The Million Worker March: An interview with Clarence Thomas of ILWU Local 10
October 12, 2004
This Sunday, October 17, the Million Worker March (MWM) will be held in Washington, D.C. to bring focus and attention to the demands of working people and their allies in the United States. Speakers will include Dick Gregory, Danny Glover, Martin Luther King III, and a number of trade union activists. But with the presidential election only three weeks away, some, including the leadership of the AFL-CIO, feel that this is not the time to be marching.
Clarence Thomas (known by his friends and associates as “the real Clarence Thomas”), an offical with the International and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU) Local 10, disagrees, arguing that it’s essential that the demands of the working class and the poor be heard both during this election campaign and beyond. Thomas is a long-time labour activist who has also worked consistently on a number of international issues. Last year, he travelled to Iraq with a delegation from U.S. Labor Against the War. He recently spoke with Seven Oaks about the October 17 mobilization and the impact the organizers hope it will have on U.S. labour and social justice movements.
Seven Oaks: What were the initial motivations for calling next Sunday’s mobilization?
Clarence Thomas: The Million Worker March was called in response to the attacks on working families, and to the millions of jobs that have been lost during the Bush Administration. It was our assessment that the working class had not suffered such hardship since the Great Depression. We’re talking about the outsourcing of jobs. And, after 9/11, we had the establishment of Homeland Security and then Bush turned around and said, ‘there will not be any unions in the Homeland Security department because unions are an impediment to security.’ Even in the ILWU we faced the issue of port security. And of course the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq -- all of these things were part of the reason for calling this mobilization.
S.O.: What are some of the key demands of the MWM?
Thomas: Universal health care, stopping the dismantling of public education, bringing the troops home now, the reinforcement of all civil rights – these particular demands are at the centre of our t-shirt. But I think that, when we talk about the demands, one is most certainly a national living wage that lifts people out of poverty. Another demand is protection and enhancement of social security, immune to privatization; and ensuring that pensions are guaranteed, so that corporations can’t get out of paying pensions for people who want them. We want to cut the military budget. It’s bloated, and it has become a means by which there’s like a revolving door of money, with elected official getting campaign donations from defence contractors.
S.O.: The leadership of the AFL-CIO has been critical of the MWM. How has this played out, in terms of getting support from union locals and amongst rank-and-file members?
Thomas: Let me put it to you this way: The march has grown into a movement. And I think what the AFL-CIO was able to do with their position of non-endorsement of the march is that it stifled presidents of international unions from contributing money. They have been very effective at that. It has in no way stopped the rank-and-file, because the rank-and-file are the people that are feeling the pain. It’s the rank-and-file that have gotten tired of the concessionary bargaining that’s going on, and in some instances you have business unionism types that are heading certain international unions. It’s important to understand this. Despite the fact of the letter that was issued that basically went out as a memo dated June 23, they have not been able to stop the rank-and-file organizing this thing. The rank-and-file want it. One of the paragraphs of the letter indicated, ‘while we may agree with many of the aims and issues of the march.’ Well, anyone who calls themselves a trade unionist could not be against these demands. But they have been able to put the kibosh on us receiving funding from major labour organizations, because of the fact that they have made a decision to give all of the money to John Kerry. And John Kerry is giving labour noting in return.
S.O.: That was my next question, about the presidential election. Obviously U.S. labour is doing a lot for John Kerry’s campaign. Is a Kerry victory going to do anything for U.S. labour?
Thomas: Well, I mean, they’re not asking him for anything. They’re not putting forth any demands. The only people putting forth any demands are the people involved with the Million Worker March. They are not putting forth any demands on Kerry for the millions of dollars that they’ve given, and I find that to be unconscionable.
The ILWU, internationally, has endorsed John Kerry, we need to say that for the record. But we have autonomy in the ILWU. The ILWU has a history of autonomy, and it’s also important to understand that ILWU Local 10, that passed this [MWM] resolution, is the home of the legendary labour leader Harry Bridges. This is Harry’s local. This is the local that has been in the forefront of taking positions concerning U.S. foreign policy. We are the local that boycotted the first ships from South Africa in the early 1980s, led by legendary rank-and-file ILWU member Leo Robinson, who played such a critical role in galvanizing U.S. labour support for South Africa. This is the local that shutdown the port in opposition to the WTO (World Trade Organization), that led that struggle. We passed resolutions that were adopted up and down the coast. We have a history of being not only militant and supporting trade union issues, but of being in the forefront on issues involving economic and social justice.
S.O.: In terms of foreign policy issues, the MWM made a call-out to the movement against war and occupation. How has the response been from anti-war activists and coalitions in the United States?
Thomas: United for Peace and Justice has endorsed the march, International ANSWER has endorsed the march, the International Action Center has endorsed the march – we think the response has been great. U.S. Labor Against the War did not endorse the march. However, its co-convenor, Gene Bruskin, has endorsed the march and that took place after they had decided against it.
S.O.: What kind of number are you expecting on Sunday?
Thomas: As far as numbers are concerned, let me share this with you: I was at the Million Man March in October 1995, I was at the Million Woman March in 1997. At the Million Man March, there was well over a million people there, but the media said 500 thousand. At the Million Woman March, the numbers were close to a million, maybe between 800 and 900 thousand. But it doesn’t matter what the numbers are. I can tell you this: there will be millions of workers represented, in terms of organizations and so forth, at that march. Whether of not there will be a million people, I would not say that there would be. We don’t have to have a million people out there. It’s going to be historic and it’s needed, because this is going to be our twenty-first century civil rights movement, based around class issues. Because the issues that Dr. King spoke of at the 1963 March on Washington was addressed to a particular plight of Black folks. Now, these same issues that were affecting Black folks in disproportionate numbers, are affecting people of all races as we move into this twenty-first century.
S.O.: What can people do who won’t be able to get to Washington, D.C., maybe like some of us on the West coast, in terms of supporting the march?
Thomas: One of the things they can do is to visit our website at www.millionworkermarch.org and click on the PayPal button to make a donation, because we have to pay for everything with regard to this. They can order our t-shirts. This is a rank-and-file grassroots democracy effort – we’ve had to pay for all of these things out of our pocket. We have received some funding from ILWU Local 10, and ILWU locals up and down. We have also received donations from various other unions, but it has been from locals. It has not been the kind of sizable donations that typically you would find in an organized labour movement event. So that’s one of the key things people can do.
But they can also watch the event. I think it is going to be covered by C-SPAN. And they can follow what we’re going to be doing after the march, this is just phase 1.
S.O.: Anything else you’d like to say about the march, or the election?
Thomas: I think that whatever one’s expectations are of the elections, one thing is sure: All elected officials need to be held accountable. And no matter who is elected president, the working class has work to do, because it’s not going to make any difference with regards to the policy in Iraq, with regards to cutting that military budget, with regards to these demands that we’re putting forward. It’s not going to matter who’s in the White House. These demands are going to have to be fought for.