Saturday, September 29, 2012

2011 May Day Speech

If you ask me, living in the Midwest is the bees knees!  We've got the Great Lakes, forests that go on and on, lots of wonderful, kind, hard-working people - and the highest level of union density in the country!  Our own Duluth, for example, has the 3rd highest union density of any city in the United States.  One out of three families in the Twin Ports is a union family!  And there's a reason for this.  We have the good fortune to be standing today on the shoulders and the accomplishments of the working class brothers and sisters of yesteryear's labor movement.  A movement, that through countless organizing drives, pickets, protests and sometimes even pitched battles in the streets, won the rights, standard of living and other accomplishments that we all take for granted.  It was a long, difficult, and sometimes even bloody struggle.  It's not a struggle you'll hear much about on TV, or in a school classroom.  But it's so important that we nonetheless learn about the history of the workers' movement - both so as to appreciate and honor the sacrifices that were made, AND, to learn the lessons of the victories and defeats.  From the union organizing drives on the Mesabi Iron Range, to the old dock strikes in Superior, there is a wealth of experience for us to draw upon.

Today, tragically, our rights and our livelihoods are under attack.  The gains won in years past are steadily being eroded.  Capitalism's fat cats are engaged in a global competition to wring as much as they can out of the hides of working people.  There is literally no limit to the sinister things that these characters are doing to us, our families, and our planet - all for the sake of reaping more and more profits for their already over-flowing coffers.  And they don't just do it to us directly in the workplaces, they do it everywhere.  By buying off the politicians, Republicans AND Democrats, they've turned government into their tool - a tool that faithfully does their bidding.  In my opinion, most elections these days amount to little more than two crooked contractors putting forth competing bids for how to best achieve what the corporations want.  And let me tell you, these politicians have gotten good at being craven tools of the rich!  It's mind boggling to step back and look at what the Democrats and Republicans have done to us in just the past 20 years alone.  Tommy Thompson and Bill Clinton gutted welfare as we know it - one of the biggest defeats working people have suffered since World War II.  Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich brought us NAFTA.  Al Gore, Clinton, Dick Cheney & George Bush opened up millions of acres of our last public lands to corporate development.  Bush and Obama gave hundreds of billions to Wall Street, while millions lost their homes.  Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Obama bailed out the private insurance industry by forcing us to by private insurance, while calling it health care reform.  And Clinton, Bush and now Obama have tripped over themselves to bomb and invade as many countries as possible.  Let us not forget how the great socialist Eugene Debs aptly described these types of wars - as a bayonet with a worker at each end.  Yes sir, it is ugly out there!  And unless we're willing to see all of the gains working people have won in the past reversed - the 8 hour day, social security, Medicare, the right to form unions - you name it - we're going to need to once again stand up, and fight back!

Now, this is where those lessons of the past are so crucial.  We don't need to start from scratch and reinvent the wheel!  We can learn so much by looking at the heroic chapters of our movement's past.  Lets look at the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike, for example.  When these workers were denied their request for decent wages that they could support a family on, and even the right to form a union, they got organized.  They set up a union headquarters with a cafeteria and a first aid station, together with a daily newsletter - so that when they went out on strike they were ready to feed, bandage and inform every worker involved.  They pooled their cars and trucks together to form roving pickets, which roamed the city streets and kept any scab trucks from moving about.  They set up large, spirit picket lines to keep the trucking companies shut down, and scabs from crossing the line.  And when the cops were sent out to bust the strike, they stood their ground, duked it out in the street in pitched battles, and send the right wing thugs running.  They didn't fall for the sweet talk of the politicians, who urged them to go back to work and let the whole thing be settled behind closed corporate doors.  And they even faced off with the National Guard, when it was called out by a governor, who was supposedly a friend of labor.  They stood their ground, reached out to all of the other workers, the unemployed and the farmers, and they won.  And when they won that fight, it inspired hundreds of thousands of others throughout the region to follow their example - transforming not only the trucking industry, but the labor movement of the entire Midwest.  They showed, powerfully, with their sweat, blood and determination, that when working people come together as a class and shut down the economy, we can bring the fat cats to their knees, and win a better life for working people!

But we don't get taught about the 1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike, or the 1937 auto worker sit down strikes in Flint, Michigan, or the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, or the San Francisco general strike, or any of the other earth shaking chapters of labor history.  They leave that stuff out of the school text books.  That should come as no surprise to us - since it's the bought off politicians that determine what's in the school text books!  And as a result, a lot of working class history, and with it those crucial lessons of what works and doesn't work, has been lost or become hazy in our memories.  The militant sit down strikes, roving pickets and general strikes have been largely replaced with lobbying, raising money for crooked politicians and concessionary contracts.  With some notable exceptions, our movement and our class have forgotten how to fight.  And the consequences have been dire.  We failed to rise up to defend welfare when it was gutted in the 90s, allowing ourselves to become duped by made up stories about welfare cheats.  Not enough of us stood by the side of our immigrant brothers and sisters when the right wing put them in their crosshairs this past decade.  We were largely AWOL when the politicians started underfunding and gutting public education, and pushing private charter schools and voucher programs.  We're allowed affirmative action to become practically a dead letter, sold out younger workers with two tier wage contracts, and failed to mobilize in sufficient numbers to stop the Republicrats wars abroad.  Even when NAFTA was passed, despite being such an obvious assault on unions, we did little more than generate some impotent noise.  Yes, sadly, for the most part, we've forgotten how to successfully fight back and defend the interests of our class.  We've lost the militant lessons of the past.

But then, just a few months back, we got a rousing and vivid reminder!  And it came from an unexpected source from the other side of the globe!  Fed up with decades of rule by corrupt dictators, working people in Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets - and they stayed there!  Day after day after day, in the hundreds of thousands, they occupied the streets and public squares.  The powers that be tried everything in their usual bag of tricks to defuse the movement.  They sent police to disperse the crowds, they hired right wing thugs, ala the Tea Party, to beat up protesters, they sent the bought off politicians out to promise they were do better, and they used the media to plead with folks to go home and wait until the next elections.  But none of it worked!  They'd learned the hard way that the only way to win is to take to the streets, shut down business as usual and build a movement independent of the bought off politicians!  And because of that, the dictators fell!  What the workers and farmers of North Africa did was historic!  It was inspiring!  AND, it proved contagious!

Just weeks after the dramatic upheavals in North Africa had flashed across our TV screens, Governor Scott Walker launched his attack on Wisconsin's public workers - targeting their collective bargaining rights, wages and benefits.  Walker & company probably expected it'd be a cake walk - that there'd be some union resolutions passed in protest, and maybe a march or two where most of the speakers would urge folks to register to vote and volunteer to put in a different faction of bought off politicians in the next, distant, election cycle.  But that's not what happened!  What happened is Madison became like Cairo!  Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets, and event took over the State Capitol building.  Protests erupted in cities and towns across the state; students walked out of their schools; and people who had never protested anything before put their hats and mittens on, and went outside and made history! 

And just like Egypt, none of the usual bag of tricks the powers that be tried worked.  Week after week after week we stayed in the streets.  We did so good - we had resurrected the militant traditions of the past!  But then we stumbled.  When the 14 state senators who had fled to Illinois returned, they toured the state and asked us to shift gears, and to instead go back to focusing on the upcoming elections.  Despite having been burned by them so many times in the past, we somehow found ourselves falling for their sweet talk once again.

The whole thing reminds me a story from my youth.  When I was a little kid, one summer my parents sent me to a Lutheran summer camp called Camp Whitewater.  There with a bunch of other little Lutherans, we cooled off from the shot sun every day by going down and jumping into a lake.  Man, did that cool water feel good!  But things quickly went south for me when the girls at camp found out I was the only boy who couldn't swim.  Every time I'd jump into the water, they converge on my and pull down my swim trunks.  It was mortifying - my bare white butt, hanging out for all to see!  I tried to run away, but it was so hard to outrun them in the water when they could swim.  So I took to just sitting on the beach, sweating in the heat.  One girl, Amy Werner, came up and urged me to come back in, promising that she wouldn't pull down my swim trunks.  So I went back in, and guess what, she pulled down my swim trunks.  So I went back to sitting on the beach.  Then another girl, Janet Putz came up and urged me to come back in, promising that she wouldn't pull down my swim trunks, like Amy had.  So I went back into the water, and she pulled down my swim trunks.  Time and time again I was fooled.  And by the time I figured out not to trust any of those mean girls, it was too late, camp had ended.

Now, I didn't tell you this story so that you would all picture my rear-end - heaven's no!  I told you it to drive home the need for a labor party.  What?  That's right, you heard me - that story was meant to convince you all that we need to stop putting our trust in bought off politicians and build our own, independent movement.  Our fight against Walker's bill was so powerful because we were in the streets, shutting down business as usual, as opposed to relying on lobbyists and bought off politicians.  But now we're slipping, our movement is loosing air like a popped balloon.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for recalling Scott Walker, and any legislator that voted for his bills.  Lets throw the bums out!  But replace them with whom?  The Democrats?  The same party that took money from the Koch brother, just like the Republicans?  The same party that gave us Jim Doyle, who cut education in WI by 250 million dollars - coincidentally the same amount of money that Walker is now trying to cut from education?  The same party whose produced state senators that immediately following the return of the 14 state senators, proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would eliminate the need to have 2/3 majority to pass financial bills in the legislature, making it impossible for them to ever do a repeat of their move to Illinois?  Heck, our own Democratic State Senator Bob Jauch even voted for Walker's financial bill!  How many times are we going to let the Democrats pull down our swim trunks!  We need to learn to swim for ourselves.  Electoral work can play a role, but it has to be secondary, and not in any way reliant on the bought off politicians!  We need to stay in the streets, build our own independent working class party, and return to the militant traditions of our past.  This isn't pie in the sky comrades - we have the wherewithal to do it!  And what's more, if we're to defeat the boss class, we need to do it!

Right now, today, our once promising movement is up against the ropes.  The massive protests have petered out and business is returning to usual.  But this fight against Walker's bill isn't yet over.  We still have some fight left in us, and we may still be able to resuscitate the movement - our pickets here in Superior are still going strong at least, and still eliciting a fantastic response from passing motorists and pedestrians.  And lets bear in mind, that even if we loose this battle with Walker, the class war continues.  And if we pledge to learn from our mistakes, to embrace the militant traditions of the past, we can and win this war!  And what a beautiful day it will be when that happens - a day when working people get to enjoy the full fruits of their labor, when government and the society as a whole is truly run by and for the people, and when little boys who can't swim don't have to worry about having their swim trunks pulled down by mean girls.  THE END!

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