We Shall Overcome

by Leo Gerard

USW President Leo Gerard

USW President Leo Gerard

America’s fortunate workers, those who had Labor Day off, spent the holiday resting and playing, rejoicing and picnicking. Much of that activity occurred in public parks across this nation, places that are community commons, purchased, developed and protected by collectives of citizens for shared benefit.

Thousands of community employees voluntarily relinquished the day off to protect one of those parks, beloved Yosemite, threatened by the California rim fire. These firefighters will risk their lives to preserve the park’s giant sequoias from what is now the sixth largest wildfire in the state’s history.

Creating parks and fighting fires are manifestation of community.  Citizens also come together in community to operate schools and libraries, to build roads and bridges. Citizens unite to sustain police departments, sewage treatment systems, public hospitals and transit.  The American community chose to work jointly to protect the elderly and vulnerable with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Much can be accomplished with concerted effort that’s simply impossible for individuals. No single property owner could vanquish the 192,500-acre rim fire.  A union of people is greater than the sum of its members. That’s why labor unions succeed in securing decent wages and benefits for workers.

Last week, the nation commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Rev. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech inspired once again. No individual, not even the great Rev. King, could have persuaded Congress to pass civil rights legislation. A great orator alone doesn’t move mountains. But a crowd of 250,000 united in purpose, well, that can make a difference.

The anthem of the movement tells the story as well.  Originally, the words to the spiritual were, “I Shall Overcome.” By the time Joan Baez sang it during the March in 1963, activists who understood the power of unity had changed the words to “We Shall Overcome.”

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Businesses use the strength of unity as well. They join together in special interest groups that then have the leverage necessary to get them what they want. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is an example. A bunch of corporations get together and fund this organization that flies lawmakers to fancy retreats where they are wined and dined and given corporate-serving legislation to pass when they return home. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is another example. Companies gather under the Chamber’s lobbying umbrella, which corporations have bought with dues. No one company could achieve the legislative victories that the Chamber accomplishes through its amalgamation of corporate members.

Political parties and interest groups employ unity as well. But Republicans are so committed to the cult of individualism that they don’t seem to have sufficient introspection to see that they exploit the power of collective action. While they condemn Medicare and Social Security as “communist,” the only reason Republicans can legislate at all is that they act and vote solidly together as a community.

Republicans’ recent tiff with the Heritage Foundation illustrates how they apply the power of the collective. Heritage told conservatives to oppose the Farm Bill because Heritage wanted the food stamp portion split from the farm subsidy part. Republicans did Heritage’s bidding, but then Heritage opposed the split bill, claiming it was too costly. Since Heritage threatens GOPers who don’t vote its way, its “moving the goalposts” on the farm bill didn’t go over well.

U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., resolved to censure Heritage for it. This is what the right-wing  National Journal wrote about his plan:

“To do this, Mulvaney needed strength in numbers. A single conservative lawmaker rebuking a like-minded outside group wouldn’t mean much, he decided, but a posse of tea-party types criticizing the very organization that has been lauding their defense of liberty – now that would grab Washington’s attention.”

The key word is posse. Not a lone ranger, but a collection of cowboys could challenge Heritage and win. Which they did, by kicking it out of the weekly Republican Study Committee meetings.

Though Republicans use the power of community, they object when workers do.  Across the country, Republican governors and legislatures have passed laws, often at the behest of ALEC, to slam communities of workers – labor unions.

They’ve adopted legislation destroying public sector unions and forbidding labor unions and employers from bargaining about union dues. While claiming to be the party of less government regulation, Republicans are imposing new regulations telling businesses and unions exactly what they can and cannot negotiate about.

Still, union members are singing, “We shall overcome.”

Before unionists and civil rights activists appropriated it, this was a work song, sung by slaves in the field. They sang, “I’ll be all right someday.”  When it was picked up by churches, the line became, “I’ll Overcome Someday.”

Workers striking against the American Tobacco Co. in 1945 changed the line again. They sang, “We will overcome, and we will win our rights someday.” There’s strength in “we.” By the time of the March on Washington, it’s believed Bob Dylan popularized the line with “shall” instead of “will.”

At the March, Rev. King spoke to the need for community, admonishing black citizens to join together with whites. He told the marchers: “We cannot walk alone.”

Labor groups helped organize the March and Rev. King supported collective bargaining. On the day he died, he’d gone to Memphis to march with 1,300 striking sanitation workers. Rev. King knew that union brothers and sisters walk together.

Connected by the vital need to improve the lot of America’s middle class, workers in solidarity shall overcome threats to their right to collectively bargain for better wages, safer working conditions and decent benefits.

Leo W. Gerard is President of the United Steel Workers and  a member of the AFL-CIO Executive Committee and chairs the labor federation’s Public Policy Committee.


One Response

  1. Unity is key to victory. As Cesar Chavez noted: “The people united will never be defeated!” As you have outlined, corporate America understands this very well. That is why they have sought both overtly and covertly to divide working people. The capitalists need a divided working class in order maintain and perpetuate their power. Historically it is well established that they accomplished this by fostering anti-unionism, promoting and reinforcing racial antagonism, creating and perpetuating gender inequality in the workplace and much more. The far right has contributed to this by creating hostility among white workers for those who collect welfare. Let us be frank here and admit that it is giant corporations that control this country and dominate the political discourse. In addition to exercising their unity, giant corporations flex their power with money. Indeed, it can readily be observed that the United States has the best politicians that money can buy. To paraphrase Saul Alinsky, there are two poles to which political power gravitates. The first pole is one around which money is plentiful and the second pole is one around which the people are plentiful. The most potent weapon working people have for attaining economic and social justice is unity. Unions, community organizations, women’s groups, minority groups, environmental groups and LGBT rights groups must coalesce to form a broad-based political movement through which they can find common cause. Unions are in desperate need to greatly expand their base within the labor force. We need a broad working class based political movement. This requires working class unity and working class consciousness. Such a movement should form the basis of a new working class political party. Too often the reverse of what I just described has been attempted. That is, too often political parties claiming to be working class have been formed with the hope that a working class political movement attracted to the party will follow. Unity among the constituent groups must occur first before any viable working class third party can be effective. A third party of this type would have the political clout necessary to run candidates for office and win! Until this happens, the interests of working people will not be represented.

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