Much has changed since then. American workers, and workers across the globe – won the right to organize, to have dignity in the workplace. Women won rights. Children were not longer forced to work. Working conditions improved and so did society. As species on this planet, we moved forward. We adopted new norms of behavior with one another. We gained leisure time to pursue other human interests, to reconnect with the nature and the world outside of us. We strived, slowly at times, to be true to our spirit.
In these United States, the organizations of working people –those at the workplace and in the communities – were beacons of hope, symbols both of progress and security. And for many years, we believed that those hard-won gains, those solidified essential rights were built into the foundation of what America is, the very essence of its being, the organic components of its existence.
And for many decades, many in the organized labor movement of these United States, perhaps by design or happenstance, became both complicit and complacent with the economic system that at one time considered them to be nothing more than articles for the production of wealth for the few.
I believe you can trace this back to the cold war era, when the leadership of the American labor movement bought into and promoted a class collaboration policy abroad, to deny solidarity to workers in other lands who were still drawing inspiration from the struggle at Chicago’s Haymarket Square. May Day was then, and is still today, a national holiday in every country around the world, except here in the place of its birth: the United States. Those calamitous policies that harmed workers in other lands laid the foundations for the decline and rising ineffectiveness of the labor movement at home. It could not struggle against racism at home while collaborating with racist policies abroad; it could not defend against attacks by the bosses here while it cooperated with the bosses of other countries and US multinational corporations against the struggles for representation by workers in the developing countries; it could not advance in strength and numbers while it applauded the crushing of the national liberation movement in former colonies and neocolonialism in newly independent states.
That is history.
We have learned. A new generation of labor leaders and activists understands this inglorious past.
The world has changed. And so have we.
Today we fight against the most widespread, the strongest and most dangerous assault on working people in modern times. Our parents and grandparents cannot recall a greater threat.
Our very survival, as a class with the ability to defend ourselves and our children and communities, is at stake.
We have two choices. We can accept and oblige. We can behave, as we have learned to do over the last three decades, to be timid, to go at it alone, to demand less, to diminish hopes and aspirations. We could, today, as we have done in the past, use the language of our oppressors and say, for example, we cannot demand a single payer healthcare system in these United States because it is not the time for that. It is what we want, what the country needs, but it is not the right time. We could today – when immigrant families are torn apart, the rights of immigrant workers trampled, when people who speak with an accent and have tint on their skins are humiliated, beaten, shot and killed – today we could say, it is not the time for a comprehensive immigration reform change. Instead, we let racist Arizona-style laws proliferate and spread like cancerous cells throughout every institution in our society
We could be passive, accepting, and unimaginative and allow the education of our children to be offered up to the highest for-profit bidder while the courageous men and women who educate our children are considered criminals and treated like pawns. We could allow the new Roy Innises or Jonas Savimbis of Philadelphia to go to the side of vouchers to destroy public education, and treat those men and women as if they were still on our side just because once many years ago they voted with us for some piece of legislation. You know in the 70s and 80s they de-industrialized America. In this decade, they want to de-brain America.
We could be docile, individualistic, self centered, egotistical and go drink on our sorrows. But that is not who we are as a people. It is not reflective of the community we live in. It is not part of the dreams we still have and share.
It is not, and will never be us. We are like the people of Wisconsin who have risen up to inspire the nation and the world. We are like the people of Egypt, who despite being told “it is not the time”, have responded with a resoluteness bordering in the obtuse that “we are making our time”. We are like the indigenous people of Bolivia and Peru who for the first time in their modern history are taking matters into their own hands.
I am profoundly inspired by the actions of the young people of Tucson, Arizona, who this week chained themselves to the seats of the school board to protest the decimation of their right to be instructed about their cultural heritage. That is action, bold, determined, collective, untimid and effective. A lesson to us all as we move here in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania to regain our status as men and women with dignity and purpose.
I am reminded of the words of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda speaking of the duty of a writer, an artist, an observer of human activity. He wrote “I determined that my posture within the community and before life should be that of in a humble way taking sides. I decided this when I saw so many honorable misfortunes, lone victories, splendid defeats. In the midst of the arena of America’s struggles I saw that my human task was none other than to join the extensive forces of the organized masses of the people, to join with life and soul with suffering and hope, because it is only from this great popular stream that the necessary changes can arise for the authors and for the nations. And even if my attitude gave and still gives rise to bitter or friendly objections, the truth is that I can find no other way for an author in our far-flung and cruel countries, if we want the darkness to blossom, if we are concerned that the millions of people who have learnt neither to read us nor to read at all, who still cannot write or write to us, are to feel at home in the area of dignity without which it is impossible for them to be complete human beings.
This friends, is our challenge today.
Pedro Rodriguez is a Keystone Progress Board Member.