What was behind the venom hurled
at the Million Worker March?

By Mark Williams
(CV #35, March 15, 2005)

AFL-CIO leaders boycott the MWM
The rift between top AFL-CIO leaders and the MWM organizers
USLAW fails to endorse the MWM to placate pro-Kerry union leaders
More opposition from the "anybody but Bush" die-hards
Reformist complaints about the MWM
Absurdly left criticism of the MWM
The independent workers' movement

. On October 17, while Bush and Kerry battled to see who would get to be the chief representative of the capitalists, some 10,000 workers gathered at the Million Worker March in Washington, DC. They came to denounce the war in Iraq and to call for struggle for an array of reforms to combat the big business offensive against the workers here and around the globe. While the size of the demonstration did not live up to its billing, its class composition did. It was solidly working class, with a high percentage of black workers. Moreover, the protest was organized under the banner that the workers should not just oppose Bush, but fight for their own independent agenda no matter who won the elections.

. The demonstration generally attracted workers and activists who didn't want to simply walk lock-step with the Kerry campaign. Some still had illusions in Kerry even if they were skeptical about him. Many others were fed up with the two big capitalist parties. Their views ranged from hopes in Nader to radical anti-capitalism of different types. A good number of workers at the MWM were new to demonstrations and anxious to sort out what orientation would best serve the workers' struggle. This was reflected in numerous political discussions and the eagerness of workers to gather literature from numerous groups, including a Communist Voice Organization leaflet. The march organizers were mainly dissident union officials who were critical of Kerry, but promoted illusions in the pro-Kerry officials leading various AFL-CIO unions.

. A gathering of thousands of workers beginning to look for an alternative to the two capitalist parties should have been a welcome development. But it was greeted with hostility from many forces who claim they are for the workers' cause. The AFL-CIO leadership organized a boycott of the MWM, lest it interfere with campaigning for Kerry. Much of the reformist left followed suit, spellbound by the pro-Kerry mantra of "anybody but Bush." Meanwhile, there were some pseudo-militant activists who slandered the MWM as nothing more than a pro-Kerry rally.

. Neither the reformist nor super-left critics could see it was important that the workers at the march were starting to look for ways to break with the bourgeois parties and become a force in their own right. These critics saw no point in utilizing the MWM to help widen the rift between these workers and the Democrats and sold-out union leaders.

AFL-CIO leaders boycott the MWM

. The hostility of the AFL-CIO leadership toward the MWM shows that they are terrified by the mere mention of the workers getting organized independently of the bourgeois establishment. The national AFL-CIO leadership of John Sweeney sent state and local union organizations a memo telling them "not to sponsor or devote resources to the demonstrations in Washington, DC, but instead to remain focused on the elections." This was dutifully obeyed by the vast majority of union leaders. Thus, these class traitors showed themselves to be more interested in electing the pro-war, pro-capitalist Kerry than in advancing an agenda of worker demands.

. Only a few national union leaderships endorsed the MWM including the SEIU (service workers), the NEA (teachers) and the APWU (postal clerks). But endorsements from the class collaborationist union leaders commonly remain empty declarations. In this case too, despite verbal support, the leaders of the "pro"-MWM unions, with the exception of a few locals, didn't lift a finger to mobilize workers for the event. Indeed, while the SEIU's leader, Andy Stern, has been promoting himself as a militant reformer of the AFL-CIO, he was among the most insistent on using every union resource to get out the vote for Kerry.

The rift between top AFL-CIO leaders and the MWM organizers


. The MWM was organized largely by a group of dissident local union officials. The initial impetus came from Oakland dockworkers union officials from Local 10 of the ILWU. They had tried to court the top AFL-CIO leaders from the beginning. Their first resolution for the MWM portrayed it as something that would encourage voter registration and turnout, something the top AFL-CIO officials hoped would tip the scales for Kerry. But the AFL-CIO leadership rejected their overtures. To their credit, the boycott of the MWM by the top union officials did not deter the march organizers from holding the protest. But they continued to harbor hopes in the mainstream union officials. They promoted that millions of workers were represented by three national unions that endorsed the march as if this meant the rank-and-file was going to be mobilized for the MWM. Meanwhile, the MWM organizers ignored that these union leaders too were going all out for Kerry. The treachery of these "pro-MWM" union bureaucrats was confirmed at the rally when the expected mobilization from the SEIU, NEA and the APWU never materialized.

. At the MWM march itself, some MWM organizers denounced the AFL-CIO, but their anger was mainly at the failure of the AFL-CIO leadership to support the MWM and not their overall class collaborationist stand. Whether or not the partial rift between the MWM organizers and the mainstream AFL-CIO leaders remains or is patched up remains to be seen.

. Presently, the MWM organizers are trying to continue their trend by setting up local MWM organizations. Our experience with the local organization in Detroit thus far shows that activists who promote rank-and-file independence from the AFL-CIO leadership face stiff opposition in the local group.

USLAW fails to endorse the MWM to placate pro-Kerry union leaders

. The MWM was also opposed by a host of other reformist trends that promoted the "anybody but Bush" doctrine. According to them, everything was totake a back seat to getting Kerry elected. This meant hiding the truth about Kerry from the masses. It meant reining in the mass protests against the war. And it meant opposing the MWM because its organizers had criticisms of Kerry.

. Take the organization US Labor Against War (USLAW). Some USLAW members were actually part of the MWM organizing efforts. Former ILWU Local 10 secretary-treasurer Clarence Thomas, a top MWM organizer, was part of a USLAW delegation that met with Iraqi trade unionists in 2003. In their political orientation both USLAW and the MWM leaders are virtually identical. Both attempt to merge together the pro-Democratic Party politics of the top dogs of the AFL-CIO with the aspirations of radical union activists. Yet, amazingly, USLAW did not endorse the MWM as a majority voted down a pro-endorsement proposal.

. What explains this pathetic state of affairs? It's the result of USLAW's efforts to placate the hard-core Kerry backers among the union bureaucrats. According to an article by Joann Wypliewski that appeared in the web magazine Counterpunch of Oct. 30-31, most of the union bureaucrats friendly with USLAW had no interest in mobilizing for the MWM. For example, the article states:

. "From Philadelphia, the head of the Central Labor Council, which opposed war in Iraq before it began, told Gene Bruskin, co-convener of US Labor Against the War, that they couldn't spare a single body for the Million Worker March if it were held before the election; everyone was working flat-out, particularly on weekends.  .  .  . And Bruskin says he heard the same from other member groups, which, he believed, would have participated enthusiastically at another time."

. In other words, many "anti-war" union officials affiliated with USLAW were too busy campaigning for the pro-war Kerry!

. Meanwhile, the article cites Donna DeWitt, on the pressure brought to bear by the AFL-CIO national leadership against participating in the MWM and how this affected USLAW. DeWitt is the president of the South Carolina State AFL-CIO, the only state federation to do any organizing for the MWM, The article quotes DeWitt and summarizes her thoughts as follows:

. "'If the AFL had supported and mobilized for the march-even tacitly, even by just encouraging affiliates to do what they could and giving a little money,' DeWitt continued, 'it would have been a lot bigger. As it is, they gave all affiliates an excuse not to participate. ' And, she added, gave organizations like USLAW and the Labor Party, which depend on unions and state and local labor bodies for their funding, a reason to be fearful about endorsing."

. Thus, fear of losing funding from state and local union officials contributed to USLAW tossing aside its stated mission of mobilizing workers against the war. True, USLAW's Gene Bruskin gave a speech at the MWM and even had a sentence of criticism of the Democrats. And other USLAW members participated in the MWM as individuals. But the organization as a whole was paralyzed by its courtship of the pro-Kerry union officials.

More opposition from the "anybody but Bush" die-hards

. The "anybody but Bush" mentality also kept some of the large anti-war coalitions, like UFPJ (United for Peace and Justice), from mobilizing for themarch. This coalition organized the giant demonstration at the Republican National Convention. But its leadership got cold feet when it came to a choice between supporting the MWM or getting out the vote for Kerry on the eve of the elections. Our contingent at the MWM also noticed the absence of the revisionist Communist Party, USA. Undoubtedly this was because these phony communists were continuing their decades-long tradition of sucking up to the Democrats and the AFL-CIO misleaders by going along with the "anybody but Bush" scoundrels.

Reformist complaints about the MWM

. Die-hard "anybody but Bush" believers heaped all sorts of scorn on the MWM. This wasn't a just criticism of the weak and hesitant nature of the break between the MWM leaders concerning the pro-Kerry AFL-CIO leaders or their illusions in the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Instead they clucked about how small, and hence insignificant, the MWM was. Of course their boycott helped guarantee the size would be limited. The hard-core ABBers consoled themselves by arguing that only Kerry could defeat Bush. True. But they ignored that only the revival of a militant workers movement can offer serious resistance to the capitalist program shared by Bush and Kerry. They could only see that such a movement would be small at this time, ignoring that the rise of a genuine workers trend has long been hindered by the dominant influence of the Democratic Party among the workers.

. Some reformist leaders held that they would have been for the MWM if only it had been held after the elections. They claim this would mean a huge mobilization by the union bureaucrats who were previously going all out for Kerry. USLAW's Gene Bruskin attended the MWM but, as quoted above, shared the idea that there would have been a huge AFL-CIO mobilization if only the organizers had waited a few more weeks. But can anyone seriously believe that if Kerry had won, the AFL-CIO bureaucrats who had been touting him would have soon be calling for anti-Kerry demonstrations? Indeed, where were the massive AFL-CIO-led protests, strikes, etc. during Bush's first four years? The MWM represented only a very small and partial break from complete enslavement to the bourgeois political establishment. But while the AFL-CIO leaders overlooked every anti-worker position of Kerry, they couldn't tolerate even this baby step towards the workers having their own independent stand.

Absurdly left criticism of the MWM

. There were also certain absurdly left criticisms of the march done in the name of building a revolutionary movement and staunch opposition to the Democrats and imperialism.

. One of the more strident examples of this we came across in the internet exchanges on the MWM was from Gregory A. Butler, a shop steward in Local 608 of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Butler publicizes a web site called "Gangbox" which contains commentaries demonstrating his "revolutionary unionism." According to Butler the MWM was a "march to irrelevance," and the MWM had not "been honest about its intent as a Democratic Party campaign event."

. True, the MWM organizers are not revolutionary leaders but reformist bureaucrats with hopes of wooing the pro-Democratic mainstream of the AFL-CIO hierarchy. But that's only part of the story. The MWM web site didn't praise Kerry but hurled barbs at him. Among them is the MWM declaration called The Million Worker March Organizing Committee Responds to the Directive of the AFL-CIO posted on the MWM web site. It mocks the AFL-CIO national leadership for trusting Kerry and exposes many of Kerry and Clinton's rotten stands. It states:

. "John Kerry, outflanking Bush from the far right, has called for intensification of the so-called 'war on terror' by targeting people 'before they act' -- giving explicit sanction to secret arrests, detention without trial and the labeling of opponents as 'terrorists.' "

. And the MWM document asks rhetorical questions like:

. "Will the defeat of George Bush end the occupation in Iraq and the plans for greater imperial war? Will his defeat bring the troops home now or is the plan after the election, as widely reported, for conscription of working class youth and an expansion of militarism in America?"
. "Will the defeat of George Bush end privatization and the destruction of unions in the public sector when the Democratic Party privatized and outsourced our jobs under the rubric of 'downsizing the government. '?"
. "Will it end the criminalization of poverty or abolish the prison-industrial complex that has destroyed generations of Black and Latino youth?" (Incidently, Butler, for whom any accusation will evidently do, denounced the MWM as "pandering to liberal racism". )

. This is not the stuff of the Kerry campaign, but a bitter denunciation of him. To pretend otherwise is to ignore that it is important that the workers were attracted to the MWM not because it was promoting Kerry, but because they had doubts about Kerry or were outright opposed to the Democrats.

. The speakers at the MWM itself had an array of views. There were some which criticized Bush and the Democrats and even took shots at the AFL-CIO leadership. Some speakers denounced imperialism and called for workers not being satisfied until they ran society. Whatever the weaknesses of these speeches, to pretend this was just Kerry rally material is ridiculous. There were also some speakers who played up the issue of getting out the vote to get Bush out. Clearly, these speeches had pro-Kerry implications, and one of the highlighted speakers, Martin Luther King III, was one of those who stressed the "get-out-the-vote" message. But it was striking that even the pro-Kerry types had to tread lightly and avoid mentioning him by name.

. No, this wasn't a rally dominated by revolutionary politics. But it wasn't a pro-Kerry rally either. The MWM was held against the wishes of those organizing pro-Kerry rallies. Thus, it represented a certain break with the the pro-Kerry crowd, though it was only the most timid, and possibly temporary, break. It raised the issue that workers can't simply rely on the Democrats, though the answer given by the MWM organizers was lacking. But even this created a different atmosphere, an atmosphere that facilitated discussion of how to build something outside the two capitalist parties. Indeed, speakers touted how the MWM was an act of defiance of the pro-Kerry zealots. And workers who attended it would at least come away with the idea that something can be organized without the approval of the Democrats and top union bosses.

. In these circumstances, it was incumbent upon revolutionary activists not to simply trash the event, but utilize the rift between the MWM organizers and the AFL-CIO mainstream officials to put forward the tasks needed for a revival of independent class organization. Scattershot attacks on the MWM only make the task of pointing out the very real weaknesses in the stand of the MWM organizers more difficult. Moreover, even had there been a more pronounced pro-Kerry stand at the MWM, simply boycotting it, as some super-left critics advocated, would have meant making it easy for the illusions in the Democrats among the workers to persist.

. Butler also denounced the MWM by contrasting it to the "real mass movement." Supposedly a mere rally of 10,000 workers with a lot of disgruntlement with the Democrats was simply a diversion from the real action, for instance strikes. As a matter of fact, the workers who attended the march would generally be quite pleased to see strikes develop. That's why a section of the rally marched to the site of striking workers in Washington, DC and why officials of a striking Japanese railroad workers union were among the speakers.

. That aside, the MWM was not a step backwards from some great strike wave or rebellion that presently doesn't exist. It was an opportunity for revolutionary activists to encourage alternative organization among the workers that will pave the way for the big class battles of the future.

. And what of the scattered strikes going on today? They are dominated by class collaborationist trends. They are controlled by the same pro-Democratic Party union leaderships whose influence on the MWM is Butler's excuse to denounce the MWM as totally irrelevant. But the truth is that the workers' struggle, in whatever form, is a field where there is contention between political trends. Far from hurting workers who are on strike today, a really independent independent movement would provide encouragement for the rank-and-file to build up their own trend and not rely on the promises of Democrats or the timid union officials.

. In the end, such absurdly left criticisms share a great deal with the liberal and reformist critics. They both put down the march, or even demonstrations in general, on the grounds that they didn't involve millions of people. In the case of devotees of campaigning for Kerry, they portray tens of millions of Kerry votes as a triumph for the workers. For the super-leftists, it's their imaginary millions of US workers engaging in militant actions that are of real importance, while those at the MWM are just twiddling their thumbs.

The independent workers' movement

. There is no quick fix for overcoming the capitalist onslaught. Kerry wasn't going to stop it and Bush will continue it with a vengeance. Nor is there some maneuver that will convert the AFL-CIO hierarchy into militant class fighters. No, new class organizations can only be built though a protracted effort by the rank-and-file and militant activists. It can be built by encouraging the workers to participate in the various mass struggles in our class interest including the anti-war struggle, the fight against repressive laws and persecution of immigrants, the battle to defend our living and working conditions, the struggle against racism and discrimination of all kinds, etc. But in these struggles the workers must also have their own stand. We must target not only Bush, but the capitalist class that stands behind the Republicans and Democrats alike. We must not only raise our class demands, but expose how the AFL-CIO bureaucrats are betraying our cause.

. The MWM organizers posed the question of class independence, but dream of one day marching together with the traitorous AFL-CIO leadership. We are glad the question has been raised and are glad that thousands of workers were attracted by this prospect. The task of revolutionary-minded workers is to encourage every small initiative of the rank and file. It's to utilize every opportunity, no matter how limited, to help the workers develop their own methods of collective action. And it's to use every chance to expose the AFL-CIO hierarchy as a conduit for the pro-capitalist policies of the Democratic Party.

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