Hard Talk On Labor Day
By William Rivers Pitt
Monday 1 September 2003
Did everyone have a nice weekend? Good. Thank a Union.
I was tempted to come in here today and deliver a speech about how profoundly important unions have been to the development of this nation, and to me personally. After all, I make my living as a writer. Before that,
I made my living as a teacher. The bedrock abilities I need to do both those jobs were given to me by union teachers. A union member taught me to read. A union member
taught me to write. Union members taught America to respect the rights and strengths of working people everywhere. I submit that an America with no union organization would be an America most citizens could not be able to recognize,
an America most citizens would want nothing to do with.
So, yeah, I thought about giving that speech. I figured it would be a home run ball. But then it struck me. First of all, you folks don't need to sit here and listen to someone wax poetic about the greatness of unions. You
know. Second of all, giving a speech like that, in this day and age, would be like sitting in the middle of a house fire talking about how warm and cozy we are. This house is on fire, and so today I want to talk to you about
how we are going to stomp out those flames before they burn out everything that is important to us as citizens, and as a nation entire.
A man said, "On this Labor Day weekend, Americans pay tribute to the spirit of hard work and enterprise that has always made this nation strong. Every day, our workers go to factories and offices and farms and produce the
world's finest goods and services. Their creativity and energy are the greatest advantage of the American economy."
What man said that?
George W. Bush said that, on Saturday, from his ranch
in Crawford Texas. Does anyone else appreciate the irony? This house is on fire, and George is sitting in the front yard with a great big flamethrower and a grin on his face.
The history of unions has always been a story of
the people versus the powerful, the worker versus the bosses, the folks scratching to keep the lights on at home versus the folks taking CEO salaries home that are so big
they need a fleet of Brinks trucks to drive them, laughing, all the way to the bank.
Some will argue that George W. Bush is a great leader. I would argue that he is a symbol, in more ways than one. As a leader he is literally symbolic, a figurehead. Symbols are important.
He is a symbol of what happens when workers stop believing that they have a say in their rights as workers. When
that happens, guys like this find themselves able to run the show. And let's face it, ladies and gentlemen: The incredible mess this Iraq war is, and is turning
into, is nothing more or less than a prime example of what you get when you put the boss' son in charge of the production lines.
It is all well and good for Mr. Bush to praise the greatness of the
American worker. But it behooves us to look long and hard at how the
worker has fared under his administration, and to talk long and hard
that record means to us, and to this country.
So let's talk hard.
The Bush administration has proposed changes to the Fair Labor
Act that would strip millions and millions of American workers of the
to earn overtime pay for overtime work. In this ongoing recession -
no small part by a couple of Bush administration tax cuts that were
multi-billion dollar thank-you notes to the corporations that funded
2000 campaign - in this on going recession, many many many American
depend on overtime pay to make ends meet. If the White House gets its
thin safety net will be gone.
We shouldn't be surprised by this, by the cynical way Bush pats
the back with one hand while gutting their income with the other. This
administration has made much of the need to support our troops in
something I am sure each and every person in this room agrees with.
does this administration think it is supporting the troops by pushing
to cut hazard pay - overtime pay at the extreme definition - for our
still under fire in Iraq?
Such actions demonstrate a callousness of spirit that is as
anything I have ever heard of. When American workers and American
menaced by the economic policies of a sitting President, that sitting
should be made to stand, and walk, right out the White House door.
Let's talk hard.
Let's talk about the 11 million jobs lost in this country during the
tenure of an administration that some maniacs decided to give Fast-
approval to. Jobs in automotive, aviation, computer, data-processing
software-programming, for starters, are sprinting overseas in an
'outsourcing' that will only be exacerbated by the Bush
affair with concepts like the Free Trade Area of the Americas zone.
I'm going to put my Wobbly hat on for a moment, and so I hope you will
bear with me, because there are some old Wobbly ideas that deserve a
look in this brave new world. Those millions of outsourced jobs that
workers could be doing are leaving this country for one reason:
countries they are going to have no history of, nor protection for,
bargaining to protect workers' rights and workers' wages. The
are outsourcing to China, to India, to Bangladesh, to the
doing an end run around each and every one of us.
It can be argued that the process of 'Economic Globalization' has been
going on since the first Chinese trader met the first Indian merchant
Silk Road and said, "Have I got a deal for you." It can be argued that
globalization is inevitable, especially given the incredible
leaps forward we make, seemingly on an hourly basis. But if that
is allowed to continue without giving workers around the world the
unionize, to fight for a living wage, to strike for the right to
lot, workers here in America and around the world will reap the
find their backs broken at the expense of bosses who have been
allergic to giving their employees the rights they so richly deserve.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what the Bush administration is
of. They symbolize the repudiation of that right to collective
simply put, made this country what it is today. They symbolize the
your much-deserved power within this economy, for no other purpose
empower the few over the many.
Talking hard is dangerous, especially these days. As a nation we have,
since September 11, been cautious and deferential about criticizing
and ideologies of the boys and girls in Washington. We've had to deal
idea, evinced clearly by this administration, that to criticize is to
unpatriotic. We've been told, by none other than White House
Fleischer, to "Watch what we say."
I submit that union men and women have earned the right to speak
and strongly against the direction this country is headed. They
right with the blood and lives of the union men and women who charged
into two burning buildings two years ago. Union men and union women
jobs. On that dark day, union men and union women spent their lives
on the job,
and they did it without a second thought or a hesitating step. Union
women earned the right to speak their minds after their fallen
sisters were used by the Bush administration as props in a photo-op,
were shamefully slapped across the face by that same administration.
Here's the news, America. 'Homeland Security' is not a bunch of guys
black suits and sunglasses. Homeland Security is cops, and fire
emergency medical teams, all the people who work every day to save
Homeland Security on September 11 was union workers all, and those
fire fighters and EMTs have since had their funding eviscerated by an
administration that took their pictures and then gave them the back
Oh, yes, ladies and gentlemen, the right to speak out has been earned
Caution and deference have no place in this conversation anymore. We
those people our caution and deference, and they have paid us back by
steamrolling us. So enough of caution. Enough of deference. It is
time to talk
hard. If we can't speak the truth in the daylight, we will never be
begin the process of changing that which desperately needs to be
great movement in history has begun with one thing: Words exchanged
between people of good conscience. So let us, as people of good
exchange a few hard words in the hopes of beginning something whose
A long time ago, a man named Benito Mussolini invented something
Fascism. In the time since, fascism has come to be defined by Nazis,
and by crimes against humanity that defy description. But when
invented fascism, those definitions had not yet established
Mussolini, the inventor of fascism, defined it differently. "The
first stage of
fascism," said Mussolini, "should more appropriately be called
because it is a merger of state and Corporate power."
Now, even with all my tough talk about hard words and doing away with
caution, I am appropriately cautious about using so bloody a word in
setting. Well I should be. But I ask you: What do we have today if
beginnings of the merging of state and corporate power? Even if you
see our current situation through Mussolini's eyes, even if you
refuse to use
that hardest of words, the simple fact that the corporate world and
government are becoming one and the same is clear, and unavoidable.
merger complete in America? Certainly not. Are we headed in that
Lawyers use a Latin phrase: "Res ipsa loquitor." The thing speaks for
What will the place of unions be in such a world? Where are the
I say unions and the rights of workers are and must continue to be at
forefront of a fight that is not new, but is now as desperate as it
been. There are millions and millions and millions of Americans who
a union tomorrow if given the chance. We must fight to see that they
that chance. A man staring down the barrel of a gun once said, "Don't
Organize." We are staring down the barrel of a gun today, and if we
organize, we're finished.
I believe, at the end of the day, that America is an idea, a dream.
can take away our cities, our roads, our crops, our armies, you can
take all of
that away, and the idea that is America will still be there, as pure
as anything conceived by the human mind. I believe the idea that is
stands as the last, best hope for this world. When used properly, it
I believe that the idea, the dream, that is America was made possible
the men and women who lived and worked and died for the right of
stand collectively for themselves. The idea that is America would not
without unions, period. We must make people understand that. A great,
many Americans are well aware that the folks running things today do
their interests in mind, but instead serve the interests of entities
see workers' rights ground to powder.
That awareness is out there. We must make them aware that unions offer
them the best possible chance to bring change, to turn back this
tide, to bring
us more fully towards the realization of that idea that is America.
hands is the power to do these things. In your hands is the future of
The word 'Union' is synonymous with the word 'Work.' I say let us
this work, let us begin it today, let us not stop, let us not tire. I
William Rivers Pitt is the Managing Editor of truthout.org. He is a
York Times and international best-selling author of three books -
Iraq," available from Context Books, "The Greatest Sedition is
available from Pluto Press, and "Our Flag, Too: The Paradox of
available in August from Context Books.
Mankind's most valuable possessions are privacy, solitude, and anonymity.