The Million Workers March in Washington DC, October 17, 2004

Two weeks before the American presidential election, there was a labor rally in Washington, DC, the ill-named Million Workers March (MWM). With the possible exception of the organizers, members of Local 10 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), few would call the event an unqualified success. The turnout was smaller than hoped for, there were organizational problems (detailed below), and the crowd was dominated by the already politicized. That is, it was really not the massive “workers” march that was billed and hoped for.

by prole cat

Still, there were bright spots to be found. The fact that the event even took place gives cause for hope regarding the unions in America. On the one hand, an optimist might perceive the MWM as the force of the rank and file applying political pressure from below; more realistically, I think, the march could be characterized as the expression of a dissenting faction within the bureaucracy that dominates organized labor, a faction with a somewhat more progressive agenda and aggressive approach than the conservative elements at the highest echelons of the AFL-CIO. Whatever one’s spin on the content of the dissent, any challenge to that organization’s top-down centralization can only be a positive development.

Why was the turnout so small?

One prominent labor activist estimated the crowd at between 5 and 10 thousand. Of course, there was never any serious expectation of actually turning out a million people, and this led many to question the wisdom of using the tired old “Million Strong” formulation. But in the weeks leading up to the march, many reasonable organizers had hoped for a much larger crowd than materialized.

It can be truly said that police repression played a part in reducing turnout. There were reports of buses with prearranged parking who were turned away from their destinations. (The fact that the state power felt threatened enough to actively combat the event serves as a perverse sort of endorsement.).

Still, most observers agreed that the biggest impediment to a large march was the opposition of the AFL-CIO “leadership”. In the prelude to the MWM, the AFL-CIO actively campaigned against participation, on the grounds that all energy at this time must be devoted to the 2004 presidential election.

Sadly, the opposition of the union officialdom probably also explains why there were so few rank-and-file workers. It may be that without Sweeny’s blessing, the dissemination of information about the march, and logistical support with transportation and lodging, were lacking. The most pessimistic interpretation would be that the bulk of the workers pay blind allegiance to the uppermost levels of the AFL-CIO.

Anarchist were out in force

Anarchists, of course, scoff at the false hopes proffered by the Sweeney/Kerry apologists for capitalism, and supported the march. While there were some complications formalizing that support (I don’t think there was ever a specific formal call for a red and black contingent) a red and black contingent did develop. Such organizations as the North Eastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC) and the Workers Solidarity Alliance (WSA) were well represented, as well as a large group of IWW fellow workers. The small attendance at the march made the anarchist presence seem even larger.

There was also a call by a group calling themselves the Coalition of Imaginary Anarchists to support the working class demands of the march. This was seen by some as motion towards a more class-orientated position, by factions within the anarchist milieu that had previously been involved primarily in counter-cultural efforts. If the two anarchist factions didn’t exactly march together, they did march near each other, with no visible animosities.

The reception by the police and the ILWU organizers, on the other hand, was less friendly. Upon arrival at the convergence point in the shadow of the grotesquely phallic Washington monument, anarchists and IWW members were warned by police that unfurling banners would be regarded as an un-permitted demonstration, and that arrests would follow.

According to one report, upon arrival at the rally point the anarchist contingent was denied entry to the fenced inner perimeter of the rally by marshals. Later in the day, as the multitude of speakers inside the fenced perimeter droned on, the red and black contingent held a consulta outside the fence, to form a contingency plan in the event that an actual march of workers never materialized. A man in an ILWU jacket approached, and began to interrogate the consulta’s facilitator. When informed that we were doing something called democratic process, the man became irate (he didn’t have far to go) and began sputtering about how we should fall in line and support “his” event, instead of assembling independently. In addition to the illogic of berating us for failing to support a rally we were apparently denied entry to, his aggressive behavior was offensive. The anarchist facilitator did not return his verbal blows, but neither did he allow the interloper to disrupt the meeting to the point of ending it, or taking it hopelessly off-topic. As such, his behavior is to be commended under these difficult circumstances.

The thousand leftists did indeed march

Finally, mercifully, the beginning of a march was announced from the stage, whose destination was a local hotel with the cleaning staff out on strike. Incredibly, even as the march left the area speakers continued from the stage, given the implicit message that it was OK to skip supporting the striking fellow workers at the hotel, and remain at the rally point. In spite of this blunder, most people did join in what became a spirited march, followed by a rally at the hotel.

In spite of the organizational problems, Local 10 of the ILWU is to be commended for the fact that in the face of AFL-CIO resistance and police oppression, the event at least did take place. We can hope that more such events will be forthcoming, that with experience the organizational difficulties will be ironed out, and that more rank and file workers will began to participate. And as always, whenever workers join forces to battle the power of capital, we anarchists will be there.