An Interview with the ILWU’s Clarence Thomas on the Million Worker March

Q: The initiative behind this march came out of your union, ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) Local 10, which has a long history of militancy, an institutional memory of struggle, and a passed-down tradition of rank-and-file organization. Could you say a few words about that?

A: For the sake of background, the ILWU Local 10 is the local of Harry Bridges, and that’s important for people to understand because of who Harry Bridges was and what he represented. He was a visionary and a person with a Marxist worldview who understood the nature of the class struggle. He was also greatly respected by the black community because he was upfront on the issue of discrimination at a time when labor leaders had very racist views. Harry, on the other hand, understood that discrimination was a tool of the bosses and he supported and advocated the hiring of black people and their membership in ILWU as early as the 1930s when blacks were still used as scabs.

The ILWU, and in particular Local 10, has been in the vanguard of many important struggles. In the early 1980s, a group of rank-and-filers took action in San Francisco when a ship called Nedlloyd Kimberly came in from South Africa. It was boycotted for some ten days, while at that time the international, the ILWU, was taking the position, as illegitimate as it was, of the Reagan administration, the position of so-called constructive engagement. People need to be reminded today that the work of the ILWU in building up the kind of support in the labor movement for South African liberation was not just a matter of supporting African people’s struggles against apartheid. We also had a direct stake in that fight, since South Africa was being used as a point of production for many sectors of the American industry that were once here in the United States. American companies were investing in South Africa as they were divesting from the United States. We’re seeing today the culmination of policies that have been in effect for several decades, that have now reached the disaster level, and we can trace their implementation and expansion from the Reagan years through today. Of course the ILWU also has a long history of opposing war, from the Korean war to the war in Vietnam to Desert Storm, and of course the recent invasion of Iraq and its subsequent occupation.

When Local 10 passed the resolution proposing the march we were basically responding to the attacks on working families in America, especially to the fact that millions of jobs were lost during the Bush administration with the complicity of Congress. This march is about working people putting forward their own agenda, independent of the Republican and the Democratic parties, two parties controlled by big money, with more similarities than dissimilarities. It’s important for people to understand that the working class has not suffered such hardships since the Great Depression and that many of the so-called New Deal programs implemented in the 30s are being dismantled or undermined or eroded, while the Bush administration is placing the acquisition of capital and the quest for profits above the needs of working people.

Q: What’s so impressive and coherent about the call for organizing this march is precisely the indictment of the Democratic Party as collaborators in this project.

A: It is absolutely critical for working people to understand that the only time we gain any kind of concessions from the system is when we organize independently of the two parties, and, as an African-American, I can tell you that the civil rights movement is such an example. Black people did not get the vote by voting; Black people got the right to vote through organizing, through putting their lives on the line, through their commitment to making change. And I think that when we look at the debacle in Florida–the disenfranchisement of black people at the polls–the response from the Democratic Party speaks volumes about what they think of us. If people want to vote for John Kerry”fine, but they need to do it with their eyes wide open, understanding what they’re gonna get. To think that this man is going to make any kind of concessions to us without a demand is absolutely ridiculous.

Q: I think what you’re saying about independent organization is crucial and of course one of the crimes of the Democratic Party has been not only its mystification of the political process but its rewriting of history, so that’s it’s Lyndon Johnson who gives us civil rights legislation and not thousands of people organizing over several decades to force his hand. The promise of the march seems to be the re-building of independent organizations and the re-vitalization of the labor movement. What has your experience of taking that message all over the country been like?

A: Our experience has been to learn that rank-and-filers want this march; resistance to it has come primarily from the leadership of unions, people who in fact would be best described as “business-unionists and who have become so estranged and alienated from their rank-and-file that they feel more comfortable with their employers that they do with their own members. They don’t trust their rank-and-file. The only time they want to engage them is for the purpose of phone banking, voter registration, and voter education. Why would you put all of your money, all of your resources behind this candidate, when the recent history of the Democratic Party shows that they didn’t even get anti-scab legislation passed when they had control of both the House and the Senate during the Clinton years?

Let’s just look at some recent history. In 1976, we saw Carter increase the military budget, cut programs for social services, cut the capital gains tax for the rich, increase the social security tax on working people, provide Chrysler with the bailout (which therefore set in motion concessionary bargaining in labor unions all over the country), and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act against the miners. And when Bill Clinton came into office in ,93, a lot of promises were made”outlawing the use of scabs during strikes, the Freedom of Choice Act to protect abortion rights, but most prominently a national health care plan. What happened? First of all, we were told by union leaders and other folks, “Let’s give Clinton time. He got time, but what happened? He took the time that he needed and bargained away the promise of health care in the interest of the HMOs and drug companies that have funded his campaign. He abandoned the Freedom of Choice Act and stood by as abortion rights were eroded. There was very little response to invigorate any kind of activism. And then he turned around and did something that the Republicans could not have done: welfare reform. How can we forget this? This is recent.

So this march is a rank-and-file, bottom-up, grassroots democracy mobilization in every sense of the word. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has sent out a memo saying that while it agrees with many of the aims and objectives of the march, it’s discouraging people from supporting the march and endorsing it and giving money to it. What does that mean? They do not want to see any manifestation of worker empowerment before the election.

We’re hoping this march gets workers engaged. We are not discouraging workers from voting. But our position is that no matter what your expectations are for the election outcome, elected officials must be held accountable. Everyone must have their feet held to the fire. We need to have our own independent worker agenda. We don’t have our own political party. Yet. Yet. It takes time for people to wean themselves away from the Democratic Party. But my point is that we have to act in our own interest. We have to. Look at the efforts of Jesse Jackson when he ran for President: there was some great organizing but what was so disappointing was the outcome. The Democratic Party destroyed all of those progressive initiatives and sentiments.

Q: The organizers of the march have stressed repeatedly that this is the right moment for it, precisely because of the severity of attacks on working people and the lengthy period of inactivity we’re only beginning to reverse.

A: I got an opportunity to address workers at several conventions”the American Federation of Teachers, the AFSCME convention”and one of the questions we posed was, “What would Dr. Martin Luther King say to those in the labor movement who say that this is not the time for workers to mobilize, that the focus has to be on dumping Bush? What would he say to that? I think his response would be: we don’t need the permission of the labor movement in order to have a march; how dare they think that they are the arbiters of when workers can come together and organize in their own name? It also goes to show how compliant labor has become to the wishes of the Democratic Party.

Q: Very often when large mobilizations gain enough momentum, respectability, visibility, they are co-opted by Democratic Party officials or labor officials. We saw this happen recently with the women’s march.

A: That turned out to be a disaster, because as you well know, it became a cheerleading rally for Kerry, as opposed to an opportunity for independent action in defense of reproductive rights. There were over a million people there but it turned into a “Vote for Kerry event. The Million Worker March is not going to be a one-time feel-good session. We are going to put forward a platform of demands for people to take away from the march. It’s important that we be able to organize people and move them from where they are to where we want them to go. There’re not going to be any politicians up on that stage. That’s critical. This is not about them, and not about Bush or Kerry. It is about the system and it is about working people. The voices at our march are going to be diverse and they will be speaking to the class nature of the struggle, to the things binding us together, as workers, no matter what our backgrounds.

I’ve been reminded recently that the people running for president and vice-president of both parties are probably some of the richest candidates ever and it’s important for people to understand the similarities between Kerry and Bush in terms of their backgrounds. They both come from elite families, both of them were educated at so-called prestigious schools and because of their net worth they don’t have to worry about the issues workers have to deal with. They are going to be responsible, first and foremost, to their class.

Let’s imagine for the moment that Kerry does win. If workers are to continue in this mode of acquiescing to Kerry, then Kerry will assume he has the license to take many more right-wing positions, continuing the policies of the neoconservatives. I think that it is important for working people to not allow him that political space. That is absolutely critical.

DEREK TYNER is a writer and activist. He can be reached at derektyner@hotmail.com.

More information about the Million Worker March is available at www.millionworkermarch.org.


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