Wednesday, January 12, 2005

"The Oppressed Have Power" 

Farmer’s post about an inauguration day sickout and the response to it got me thinking:

The 1929 stock market crash which marked the beginning of the Great Depression ushered in a period of immiseration for virtually the entire working class. By 1932 it was estimated that 75 percent of the population was living in poverty, and fully one-third was unemployed. And in many places, Black unemployment rates were two, three, or even four times those of white workers...

(According to the Census, the official poverty rate in 2003 was 12.5 percent, up from 12.1 percent in 2002. Total Americans below the official poverty thresholds numbered 35.9 million, a figure 1.3 million higher than the 34.6 million in poverty in 2002.)

…But the richest people in society felt no sympathy for the starving masses. They had spent the previous decade slashing wages and breaking unions, with widespread success. By 1929, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had lost a million members.

With the onset of depression, they banded together as a group to oppose every measure to grant government assistance to feed the hungry or help the homeless. Most employers flatly refused to bargain with any union, and used the economic crisis as an excuse to slash all wages across the board. But in so doing, they unleashed the greatest period of social upheaval that has ever taken place in the United States.

When faced with working-class opposition, the ruling class responded with violence. Police repeatedly fired upon hunger marchers in the early 1930s. In 1932, for example, the Detroit police mowed down a hunger demonstration of several thousand using machine guns. Four demonstrators were killed and more than 60 were injured. Yet afterward a city prosecutor said, "I say I wish they’d killed a few more of those damn rioters."

In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt granted workers the right to organize into unions in Section 7(a) of the National Recovery Act, and workers rushed to join unions. But everywhere the employers put up violent resistance. In 1934, when 400,000 East Coast textile workers went on strike to win union recognition, the bosses responded with a reign of terror, provoking one of the bitterest and bloodiest strikes in U.S. labor history.

In the South, the ruling class unleashed a torrent of racism and anti-communism, while armed mobs attacked strikers. The Gastonia Daily Gazette ran "Communism in the South. Kill it!" as a front-page headline. Employers distributed anti-union leaflets that read, "Would you belong to a union which opposes White supremacy?"

In Gastonia, North Carolina, National Guardsmen joined by armed strikebreakers, were ordered to "shoot to kill" unarmed strikers: “Without warning came the first shots, followed by many others, and for a few minutes there was bedlam. Striker after striker fell to the ground, with the cries of wounded men sounding over the field and men and women running shrieking from the scene.”

In Burlington, North Carolina, soldiers bayoneted five picketers in a group of 400, all of whom were wearing "peaceful picket" badges. In the North, the battle was no less violent, when National Guard troops occupied mill towns all over New England. Rhode Island’s Democratic governor declared that "there is a communist uprising and not a textile strike in Rhode Island," and called the legislature into special session to declare a state of insurrection and request federal troops.

Although the strikers fought back heroically, they lost the strike. Thousands of strikers lost their jobs; others were forced to sign pledges to leave the union.

From Sharon Smith’s article, “The 1930s: Turning Point for U.S. Labor,” in International Socialist Review Issue 25, September–October 2002

But now, like the frog in the pan, many workers sit by while benefits are slashed, retirement plans abrogated, working days extended (“voluntarily,” of course, like pay cuts)… I guess there’s just not enough widespread misery yet. Perhaps we have to get to 30% unemployment and 75% poverty rates again. Or maybe people will have to work, say, four or five jobs instead of two or three. Or maybe corporate greed will have to get so blatant and widespread that the stench is unbearable. Or maybe the rich will have to start wars to maintain their control of dwindling resources. Oh, wait, on those last three, nevermind. Got that happening. Maybe we can put a stop to it now, before the misery becomes "bad enough"?

Remember, the oppressed have power. As Dr. King said in his autobiography, "We would use this boycott method to give birth to justice and freedom....I came to see that what we were really doing was withdrawing our cooperation from an evil system, rather than merely withdrawing our support from the bus company. The bus company, being an external expression of the system, would naturally suffer, but the basic aim was to refuse to cooperate with evil. We were simply saying to the white community: We can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system. From that moment on I conceived of our movement as an act of massive non-cooperation."

In what ways am I cooperating with the one-dimensional machine of destruction? In what ways can I stop, and encourage others to do so? Borchert’s list was a start…

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