Does Labor Have Any Real Friends?

Despite well-meaning attempts at mitigating or sugar-coating it, organized labor has always known, deep-down, that the only true friend it had was labor itself.  Yes, the Democrats have thrown a few crumbs its way, and yes, academics have eloquently given voice to the Movement, and yes, non-union workers have grudgingly recognized organized labor’s historical contributions.  But when it comes to the down-and-dirty battles, working people realize that no one can be relied upon except other working people.

An actor I know, a long-time SAG member with an impressive list of credits, once told me:  “Scratch a Hollywood liberal, and you’ll find a union hater.”  Having swum in the Hollywood tank for more than 30 years, he is convinced that the affluent, progressive-minded denizens of Malibu and the West Side (often stereotyped as “knee-jerk liberals”) not only don’t respect or admire organized labor, they actually root for it to fail.

For whatever reason—whether it’s the perception that labor’s too big for its britches, or it’s those nagging memories of newsreel footage showing union thugs doing the perp walk, or it’s simply the stark realization that America’s working class (the “French fries and gravy crowd,” as management used to call it) isn’t “romantic” or exciting enough to embrace—it’s hard to find liberals willing to celebrate organized labor.  In fact, they seem far more likely to want to defy it.

Take the Pacifica Foundation, for example, the group that runs KPFK radio in Los Angeles, KPFA in San Francisco, KPFT in Houston, WPFW in Washington D.C., and WBAI in New York City.  I can’t vouch for the other stations, but I’ve listened to KPFK most of my adult life, and have never heard more “radical” anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-corporate, and pro-conspiracy material broadcast anywhere. My college English professor, poor baby, actually referred to KPFK as “communistic.”

I can recall KPFK reading the works of Jack London, Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, and playing hours and hours of uninterrupted Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs every Labor Day.  It was a tradition.  I don’t know if it’s true today, but as late as the early 1990s, May Day (International Workers’ Day) was still a paid holiday at KPFK, just as Christmas, Labor Day, and the Fourth of July were paid holidays at other union shops.

Alas, all that has changed.  Beginning in 1999, when the Pacifica Foundation hired anti-union consultants, and posted armed guards on the premises during an employee dispute, Pacifica appears to have gone the way of other autocratic, anti-worker institutions.  Most recently, Pacifica was found to have hired Jackson Lewis, a well-known union-busting law firm.  Jackson Lewis is notorious for showing companies how to keep unions out.  Not only was this a shocker, but Pacifica employees viewed it as a clear betrayal.

Accordingly, workers at KPFA, members of CWA (Communication Workers of America) Local 9415, sent a formal letter to the Pacifica National Board asking them to reconsider their decision and terminate the relationship with Jackson Lewis.  On March 7, Pacifica Board members gave their answer.  They refused to reverse the decision.  This nationally recognized union-busting law firm would remain on the payroll.

It’s bad enough when “pro-labor” Democrats blow smoke and give lame excuses, but when an outfit with the acknowledged creds of Pacifica suddenly turns on the union, you realize how quickly things can change.  You realize how screwed you are.  And you realize how true that observation is:  Working people can’t trust anyone but other working people.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.