge from this picture is that the police surrounded these workers, they put barbed wire fence, razor wire fence around the perimeter, they left a very narrow opening for these workers, and basically opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets. The workers then ran for the one and only opening they could see in the barbed wire fence.”
Far from charging the cops the strikers were running away from their now gas-filled entrapment. Nearly all were shot in the back. With chutzpah characteristic of past Apartheid rulers, the ANC authorities held the strikers criminally responsible for the deaths and injuries, filing charges against more than 270 of them.
How could this happen? Claiming to be an “emerging country,” the ANC–with support of their loyal followers in the trade union leadership--have been striving for partnership and restraint in labor relations. The workers at the British-based Lomin platinum mines in Marikana decided to defy the government and their union bureaucracy in order to improve their miserable wages and conditions. The ANC establishment is determined to smash such a movement before it spreads any further.
Where the struggle on the ground in South Africa will go remains to be seen. But the world working class that responded to Sharpeville should not remain silent when past heros turn their guns on striking workers.
There was yet more sad news from South Africa last week. Neville Alexander, once a fellow prisoner with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, passed away after a long bout with cancer at age 75. You can read an appreciation of his remarkable life by clicking here.
That’s all for this week.
Happy Labor Day to All!