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April 1998, Volume 5 Nr. 8, Issue 56

Solidarity

When I was a young child, living and growing up in the streets of downtown Jersey City, New Jersey, I remember my mother taking me to political meetings. It was a short walk around the corner from where we lived to the Polish Community Center. Immigrants tended to settle within sections of the big city where ethnic culture was expressed and celebrated.

People came from all around the neighborhood and partook in Christmas Parties, workers celebrations and monthly meetings of the Democratic Party (which at the time was a Party of the working class). In those early impressionable days, I recall that being part of a broader community of common working people was important to my parents. These people were the salt of the Earth. They made the nation run.

My father and mother taught themselves English and learned to read and write in their adopted language. This came in quite handy for they were both active union members. My father belonged to the Bakers and Confectioners Union. My mother was a member of and eventually became a shop steward in a New York City based clean fill union.

I attended union meetings with my father. Typically, held in a community pub, I remember the incredible pride he exhibited when paying his monthly dues. The dues stamps which he carefully affixed in little boxes on the many pages of his union book testified to the fact.

I recall the seriousness and importance with which my mother wrote grievance letters for women who, like she, worked on Wall Street, sweeping offices, vacuuming, emptying the trash, refilling the soap containers, providing the next day’s management and executive toilet paper and paper towels. After all, the bathrooms of stock brokerage offices, banks and other corporate dens of investment and high profit didn’t replenish themselves.

What struck me was the solidarity. There was a bond between these people that is difficult to describe, yet easy to feel. This was a time when, at least as far as I could remember, working class people stood together for the common good. Without great education, they organized, presented their demands to the bosses and kept a watchful eye lest cause for grievance should arise. They kept their employers honest. In return, they put in a good hard day’s work.

Parents

Jan easily worked a twelve to fourteen hour day. Often, he worked longer. He was quite the loafer. He hoisted two pans at a time from a large wide rack in a giant revolving oven. A dozen pans spanned its length. Jan danced from left to right while a coworker shadowed his motions out-of-phase placing pans of raw dough into the oven filling the vacant spots he created. He did this for almost thirty years.

My father never got past the 7th grade. My mother got as far as the 8th grade. Many wouldn’t call them educated by today’s standards though Jan spoke eleven languages. He was the chauffeur for General Wiatr of the Polish Armed Forces in the North African Theater during World War II. As driver of the staff car, he traveled back and forth from Persia to Morocco. My mother, Stanislawa, in order to join him, volunteered as a Red Cross nurse in what was then Palestine. Such accommodation was the privilege of rank and position, my father being a staff sergeant on good terms with the general.

Often, our family was called "greenhorns", a derogatory term for foreigners. Perhaps, this is another reason why the baby boomer’s immigrant parent generation stayed tightly knit together. There was safety in working with each other. Their history, with its difficulties and struggles in the old world, the war and the new world, imbued a togetherness enhancing survival prospects (a manifestation of people power).

Now that I am a shade away from being fifty, the worker solidarity common in my youth is all but gone in United States. In its place, is the illusion of rugged individualism disguising the conformity of a greedy ethic. It is very evident that drastic changes occurred over the past few decades. Far fewer people, even those of my own age, can today relate to what I am talking about.

Recent Incidents

After long brewing tensions, during a midnight raid on April 8, 1998, 1,400 wharfies were sacked, fired by Patrick Stevedore, a vast Australian corporation operating maritime terminals, trucks, warehouses, docks, etc. Wharfies is a term used to describe the unionized workers who load and unload the containers and other goods carrying packages to and from ships. The entire union workforce was fired. Patrick hired guards to make certain that none of the workers could get to work.

Alannah McTiernan, labor’s transport secretary said,

If an employer can just come in, without there being any local dispute at all, and sack all their employees and say: 'we want to sack you because we're going to replace you with people on workplace agreements', I mean that has amazing ramifications for every worker in Western Australia. It could happen in any sector. It could happen in hospitals. The Government could come in and sack every nurse and say we're not happy with your performance, we're going to sack you and we're going to replace you with people on workplace agreements. It could happen in the retail sector, hospitality, and of course in the mining area.

Yes. It could. It did. Often. Not only in Australia, but in the United States as well.

Past Incidents

On May 1, 1886, workers in Chicago went on strike for an 8-hour workday. There was a riot at the McCormick Harvester plant where one person died. On May 4 (which is also the anniversary of the killing of four students by national guard troops at Kent State University during an anti-war demonstration), a protest took place. While the crowd was being dispersed, a bomb went off killing a policeman and wounding others. Seven policemen died later. As a consequence, eight men were tried, seven of which were given death sentences. Four of these were put to death by hanging. Once committed suicide. The remaining sentences were reduced to life imprisonment and eventually pardoned. I always wear a small red ribbon on May Day in commemoration of those that died during the Haymarket Riots. On this day, May 1, most of the world celebrates the International Day of the Worker. The United States, however, does not.

I highly recommend John Sayles movie, "Matewan." Matewan is a story of attempted solidarity in a small coal mining town in West Virginia owned and operated by bosses and henchman. It is 1920. A pacifist United Mine Workers union organizer brings together local white coal miners, their African American and immigrant Italian counterparts. The confrontation eventually leads to a massacre. On May 19, 1920, one of the bloodiest shootouts in American history takes place. Working people cannot and should not forget Matewan. There were many others including:

  • The Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill Strike, 1914-1915
  • The Uprising of 34: The General Textile Strike of 1934
  • The 1940’s Bell Bomber Plant action
  • Labor and the March on Washington, 1963
  • The firing of air traffic controllers in the 1980’s (more on that later)

Back Downunder

Scabs are hired to do the work of the fired Australian maritime union membership. Scab is a term used to describe a worker to takes the place of a fired union member. Though harsh, it expresses the sentiment well.

The wharfies determined to maintain solidarity in their struggle launch a successful campaign to prevent any goods from moving into or out of Patricks’ facilities. The protests spread. On April 9, unionists in the International Longshoreman's Union in San Francisco, protest to consular officials in the Australian Consulate. They then blockade the consulate building. Arrests follow.

The issue of the mass sacking is taken to court. The Australian government takes the side of Patrick Stevedore. In further solidarity, the International Transport Workers Federation urge ship owners to divert their cargoes from Australian ports operated by Patrick Stevedores. Victoria unions endorse a mass strike for May. This is followed by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) calling for international solidarity from unions worldwide and alert their Human and Trade Union Rights Committee to the situation.

Pickets spring up all across the nation. Picketers are run over by a minibus. Others are maced and injured. Union solidarity provides workers wages during a period when attempts to cripple Patrick Stevedore begin to pay off.

On April 11, the following events take place:

  • The biggest Netherlands trade union in the Netherlands calls on the shipping line P&O Nedlloyd not to use Patrick Stevedores.
  • The International Transport Workers' Federation announces a "tentative" agreement with the Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company not to use Patrick facilities in Australia.
  • Unions in Japan, Britain and the United States pledge to support the MUA.

On April 17, the Executive Board of Public Services International, calls upon customs officers worldwide to support the wharfies, that is the Maritime Union of Australia. The United States’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union calls on all union members across America to boycott Australian meat and farm products. In solidarity, the pressure builds. This is followed by an April 20 injunction against public protest. On April 21, the Federal Court rules that Patrick must reinstate the wharfies. Not only does the MUA win in court, they win on moral high ground. Workers empowerment comes from taking advantage of the one thing the bosses fear most: solidarity.

Oblivious

Except those directly involved, few in the United States know of the Patrick Stevedore firings, the MUA response and the victory. I know of only one other individual who is aware of it. He listens to short-wave radio for his information. Most Americans are oblivious events such as this. The few professionals with whom I spoke of the incident, seem not care. They sense no solidarity with the wharfies believing that it could not happen here.

How difficult is it to fire off a letter or two to the Australian consulate or to send emails supporting the wharfies? It takes a few minutes, perhaps half-an-hour at most. Not only do most people not know about large scale international worker actions, few bother to find out. Their oblivion is a chosen oblivion of self-indulgent non-indulgence. It is an unsolidarity of omission, the deliberate and active choice to not find out, not care nor get involved.

In the 1980’s, Ronald Reagan fired thousands of striking PATCO air traffic controllers. They were never rehired. Since then, there has been an incredible rash of accidents, near misses and delays. Where was the American worker? Solidarity could have prevented their firing then as it had during the Patrick Stevedore confrontation. Who knows how many more people would be alive today? Did we care? Apparently not.

One More Time

At 6:00 a.m., Monday, April 27, Denmark went on strike. Ten percent of Denmark’s population refused to go to work with a promise of more to follow. While I write this, enormous May Day demonstrations are being planned. Martin Johansen of the International Socialists states, "It's very exciting times -- the working class is suddenly coming back onstage."

At 9 P.M., April 27, I searched the entire New York Times website for information on the Danish workers action. Nothing. National Public Radio did report on the Morning of the 28th that 500,000 Danes went on strike. The issues? An 8% wage increase over two years and a five week paid vacation. Imagine asking for five weeks "paid holiday" in the United States. As of 3 p.m., April 29, the New York Times web site still had no information returned when performing a search on news of the Danish strike. It’s obvious the capitalist media would rather not report upon workers’ solidarity and their successes.

I can’t help imagining what the workers of this country might accomplish if their solidarity were just a little like that of my parents, or that of the wharfies or the Danes. I don’t expect much worker solidarity from the United States over Denmark or anything else, though there are hopeful signs. The recent success of the United Parcel Service (UPS) and the airline pilots strike come to mind.

Loneliness

Paradoxically, both loneliness and belonging are part of solidarity’s commitment. The is profound loneliness occasionally evident in people who experience the politics of movement solidarity It occurs when a worker in solidarity is in the company of people who do not comprehend what it is. It is a disconnected loneliness from those without a link to anything greater than themselves. The loneliness fades away when in the company of as little as one other person who knows what it is.

This loneliness is different from the pervasive loneliness that ten to thirty percent of the population reports feeling. It differs from the existential angst of accepting our ultimate aloneness. It is often in the background as a kind of white noise of continuing and past involvement. Part identity and part life experience, it is a low level hum reminding us that we are part of a greater group which looks beyond defining everything in terms of the one or "I". Once it’s experienced, it is impossible forget.

Unless one can find a few other human beings who have shared the collective consciousness of mass activism through individual action, the world becomes less hospitable. Conversation reduces to pleasantry and trivia and becomes a poor substitute for dialog. Boredom becomes mundane and the mundane becomes boring. Fortunately, I believe that more and more people are finding others in solidarity. Every day, it is becoming more and more common.

Class Solidarity

A New Democracy flyer entitled, "Affirmative Action or Class Solidarity", discusses the competitive nature of affirmative action. New Democracy makes the claim that it is the competitive nature of scrambling for jobs which places good people, both liberals and conservatives, on opposites side of the divide. The case is then made that there is no divide. Rather, that in a spirit of cooperation, in class solidarity, discrimination can be overcome. New Democracy states,

There is only one ‘group’ that the powerful do not want us to identify with - the working class. The ruling elite know that they can keep groups based on race or gender fighting each other forever. The elite cannot control a united working class.

The camps within which we place ourselves through political manipulation are counter-productive. Calling ourselves liberal or conservative is to see others as the opposition. This is exactly what the powerful want. The people united in class solidarity can never be defeated.

The real struggle for equality has always come from the solidarity of working people in their everyday lives.

My parents knew that. Even though their education level did not allow them to succinctly express their philosophy, their actions spoke volumes. Often, throughout my twenty-seven year teaching career I’ve felt more in common with the support staff than with the professionals. Professionals have a tendency to consider themselves somehow a cut above the working class. That too, however, is an artificial construct in need of getting beyond. Professionals are labor. Their solidarity is a working class solidarity and as such they, the professionals, should welcome the solidarity of the working class and help lend a hand. After all, the too, are pawns in the same corporate takeover of everything.

Labor

There is a unique possibility taking form in the United States today. The Labor Party is "standing strong" and organizing. Activists throughout the country are hard at work creating a viable alternative to the two-party-in-name-only representation of the same capitalist political institutions.

Two years ago, in 1996, at the Labor party founding convention, delegates decided not to run political candidates. The goal for the Labor Party was to "exist in order to build a powerful movement around our new agenda for working people." While this is still the case, the upcoming Labor Party convention will revisit the issue. The benefit of the Labor Party however, is the existence of a working class organization composed of and endorsed by many union members and unions nationwide under which one can create solidarity. If my parents were alive today, I’m convinced they would join and become involved. There’s nothing stopping the rest of us.

Quotes

When I rise it will be with the ranks and not from the ranks.

  • Eugene V. Debs

Your silence will not protect you"

  • Audre Lorde

We must learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

We can move mountains when we're united and enjoy life --Without unity we are victims. Stay united.

  • Bill Bailey, 1994

An injury to one is the concern of all.

  • Slogan of The Knights of Labor, circa 1880's

A single bracelet does not jingle.

  • Congo proverb

The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one of uniting all working people of all nations, tongues and kindreds.

  • From the speeches of Abraham Lincoln

Bibliography

Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "Patrick to Face Worldwide Action After Sacking Workforce." Internet. [http://www.abc.net.au/news/98/04/08/980408_9.htm] Accessed, 27-April-98.

Brassell, W. R. "Belonging: A Guide to Overcoming Loneliness." Internet. [http://www.hci.net/ ~waynew/
WRBrassell/wbrassell_narrative.html
] Accessed, 29-April-98.

Chicago Municipal Reference Library. Chicago
Historical Information
. "The 1886 Haymarket Riot."
Internet. [http://www.chipublib.org/004chicago/
timeline/haymarket.html
]

Takver. "War on the Wharfies News Summary
April 98." Internet. [http://www.users.bigpond.com
/Takver/soapbox/apr98a.htm#apr98060
] Accessed,
27-April-98.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters. "Draft Resolution - Executive Board." Internet. [http://www.natcavoice.org/un/f/curesolu.htm] Accessed, 27-April-98.

Labor Party. Labor Party Press. "Should the Labor Party be on the Ballot and if so, When Where How?" Internet. [http://www.labornet.org/lpa/ lppress/election.htm] Accessed, 30-April-98.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. On Film Brief Reviews. "Matewan". Internet. [http://onfilm.chireader.com/ MovieCaps/M/MA/06022_MATEWAN. html] Accessed, 27-April-98.

Spritzler, John. New Democracy. Affirmarive Action or Class Solidarity. "A New Democracy Flyer." Internet. [http://members.aol.com/newdem /affirm.htm] Accessed, 29-Apeil-98.

Williamson Daily News. "Matewan." Internet. [http://www.williamsondailynews.com/matewan.html] Accessed, 27-April-97.

Winkel, Rich. "Denmark on Strike." Internet: Dejanews. [http://x3.dejanews.com/getdoc.xp?AN=348080135&
CONTEXT= 893723526.907542690&hitnum=0
]
Accessed, 27-April-98.

1998 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

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