As I write, Spanish riot police are attacking Catalan firefighters as they attempt to protect voters from brutal assaults – hundreds have been seriously injured in a level of state violence against Spain’s citizens not seen since the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Across the planet, openly fascist and racist politicians are entering government, assaults on immigrants are becoming routine, and workers and their unions are under full-scale attack.
In the United States, armed fascists recently paraded in the streets of Charlottesville, chanting Nazi slogans, threatening Jewish worshippers in a synagogue, attacking African-American clergy, and murdering Heather Heyer, one of thousands who took to the streets to challenge the fascist hordes. In Portland, a fascist murdered two people who intervened when he began shouting racist and anti-Muslim insults at two young women riding a streetcar. In Seattle, on the same day that Trump took office, a fascist shot and nearly killed an IWW member trying to de-escalate a conflict that erupted when her husband began assaulting protesters with pepper spray after warning her not to start shooting until things escalated, so that they could claim self-defense. (Police released the shooter and her accomplice within hours, only bringing assault charges three months later.)
After 50 years of stagnating wages, speed-ups, unprecedented joblessness, and rising despair, people are understandably angry. But rather than focusing that anger on our exploiters and organizing to dump the bosses off our backs, too many are listening to demagogues who urge us to blame workers in other countries, women, and racial or religious minorities. In these dark times, bigots of all sorts are slithering into the open, spewing hatred and fomenting division and fear.
The labor movement has a pivotal role to play in this struggle. The bosses have always tried to divide us, to pit workers against each other to keep us weak. To their shame, some unions have fallen for this. But there is a long tradition of labor solidarity, as well. Before the Civil War, labor reform societies demanded emancipation and the right of all workers to organize. In the 1880s the Knights of Labor welcomed African-American members even in the former Confederacy, though it organized them into segregated assemblies. Even in Richmond, Virginia, the Knights supported African-American workers in their labor struggles. When the Knights held their national General Assembly there, many delegates refused to stay in segregated hotels and Knights officials reaffirmed their commitment to racial equality. (In the aftermath of the Assembly, local membership in the Knights plummeted, whether as a result of backlash against the integrated ceremonies, employer intimidation, or the widespread attack against unions in the wake of the 8-hour day movement and the attack on workers at Haymarket Square.)
Even radical unionists had mixed records. The American Railway Union, while open to workers of every craft, joined the Railroad Brotherhoods in barring membership to African-Americans. The United Mine Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World, however, actively organized African-American workers, recognizing that there could be no progress without industrial solidarity. On the West Coast, IWW organizers challenged longstanding discrimination against Chinese and Japanese workers. In Louisiana and Texas, the IWW-affiliated Brotherhood of Timber Workers organized integrated locals and defied Jim Crow legislation. In Philadelphia, the IWW organized the country’s first integrated longshore union, responding to the bosses’ long history of pitting workers against each other with integrated work gangs and direct action on the job. And when KKK vigilantes tried to break up IWW organizing in the Maine forests in 1924, 200 IWW members patrolled the streets of Greenville to prevent the Klan from carrying out its threats.
As IWW organizer Ben Fletcher noted, writing in The Messenger in 1923,
“the employing class are the beneficiaries of these policies of Negro Labor exclusion and segregation… No genuine attempt by Organized Labor to wrest and worthwhile and lasting concessions from the Employing Class can succeed as long as Organized Labor for the most part is indifferent and in opposition to the fate of Negro Labor.
“Organized Labor can bring about a different situation – one that will speed the dawn of Industrial Freedom. First by excising their Race exclusion clauses. Second, by enrolling ALL workers in their Industrial or Craft jurisdictions… Collective dealing with the Employing Class is the only way by which Labor can procure any concessions from them… It is the only way in which to establish industrial stability … and finally Industrial freedom.”
The Congress of Industrial Organizations heeded this lesson, actively confronting bigotry as it organized workers across ethnic and racial lines, including in the South where Jim Crow laws still prevailed. Despite continuing discrimination in some unions, labor unions offered substantial support to the Civil Rights movement, and to struggles by African-American workers for better conditions. When AFSCME-organized sanitation workers struck in Memphis in 1968, the city hired white scabs in an attempt to break the strike. But local and national unions came to the workers’ defense, as did civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated while in Memphis to support the striking workers. The strike was settled after a silent march of 42,000 through the streets of Memphis, though shorter strikes were needed to force the city to honor its agreement.
Today the American labor movement is in crisis. Laws restrict unions from engaging in solidarity actions, employing direct action to enforce decent conditions, or even from representing their members at all. Immigration agents seize workers who dare to complain about unpaid wages, and judges allow employers to fire workers for the “disloyalty” of disseminating information about the conditions under which they work. When workers strike, police serve as scabherders – often receiving bonus pay from the employers for their service. Police allow armed fascists to march in the streets, but herd workers into protest pens far removed from the facilities they are picketing.
Many workers are fighting back. In August ILWU Local 10 voted to strike to join protests against a planned San Francisco fascist rally, prompting the fascists to scurry for cover. Following the deportation of a 26-year Teamster member (a Guatemalan refugee arrested during his annual check-in with immigration officials), New York City-based 120,000-member Teamsters Joint Council 16 declared itself a “sanctuary union.” Several unions joined May Day demonstrations across the country in solidarity with their immigrant members, and many unions are providing legal and other assistance to immigrant members.
These are important steps to building a culture of solidarity, and toward acting in our collective self-defense against these attacks not only on our economic well-being, but against our very survival. Bigots, fascists and union-busters have been emboldened by recent events; only our solidarity and our determination can turn them back.