WASHINGTON, D.C. – Bus drivers and other rank-and-file union employees of Washington’s Metro bus and subway system, along with Hispanic day laborers from Virginia, joined us at Occupy DC’s May Day celebration at Malcolm X Park and marched alongside as we made our way across the city to the White House.
Workers with the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 addressed the evening gathering in the park on 16th St. NW at Meridian Hill, saying that the revitalization of the unions needs to come from the bottom, because the unions’ leadership isn’t doing the job.
Metro bus drivers Patricia and Shamika, whose surnames are being withheld as befits honorary Occupiers, said that their mission is to fight “racism, sexism and capitalism,” and that a change in the methods used by unions is long overdue.
“The strategy of the past 30 years is not working,” Patricia said. “Endless negotiation and accommodation doesn’t scare” those who would exploit labor and the poor, she explained. “Strikes scare them.”
ATU’s Mike Golash told several hundred of us assembled at the park that the labor movement has been sold out by a union leadership which “has no interest in defying the unreasonable restrictions that have been placed upon them” by such legislation as the Taft-Hartley Act, restrictions that say Metro workers are not allowed to strike.
Like Occupy DC, he said, “they are forcing us to become an illegal movement.”
The union workers suggested that we Occupiers could lend the unions a hand, and vice versa.
“Metro says it’s illegal to stage a sympathy strike, but there’s nothing to stop Occupy DC from conducting a protest” in support of the union strikes, Golash said.
And while the powers that be can feel unthreatened by Occupy’s actions at times, they’ll have a harder time being sanguine if we’re joined by the city’s transportation workers, Patricia said. “If a few hundred Occupiers protest, they can blow it off,” she said. “But when a thousand Metro workers go on strike, the whole city notices.”
“We are under attack,” she said, and castigated Metro for raising its rider fees and freezing wages to meet its budgeting goals instead of getting the money from the people who benefit from the it the most — the large corporate interests that cluster their outlets around Metro stations.
Those among us who worried last fall that the Occupy movement was being co-opted by the unions can rest easy, Golash said. “Occupy DC, and the movement in general, has by now clearly shown that it’s beholden to no one.”
The Washington Labor Chorus and Occupiers led the people in belting out labor classics “Solidarity Forever,” “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night” and “The Internationale,” each rendered in Spanish and English, and even, in the latter case, French.
Occupiers dressed as heroic figures from America’s labor history gave speeches, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who noted that the “impossible chasm between all workers and all exploiters” has not been bridged, and is in fact widening again.
A re-enactor dressed as Haymarket martyr August Spies read from the speech he gave before he was hanged:
“…Anarchism is on trial! …very well; you may sentence me, for I am an anarchist. I believe that the state of castes and classes–the state where one class dominates over and lives upon the labor of another class, and calls this order–yes, I believe that this barbaric form of social organization, with its legalized plunder and murder, is doomed to die and make room for a free society…but let the world know that in 1886, in the state of Illinois, eight men were sentenced to death because they believed in a better future; because they had not lost their faith in the ultimate victory of liberty and justice!”
Other historical figures invoked the 1971 May Day action to protest the Vietnam War, when 35,000 activists effectively shut down this city, noting some similarities between that movement’s leaderless structure and Occupy. The fact that the Nixon administration also changed the rules abruptly and raided the event despite the permits, knocking down tents and teargassing the legal protest, didn’t escape this Occupier’s notice.
The gathering featured poetry readings, a solidarity speech by an organization representing immigrant day laborers in Northern Virginia, the traditional dance of the Maypole, and then, the march.
Our crowd, by now numbering about three hundred activists, rode and biked down the 15-20 block route accompanied by a giant dragon puppet made up of a dozen or so people in costume, wriggling along at the end of the pack. Chants rose:
“When the working class is under attack, what do we do?
Stand up, fight back!
Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.
The whole world is striking!
We are unstoppable; another world is possible.
At 2400 14th St, Hispanic construction workers high on a cable-supported work car shouted their approval and pumped fists.
“We are the 99 percent; we are the working class. And so are you!”
Horned blared along the route, but most of the honkers did it rhythmically, giving us a smiling show of solidarity.
“Don’t just watch us, come and join us! We’re only fighting for your rights.
Greed and corruption are weapons of mass destruction.”
“We hold the system up. We can make it fail,” one sign proclaimed.
On and on we went, accompanied by two saxophones, a guitar, a violin, and a drummer playing a bucket, to Lafayette Park across from the White House, and wrapped it up with a performance for its Occupants.
They didn’t grace us with an appearance, but it seems likely they heard our music.
Check out all our May Day stories here.