September 19, 1981. Hundreds of thousands of workers rallied in Washington DC to demonstrate against corporate and government attacks on workers’ rights that had become too aggressive, too systemic, to ignore.
by Kurt Stand
September 19, 1981. Hundreds of thousands of workers rallied in Washington DC to demonstrate against corporate and government attacks on workers’ rights that had become too aggressive, too systemic, to ignore. Estimates of the number who took part varied from 250,000 to 750,000 – indisputable, however, was that the crowd stretched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol Building and was judged as larger than the biggest anti-war and civil rights rallies held in previous years. Moreover, in contrast to those protests, this march was made up overwhelmingly of blue collar workers and was far more multiracial in its composition, far more inter-generational in its make-up, than any that had preceded it.
This was the first time the AFL-CIO had called for a national rally of any sort; its endorsement by hundreds of national and local unions was clearly a reflection of the chord it struck. Yet the rally was broader than the trade union movement alone – for among the 250 co-sponsors, apart from labor, were environmental, women’s, civil rights, consumer, and senior citizens’ groups. Perhaps unremarkable now, such an event at the time was a genuine breakthrough of a labor movement whose top leadership had too often set itself opposed to or apart from such movements in the post-World War II era – a perspective then shared by many (though not all) local unions’ members.
The breadth of that demonstration is seen by the list of speakers from outside labor’s ranks who spoke that day. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP; Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., president of the National Urban League; Eleanor Smeal, president of the National Organization for Women all spoke, as did Coretta Scott King, Gloria Steinem, Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, and Joseph Lowery. So too did numerous union leaders. Pointedly excluded from the speakers’ list were members of Congress.
Yet even more striking is that it was composed of rank-and-file members from across the country who came by bus and car (and locally by Metro) organized by local unions and labor councils. Thus, the signs, banners, and clothing of participants reflected the diversity in labor’s ranks that has been missing at top-down rallies dominated by union staff and directed by staff members in pre-packaged predictable messages (something that happens all too often today). Despite its uniqueness, however, the day is itself largely ignored and forgotten in the way the history of unionism is largely written out of our history – a reflection too, of how labor often neglects its own past.
Perhaps, even more, however, the rally is neglected because the potential working class power it expressed was underutilized. The goal of halting the government-sanctioned assault on working people fell short; labor power was not revitalized – and thereafter the corporate assault on unions grew ever bolder and more brazen.
Setting the Stage
The make-up of that 1981 march reflected the anger among shop-floor workers who were not prepared to accept that business had decisively turned the tables against labor. Union members had won meaningful victories during the late 1960s through the mid-70s as organized workers resisted attempts to make them bear the cost of the war in Vietnam. The degree to which shop-floor actions improved wages and benefits, the extent to which speed-up and oppressive working conditions were resisted made corporate power all the more determined to break labor strength — in public opinion, through economic policy, by legislation and ultimately by breaking strikes.
All this preceded Ronald Reagan’s Administration, as can be seen in an open letter that then United Auto Workers (UAW) President Doug Fraser wrote in July 1978 announcing his resignation from a national Labor-Management group. Widely circulated within the labor movement, his words perfectly captured the feeling of the time:
I believe leaders of the business community, with few exceptions, have chosen to wage a one-sided class war today in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society. The leaders of industry, commerce and finance in the United States have broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a past period of growth and progress.
Fraser’s words struck a chord as union leaders began to recognize that a crisis was approaching as the percentage of unionized workers dipped to 20%. Large industrial and construction unions were losing ground as business began to move investments (and jobs) to right-to-work states or overseas. Technology designed to reduce the workforce, clearly directed at reducing union strength, was being developed and introduced. Organizations like the Business Roundtable, the Committee for a Union Free Environment, the Right-to-Work Committee, and similar groups pursued more aggressive bargaining, demanded concessions in wages, pensions and other benefits throughout entire industries. Companies began to force strikes, using scabs and the threat of plant closures to weaken or wholly eliminate unions, then using similar pressure tactics – both legal and illegal – to decertify existing bargaining units and to defeat organizing drives.
Business pressure also was used to defeat labor politically – the Carter Administration particularly angered union leaders when a labor law reform bill designed to restore rights and protections undermined by management actions failed — despite a Democratic House and Senate. Carter’s steps to deregulate trucking and airline industries served to weaken union strength in those industries as well, just as his budget policies were leading to an increase in unemployment. This led some unions to support Ted Kennedy’s challenge to him in the primaries and even to stay neutral during the 1980 presidential election (the position of the Machinists Union led by the open socialist William Winpisinger).
Fraser’s letter also spoke to that sentiment. After describing all the means being used to suppress voter participation, he added:
Even if all the barriers to [voting] were removed, there would be no rush to the polls by so many in our society who feel the sense of helplessness and inability to affect the system in any way. The Republican Party remains controlled by and the Democratic Party heavily influenced by business interests. The reality is that both are weak and ineffective as parties, with no visible, clear-cut ideological differences between them, because of business domination.
Reagan’s election, however, made matters worse in ways that even progressive union leaders did not fully anticipate. In the first instance, nearly half of all union members (and perhaps more than half) voted for him; many motivated by his attacks on public workers, on public spending – code words for racism, for resentment toward immigrants and for resistance to the gains women in the workforce had made. Thus it was that public employee unions, which had grown as the large private sector unions began to contract, saw themselves as targets. And it is no accident that these were unions that had given new strength and voice to those who had been most excluded: African-Americans, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans, and to women of all races and nationalities.
The broader political terrain that surrounded workers bargaining rights and strength thus were also at the center of the ground swell of support that led to Solidarity Day. Fraser anticipated this too – his concern over lost ground on issues of social insurance, employment, welfare and security was to prove prophetic as Reagan openly put into practice the long-planned corporate political agenda:
There are many other examples of the new class war being waged by business. .. [T]here is no chance the business elite will join the fight for national health insurance or even remain neutral, despite the fact that the U.S. is the only industrial country in the world, except for South Africa, without it. We are presently locked in battle with corporate interests on the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. We were at odds on improvements in the minimum wage, on Social Security financing, and virtually every other piece of legislation presented to the Congress recently. Business blames inflation on workers, the poor, the consumer and uses it as a club against them. Price hikes and profit increases are ignored while corporate representatives tell us we can’t afford to stop killing and maiming workers in unsafe factories. They tell us we must postpone moderate increases in the minimum wage for those whose labor earns so little they can barely survive.
So it was that Reagan’s victory – in the victory it represented over the values of the New Deal and Civil Rights era, in the green light it gave to an intensification of a corporate assault on working people that had already been under way – caused alarm bells to go off among union activists. Such activists, however, first have to organize to get their own organizations to act. For the AFL-CIO had, since its founding in 1955, never shown any inclination to lead any kind of mass action. But the crisis Fraser identified was real enough that the potential to move it now existed. All the more so as it was a time of leadership change.
Throughout the 1970s the number of strikes – and the number of large strikes – had increased, reaching a peak in 1978. On the one hand, these strikes were a demonstration of labor’s strength, of its ability to fight to maintain or advance members’ interests. At the same time, they reflected a greater intransigence by business, which was forcing confrontations as it sought to resolve a crisis of profitability and turn back challenges to its power on the backs of working people. The changing tenor of the times was not appreciated by AFL-CIO President George Meany, who in his blindness and arrogance not only presided over labor’s slow decline in strength, but sped it up by his insistence of the unparalleled virtues of US capitalism, his absolute commitment to war abroad, and his rejection of all voices of difference that were making themselves felt throughout the country during the 1960s and 70s.
When he retired in 1979, Meany left his hand-picked successor Lane Kirkland with an institution that, despite its outward appearance of strength, was decaying from within. While sharing the same general outlook as Meany – and likely being even more committed to collaboration with the State Department, Pentagon and CIA, in support for US global supremacy — Kirkland at least had eyes enough to see the underlying weakness of unions and the cost of its isolation, recognizing that Reagan’s domestic policy posed a challenge to unions not seen since before FDR’s election in 1932. So he made attempts to bring back to the AFL-CIO the UAW, which had left the Federation because of differences over bargaining/organizing and over the Vietnam War. Moreover, being new in authority, Kirkland lacked the autocratic strength of Meany and so was more open to pressure from national unions, as well as from local unions.
And that pressure was first expressed by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, which called for a national protest against the corporate assault on unions at its annual Memorial Day conference in 1980 (when Carter was still in office). CBTU was particularly well-placed to do so for its members in industry were exposed to the attacks on private sector unions, and its members in the public sector unions also saw themselves under threat while increases in unemployment and decreases in public spending impacted the black community across the board. Thus, the public/private sector, taxpayer/consumer divide that weakened unified labor resistance elsewhere in society was less a source of division for black trade unionists.
Once Reagan took office and the full scope of his cutbacks on social insurance and public benefits became clear, support for the call spread amongst left-wing and mainstream steel, auto, meatpacking unionists in Buffalo, Chicago, Milwaukee and other cities. Chicano workers from Arizona and New Mexico’s mining communities (including early support from the copper miners local featured in the 1950s blacklisted movie Salt of the Earth), joined in the demand for action, support spreading to unions North and South, on both coasts.
The breadth of the calls for a public display of union strength and resistance to Reagan’s policies was also reflected in the early support given to the action by the Coalition of Labor Union Women – CLUW also drawing from a cross-section of unions, and from national and local leaders, as well as activist women workers, thus cutting across the institutional lines that inhibited inter-union cooperation. The combination of calls from all sides led to concern by Kirkland that a national labor rally might be held without the AFL-CIO’s sponsorship, a concern all the greater because Winpisinger, then newly elected IAM president, joined AFSCME’s Jerry Wurf on the AFL-CIO Executive Board as militant critics of stand-pat labor policies.
And it was precisely such a combination of bottom-up pressure, getting the entire labor movement on board, that led to the march having a genuinely rank-and-file, popular character – and expressing the shared anger felt by unionists, whether they were politically conservative opponents of the social upheavals of the times or had themselves been part of the movements organizing those upheavals. Thus, although he originally opposed a national demonstration, by May 1981, about one year after CBTU first proposed such an action, Kirkland and the AFL-CIO Executive Council approved a call for the September 19 rally.
Lines already drawn hardened and anger deepened as negotiations between the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and the federal government broke down. On August 3, 1981, the union went on strike against the Federal Aviation Administration. Although the action was illegal, 85% of the union membership of the union walked off the job. Within 48 hours, Reagan fired the 12,000 striking controllers, jailed union leaders and militants, brought in military personnel to do the work, and gradually hired scabs to replace the fired strikers. PATCO members with federal mortgages had their homes taken, and the union’s $3.5 million strike fund was frozen while the union was fined millions of dollars.
PATCO had been involved in earlier acrimonious negotiations with the Carter Administration, and differences between the two sides were never resolved. When he was a Republican presidential candidate Reagan had promised them fairer treatment; therefore, unlike almost all other AFL-CIO affiliates, PATCO endorsed him in 1980. But once in office, Reagan’s tune changed, and no agreement was forthcoming. The union had demanded pay increases; the heart of the dispute, however, had to do with staffing levels. Air traffic controllers were subject to long hours in stressful conditions that jeopardized their health and public safety. Thus, their other demands included a 32-hour work week and the elimination of extended shift patterns. To do so would require new hiring, and this was anathema to the Reagan Administration which was out to reduce the federal workforce. Reduction in workforce was the sword of Damocles hanging over all federal employees in the early 1980s.
But more was at stake. Air traffic controllers had staged a “sick out” in the early 1960s without suffering for what was in essence an unauthorized strike. In 1970 postal workers staged an illegal national wildcat strike, also without suffering prison time or job loss. On a state and municipal level, teachers, sanitation workers, transit workers, and other public employees had staged illegal walkouts – and while fines and jail sentences sometimes resulted, there were no mass firings, and negotiations always remained at hand.
The Reagan Administration saw in the PATCO strike an opportunity to send a different kind of message. Firing the entire workforce and making clear that they would be permanently blacklisted from their trade (as indeed happened) would send a signal that the gloves would now be off for all workers, public sector or private sector.
Within months PATCO was bankrupted and decertified. The outline of that fate was already visible while preparations were underway for Solidarity Day. Union activists and leaders, however, understood that the same fate was in store for others who stood up to management, even when their strike actions were fully legal. As was indeed the case. And so demonstration preparations took on an added dimension.
Rally and March
Official union publications, in the months leading up to the march, began to run articles and editorials expressing a class perspective long absent from their pages; many articles referred back to their roots in class struggles of the late 19th century or the 1930s. Although long suppressed, denied or ignored, these spoke to the working class as constituting a “distinct interest” in society, hitting a note of recognition amongst members who did not see themselves as socialists.
Labor Day 1981, about a month after the PATCO firings, was the site of numerous militant parades, often in cities where they had long been neglected or had taken on a purely celebratory function, devoid of serious demands or issues. These served as a prelude to the imminent Solidarity Day rally, helping to build participation. New York City’s can be taken as emblematic when 4,000 PATCO members led a seven-hour march along 5th Avenue that drew about 200,000 union members in an outpouring of solidarity and strength. And to show that he refused to listen, Reagan flew to New York that day, ignoring the parade while meeting with the anti-labor Democrat/Republican Mayor Ed Koch.
Reagan also pointedly refused to stay in Washington DC on the 19th, unlike predecessors Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter who stayed in the White House at times of public protest no matter how hostile the protestors. His lack of respect for working people did not deter those who came. Beginning at the reflecting pool, the largest contingent – the 60,000-strong gathering of AFSCME members – led the march up Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues from the staging area at the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building. They were followed by contingents of auto workers, steel workers, hospital workers, transit workers, contingents from state and city labor councils, including broad participation of unionists from DC, suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia. The banners spoke to the distinctiveness of each, a sense of the history of unionism amidst its diversity everywhere apparent.
Speakers and banners alike talked to an array of issues, a central demand being the rehiring of PATCO strikers. And another common theme was protection of Social Security – for Reagan, repeating a long held right-wing position had threatened to eliminate it altogether. Reagan’s cuts to school lunch programs, to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), to minimum wage increases, to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) alongside his massive program of tax cuts for the rich, high interest rates, cuts to college student loan programs were all criticized from the podium and in banners. Speakers referred to the high rates of unemployment especially among black and Latino youth, and criticized Reagan’s ending of CETA (an employment program put in place under Carter).
Numerous banners also called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment – a goal of NOW and of CLUW. A Constitutional Amendment had seemed to be on the verge of ratification, but was then facing defeat because of the anti-feminist politics of the religious right as a constituent part of “Reaganism.” Although Kirkland and the AFL-CIO in its majority remained wedded to Cold War policies and military spending, the extreme increases in arms spending and the growing danger of nuclear war created space for some who called for cuts in the defense budget and for a nuclear weapons freeze. So too attacks on civil rights laws as well as of labor laws were denounced.
Most of the demands were not specific trade union issues; rather they spoke to the array of programs and economic policies that constituted the “social contract” between business and labor that had provided a genuine safety net and paths of mobility for working people in the years since the Great Depression. And whether consciously articulated or not, it was defense of that social contract that formed the unifying thread of the rally’s participants and speakers. Fraser in his letter defined just what that meant:
[T]he business community in the U.S. [for a considerable time] succeeded in advocating a general loyalty to an allegedly benign capitalism that emphasized private property, independence and self-regulation along with an allegiance to free, democratic politics.
That system has worked best, of course, for the “haves” in our society rather than the “have-nots.” Yet it survived in part because of an unspoken foundation: that when things got bad enough for a segment of society, the business elite “gave” a little bit—enabling government or interest groups to better conditions somewhat for that segment. That give usually came only after sustained struggle, such as that waged by the labor movement in the 1930’s and the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.
The acceptance of the labor movement, such as it has been, came because business feared the alternatives. Corporate America didn’t join the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act, but it eventually accepted the inevitability of that legislation. Other similar pieces of legislation aimed at the human needs of the disadvantaged have become national policy only after real struggle.
This system is not as it should be, yet progress has been made under it. But today, I am convinced there has been a shift on the part of the business community toward confrontation, rather than cooperation. Now, business groups are tightening their control over American society. As that grip tightens, it is the “have-nots” who are squeezed.
Solidarity Day ought to be recalled as the last and largest attempt to save and protect that social contract.
Saved it was not – one successful battle does not win a war. The social contract in years since has frayed to the point of non-recognition; the forward motion expressed by Solidarity Day soon hit the wall of demoralization and demobilization and so was defeated. Because defeated, it lies forgotten by labor activists and the broader social justice community today. But perhaps because of the potential it reflected, it lies wholly ignored by establishment politics and mainstream history as well. Both are reasons to remember, reflect and learn.
The beginning of the defeat can be marked by the fate of PATCO. It can also be measured by the fate of the UAW, then a union of 1.3 million members, and today down to under 400,000. Ironically, growing numbers of UAW members are not auto workers, and many auto workers work at non-union plants. A similar story of loss can be told of numerous other industries and unions — declines due to layoffs and plant closures, declines due to new non-union plants being opened, a story of defeated strikes at Phelps Dodge, Greyhound, Eastern Airlines and a slew of others. It’s a tale of pyrrhic victories that held the line but could not stop the decline at Caterpillar or Pittston or many other industrial workplaces in years since.
Labor in the 1980s was ill equipped to take on the corporate behemoth with the law behind them (or, in what amounts to the same thing, able to ignore the law). Unions were also unable to respond politically. For example, the absence of clear-cut demands at Solidarity Day reflected an unwillingness on the part of the leadership to use that massive outpouring to continue organizing bottom up around an agenda for social change to defend that social contract or to advance a new, stronger one taking into account how the economy and workforce had changed. Many of the union activists who made up the crowd on Solidarity Day would themselves be laid off, the strength of a nascent labor left finding itself undermined in the process.
And the AFL-CIO leadership, calling the march under pressure of events and pressure from affiliates, had no clear idea how to follow-up, and thus, the movement lacked a strategy to counteract the official challenges. Some attempt was made to continue to turn Labor Day parades in following years as Solidarity Day 2, Solidarity Day 3; but they lacked national coordination or sense of direction and so gradually faded. Only in electoral action did some concrete follow-up take place. Reagan’s policies did finally complete the process of the labor movement being wholly committed to the Democratic Party and helped begin the process of revitalizing electoral action beginning with registering members to vote. Increased union activism did bring about Democratic congressional gains in 1982 and did put some stop lines to Reagan’s cutbacks (e.g., Social Security was not eliminated, the EPA was not abolished), though the damage done was not repaired.
Moreover, 1984, an attempt to replicate the alliances formed around Solidarity day in a presidential election, led the AFL-CIO to directly intervene in the Democratic Party with a primary endorsement of Walter Mondale – Mondale then getting the endorsement of the NAACP, of NOW, of the Sierra Club, of other coalition partners. But this attempt to revive the New Deal had no legs, it was wholly top down, it had no real vision, and it remained trapped in a Cold War foreign policy that pushed away many whose activism was most needed. Union weakness in numbers and influence within society and amongst their own members was now made painfully clear as Mondale won only one state in a Reagan triumph. Union influence then declined even within the Democratic Party – as became evident when Bill Clinton was elected president.
Labor’s crisis in those years – alongside much of the social justice movement and the organized left in all its forms – could not be overcome by any one action, no matter how large, no matter how profound. But the currents that created Solidarity Day, that refused to give in or give up, that looked to regain a labor-based social justice hegemony that could speak not just against reaction but for progress, continued. The connections made in the march, the rebirth of union activism that recognized the organic connection between injustices at work with injustice anywhere in society began to overcome the deep divides that put too many unionists on the wrong side of questions of peace, of racial justice, of women’s equality, of environmental protection. It is that legacy that needs to be ever with us as we strive to create a new vision of a social contract that speaks to socialist possibility rather than acceding to capitalist dominance.
Fraser had few illusions as to how difficult such a reorientation would be – but he concluded with a passage that spoke to the path that had to be taken:
I would rather sit with the rural poor, the desperate children of urban blight, the victims of racism, and working people seeking a better life than with those whose religion is the status quo, whose goal is profit and whose hearts are cold. We in the UAW intend to reforge the links with those who believe in struggle: the kind of people who sat-down in the factories in the 1930’s and who marched in Selma in the 1960’s.
I cannot assure you that we will be successful in making new alliances and forming new coalitions to help our nation find its way. But I can assure you that we will try.
And so we must continue again and again to try and breathe solidarity in all we do, all we build until corporate power over our lives is forever a thing of the past.
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