By Regis L. Roberts
Issue date: 4/11/08
The history of labor rights in America is one of hostility on the
part of elite business interests and solidarity among workers.
Although this is indeed a simplistic view of the issue, it is, at its
core, certainly true.
A few historical events occurring around this time make the
understanding of workers' rights all the more important.
March 31 was the César Chávez March for Justice in San Antonio, a
celebration of the birthday of one of the nations' most important
The founder of the United Farm Workers, Chávez was the real deal when
it came to labor rights.
He faced intimidation and persecution and still, despite all of his
hard work, never made more than $6,000 a year.
Farm work is a perfect example of the need for labor rights: It's
almost literally back-breaking work for very little money, and the
likelihood of management exploitation against workers is high.
However, the story of Chávez reveals some of the troubling history of
the labor movement.
Chávez railed against undocumented immigrants, claiming, as today's
members of the anti-immigrant movement do, that undocumented
immigrants suppress wages and take jobs from citizens.
As the leader of a movement that sought justice for oppressed
peoples, Chávez should have known better than to take the problems of
his fellow workers out on a group that is even more oppressed.
Falling into the "divide and conquer" tactic used by oligarchical,
elite interests to turn workers against each other through racism and
sexism has been a problem of the labor movement for years.
Some of the most prominent promoters of the racist stereotypes of
Chinese workers were labor organizations.
To drum up opposition to Chinese immigrants who were "stealing jobs,"
Samuel Gompers' American Federation of Labor- which later merged with
the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO -
produced pamphlets claiming that Chinese immigrants were hopelessly
addicted to opium and spent all of their free time in opium dens
"What other crimes were committed in those dark, fetid places when
these little innocent victims of the Chinamen's wiles were under the
influence of the drug, are almost too horrible to imagine," Gompers wrote.
I don't need to tell you that this is bull, but it sure does sound
like some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric being promoted now.
Much of what we could call "mainstream" labor organizations were on
the wrong side of many issues such as civil rights and even some
issues concerning labor rights.
Aviva Chomsky, daughter of Massachusetts Institute of Technology
linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky, wrote that for much of
the early part of last century, "the American Federation of Labor ...
competed with other, more radical groups. The Industrial Workers of
the World (IWW) promoted a social justice agenda and tried to
organize the most dispossessed workers. ... The AFL, in contrast,
basically accepted the social order."
The AFL, Chomsky wrote, promoted a kind of "private welfare state"
that would only benefit a few skilled workers.
In fact, the labor movement has only recently come to realize that
the fight for the rights of immigrants and the rights of workers
should be fought on the same grounds.
As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, "Injustice anywhere is
a threat to justice everywhere."
King, while best known as a hero of civil rights, spent the later
part of his life organizing with labor groups fighting for the
betterment of all workers.
With the recent anniversary of King's assassination April 4, we
should remember him as a pioneer who fought for racial justice,
workers' rights and peace when he spoke out against the Vietnam War.
That King was shot while in Memphis on behalf of sanitation workers
who were demanding union representation to ensure safer conditions
following the accidental death of two workers has been lost to history.
Civil rights leaders were understandably supportive of a national
holiday in honor of King, but the holiday was also sought from the
Transport Workers' Union and the Distributive Workers of America.
What we need now is a way to promote workers' rights in a way that
reflects the social justice implications that should go hand-in-hand
with labor struggles.
We can start by adopting May Day - May 1, just around the corner - as
our official recognition of the importance of a unified labor
movement in America and around the world.
May Day is designated by many countries as the official day to
celebrate the cause of workers, whereas America celebrates the more
subdued and generally meaningless Labor Day.
Implicit in this would be to recognize labor history in its ups and downs.
A central theme would be the remembrance of the Haymarket Riots that
occurred in Chicago in 1886.
After a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square during a strike, a riot
broke out and eight anarchists were tried and executed.
To demonstrate the priorities of the city, a statue of a police
officer was erected in 1889. The statue was one of the targets of the
Weather Underground, a radical organization from the 1970s which
bombed buildings that represented American imperialism, and has since
The commemoration of the Haymarket Riots has since become a day of
celebration for labor organizations, anarchists, socialists and communists.
We also need to adopt a more radical version of the New Deal, which
was flawed and compromised even at the time.
The New Deal was meant to head off the increasingly popular economic
plans of Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs, who ran as socialist
presidential candidates during the New Deal period.
This is another popular strategy of corporate interests: Presenting a
moderate reform as alternatives to radical shifts that are gaining steam.
Living in Texas, I have little chance of being a union member.
No matter. Those who wish to create a more just world need to keep
focused on real change, and not let ourselves be distracted by
divisive techniques and moderate reforms.