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Does Labor Have Any Real Friends?

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Organized labor has always known, deep-down, that the only true friend it had was labor itself. While the Democrats have thrown a few crumbs its way, and academics have eloquently given voice to the Movement, and even non-union workers have grudgingly recognized organized labor's historical contributions, when it comes to the down-and-dirty battles necessary to get the job done, working people realize that no one can be relied upon except other working people, and the unions that represent them.

A character actor I know, a long-time SAG member, once told me: "Scratch a Hollywood liberal, and you'll find a union hater." Granted, it was a broad generalization, but having swum in the Hollywood tank for more than 30 years, he was convinced that the majority of those 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, a bastion of left-wing opinion. Pacifica is 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 radio 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. If more "radical" stations exist, I'm not aware of them. My college English professor, poor baby, actually referred to KPFK as "communistic."

I can recall KPFK reading over the air 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 an annual 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. Amazing.

Alas, much of 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. And you realize how true that observation is: Working people can't trust anyone but other working people, and the unions that represent them.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net