Democratic Leaders Are at a Fork in the Road
By Emanuel Fried
Democratic Party leaders will decide whether they make a better life for our working families or are bought by corporate America to weasel out on pre-election promises acting as a “clever” bulwark blocking improvement of the lives of the majority of American families.
They have acknowledged the hard work by union members, particularly regarding victories in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Montana, that helped them win a majority in both houses of Congress.
In response they pledged to increase the minimum wage and improve health insurance, provide better paying jobs, and protect pensions and social security. But little has been said about restoring labor’s ability to organize the unorganized.
John L. Lewis, great leader of the Mine Workers Union, did something which is echoed in the treatment of unions by Democratic Party leaders, particularly the Bill Clinton faction of the Democratic Party National Committee. When Lewis broke with the American Federation of Labor and sponsored the Congress of Industrial Organizations to organize production workers, he said that he hired the communists to organize the workers because communists were the best organizers, idealists sacrificing everything to get workers organized and when they got the workers organized, he fired them.
Charlie Doyle, the leading open Communist Party activist in Western New York, was hired by Lewis to work for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. Charlie played a major role in organizing workers into the union at the Lackawanna Bethlehem Steel plant. Then Lewis fired Charlie, and others were credited with what Charlie had done.
When Lewis subsequently split with CIO leaders and formed District 50 of his Mine Workers Union to organize chemical workers in Niagara Falls, he again hired Charlie Doyle. When Charlie finished organizing those chemical workers into the union, Lewis again fired Charlie.
The CIO Chemical Workers Union then hired Charlie and the unions Charlie had organized switched from District 50 to CIO. Then CIO fired Charlie. And then Lewis rehired Charlie – and those unions switched back to District 50 with Charlie. AFL and CIO merged into one organization and their AFL-CIO Chemical Workers Union hired Charlie and all those same unions of chemical plant workers switched over to the AFL-CIO with Charlie.
Carborundum workers went out on strike in connection with contract negotiations and leaders of the union in Washington held a meeting about the strike across the river in Fort Erie, Canada. U.S. Customs and Immigration wouldn’t let Charlie back across the bridge into U.S. But Canadian authorities looked the other way while Charlie crossed the river back into U.S. in a boat.
FBI and U.S. Immigration then picked up Charlie for deportation on grounds that years earlier when he came here from Scotland he was a communist. Charlie had his first papers to become a citizen, but hadn’t been granted his second papers to complete the process. Jailed for deportation, Charlie staged a hunger strike, but finally agreed to be deported to England in return for U.S. government authorities persuading his Catholic wife to agree to end their marriage so he could marry the woman he loved.
(Several decades later the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council passed the resolution offered by University of Buffalo Chapter of United University Professions recognizing Charlie’s contribution to organized labor in Western New York.)
What John L. Lewis did with Charlie is mirrored today by what the Bill Clinton wing of the Democratic Party National Committee wants to keep doing, make promises to labor before elections and treat labor like an unwanted stepchild after the elections.
President Bill Clinton twisted arms of Democrats to join Republicans to pass the Free Trade Agreement without protections for labor and then did NOT twist arms to carry out the promise made to labor to get congress to rescind the provision for permanent replacement of strikers. The continued existence of permanent replacement of strikers undermines the ability of labor to negotiate with management and to organize the unorganized.
Several national polls show the majority of workers wish to belong to unions. But unlike what FDR did with the New Deal, passing laws to help unions organize, both Republican and Democratic administrations turned their backs on labor when it came to providing a level playing field for workers to join unions.
The most important thing for Democratic Party leaders to do responding to labor’s contribution to their election victory and to assure labor’s future support is to eliminate permanent replacement of strikers and pass the law permitting workers to join unions by “card check,” as in Canada that when a majority of workers sign cards to join the union, their employers must recognize and deal with their union bypassing the National Labor Relations Board, originally created by FDR to help organization of unions, but today drastically undermining that purpose. Do it!
(Emanuel Fried was 94 on March 1st. He was a union organizer as a young man and is currently an actor, playwright and college professor.)
Note: This article was rejected by The Buffalo News.
©2007 Emanuel Fried
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