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Organized Labor and Social Justice Movements

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Message Charles Sullivan
Social change of the kind that is needed in this country has always been precipitated by organized labor. Part of the problem we face as a nation is the decline of strong labor unions. Labor has often been the driving force behind social justice movements in America. Without a strong labor presence social justice will be a very difficult proposition.

Labor unions have always been under assault by the company bosses and their cohorts in government. This connection reveals that the government does not serve the people; it serves business interests, the elite. It is thus evidence not of democracy, but of Plutocracy. Organized labor has long been at the centre of the vortex of class warfare that has always plagued America. On numerous occasions in our nation's long struggle for social justice, the state and federal militia were called forth to shoot dead striking workers while protecting the assets of businesses that often brutalized and murdered union organizers and workers alike.

So much of what we believe about America is based upon falsehoods and distortions""a viewpoint that lacks historical perspective. This way of thinking allows us to see only small segments of isolated events, out of context from the great matrix of the historical whole. Our situation is akin to catching a glimpse of a person's fingernail and being required to describe that person's religious philosophy. It is a difficult proposition that is unlikely to provide accuracy or useful results. Historical perspective is all important to understanding current events.

The demise of strong unions occurred for several reasons. Unionism has been under assault by corporate America since their inception. Keeping ordinary people apart has always worked in the interest of Plutocracy. Unions have fallen victim to widespread campaigns of propaganda as orchestrated by their business adversaries. Keeping workers isolated prevents insurrection. Isolated workers are without power and at the mercy of their employers. They are virtually without voice and have no legal redress of their grievances.

The unions themselves also played a role in their own demise by selling out to their adversaries in business. Union officials are all too often corrupt and easily bribed. Workers instinctively know when they have been betrayed. When unions lost their militant edge and became bureaucracies, they lost their effectiveness and their clout with the workers they represent.

There was a period in American history when companies feared unions. In the past, unions wielded considerable power. They had honor and integrity and understood that they were embroiled in class warfare. The Wobblies sought not only to democratize the world place""their objective was to end capitalism and remake society in a democratic image, rather than the existing Plutocracy. Eugene Debs referred to this kind of organizing as 'Revolutionary Unionism.' Debs and others recognized that justice could never be had in a system that was inherently unjust. It is a shame that the relatively weak and ineffectual unions of today no longer have this perspective.

I do not mean to say that there are not good and strong unions today""there are. But they are few in number and becoming increasingly rare. The work place and society at large are intimately connected. If there is inequality in one, how can there by justice in the other? The Industrial Workers of the World, like the Wobblies of old, is perhaps the only extant union that retains this radical and revolutionary perspective. This is the kind of unionism that we need""one that represents workers without crawling in bed with the employers, while simultaneously seeking to end capitalism. In these times of severe decline in union membership, it is no accident that the IWW is actually growing.

The working class people of today must relearn the lessons of history. We must understand, like the workers of old, that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common. Keeping workers isolated assures the continuation of the present system that exploits labor, while concentrating and privatizing wealth; which in turn creates the socioeconomic class divisions known as Plutocracy. Unions unite workers, employers divide and conquer; they keep the profits of labor to themselves by compensating workers minimally in wages and benefits. The end of strong unions assures low wages, poor benefits, and harsh working conditions for the workers; higher profits for the corporations and obscene wealth for their CEOs. We see this in the Wal-Mart model that is driving down wages on a global scale.

By busting unions and preventing their reformation, employers have created a work place that in essence is a master-slave relationship. 'At will' employees have few rights in the work place, and they have no legal redress of their grievances. It is a situation that gives extraordinary power to the employer by usurping it from the employee. Since the same situation prevails throughout the country, it is of little benefit to the worker to migrate from one work place to another""they are virtually all the same. The problem is rooted in capitalism. This is industrial slavery in its purest form. Let us recognize it for what it is and call it by its rightful name.

The visionary union leadership of the past, like that embodied by Eugene Debs, realized that the workplace and the country could not be separated""they were one and the same. Debs understood that a free and democratic society could not be achieved without first creating a free and democratic work place. The key to creating democracy within the construct of the existing Plutocracy lay in democratizing the work place. That is still the problem, but we rarely see the issue framed in this way. We lack historical perspective.

Debs also recognized that allowing the private ownership of the means of livelihood would assure the continuance of Plutocratic rule, rather than promoting democracy. And this is the crux of the problem today. Private ownership of livelihood creates what is essentially a system of wage slavery. It gives rise to the class system and the concentration of wealth and power at the top of the socioeconomic ladder, by taking from all of those below the top. It robs workers of their freedom and their dignity. It reduces them to being the property of their employers and often subjects them to tyranny.

Eugene Debs understood that if a man owns the means by which you live, that man is not your employer""he is your master; and you are his slave. One's livelihood, like the genetic blueprint for life itself, should not be privately owned. The genetic library""life's blueprint""belongs to the world; being non-man created, it cannot be privately owned. The same is true of the people's right of livelihood""it is public property. Nevertheless, we see corporations that are applying for patents for the private ownership of genetic codes they did not and cannot create. This demonstrates the absurdity of capitalism.

As the history of labor makes clear, working class people have always been exploited and abused by the ruling elite. Wealthy capitalists have long fomented the wars in which working class people serve and die. War generates enormous wealth, and guaranteed profits without risk for those who wage them. Witness the obscene profits that are being generated by America's defense contractors. Dick Cheney's Halliburton and the Bush and Bin Laden Family's Carlyle Group are raking in billions, while our sons and daughters sacrifice their lives at the altar of greed, believing it is for democracy.

The generation of corporate wealth through the sacrifice of the blood of our youth, has nothing to do with democracy or liberation. It has everything to do with class warfare; the rich preying upon the poor whom they hold in bitter contempt. What are the lives of a few thousand working stiffs to the ruling Plutocrats? War is never fought for noble purposes""it is about lining the pockets of the already wealthy. It is tainted money, stained with the blood of our children and our loved ones.

While our babies are dying by the thousands in places like Iraq, and are killing our Iraqi brethren, rich white men are realizing obscene profits. Our lives, our hopes and fears, mean nothing to these people. They do not see us as their equals; they see us as their servants, as cheap disposable and replaceable property. Few of us are willing to face this awful truth, but history bears me out. War produces wealth for the rich; it produces misery and suffering for the rest of us. Let us see it for what it is.

The enemy attacks us from within, not from foreign borders, as we are lead to believe. The enemies of democracy, the foes of freedom, are those who profit from the misery and suffering of others. They do not wear turbans and speak in foreign tongues. You will find them in the White House and roaming the halls of Congress. They masquerade as servants of the people; but they are servants of class and privilege. They are the masters of war, purveyors of Plutocracy. They are the enemies of the people. See them for what they are; judge them by what they do, not what they say.

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Charles Sullivan is a photographer, social activist and free lance writer residing in the hinterland of West Virgina.
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