WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Saturday, tens of thousands of people from all over the country -- perhaps 200,000 people -- stretched across the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial in a quilt-like patchwork of colors representing various races and organizational affiliations. (See video here.)
The message of the day was "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs," according to one organizer of Saturday's "One Nation Working Together" rally. "In many ways this march reminds me of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," Rev. Jesse Jackson told Working In These Times.
But if this weekend's rally was modeled on the 1963 March on Washington, it lacked the spirit of civil disobedience and direct action that marked that event 47 years ago. The March on Washington was successfully because it had been preceded with a massive campaign of direct action and civil disobedience. The showing of 300,000 people was a subtle threat that if action was taken to correct injustice, more civil disobedience was on the way.
Jackson dismissed calls for more direct action. "The next step is to go to the ballot box on November 2nd and vote for Democrats," he said. His call to get out the vote seemed to echo the comments of labor and civil rights leaders throughout the day, who called on activists to get out the vote on November 2. "October 2nd is about November 2nd," SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said.
The rally was not without its detractors, who heard the "jobs, jobs, jobs" message and questioned exactly how it would lead to job creation. "It was a great rally. The problem was, it was in the wrong place," says UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. "This protest should have been on the front lawn of a CEO shipping jobs overseas."
'Unclear what rally was about exactly'
While labor movements across Europe this week called general strikes to protest job killing austerity measures (as highlighted by Michelle Chen on this website earlier this week), the American labor movement was holding a multimillion-dollar get out the vote rally in support of Democrats who have done little to create jobs.
On the surface, it seemed to fly right in the face of AFL CIO President Richard Trumka's pledges to build a more independent labor movement and get more aggressive with Democrats. Labor leaders have expressed disappointment with the Democratic Party for its inaction to improve the conditions of workers to collectively bargain, inaction on additional stimulus spending, apparent willingness to cut Social Security, and more recently its inaction to force a vote to let Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans expire.
I asked AFL CIO President Richard Trumka about whether he would criticize the Democratic Senators who blocked a vote on ending those tax cuts in his speech; he said: "No I won't, today is about America coming together. This is not a day for a politics." Later in his speech Trumka would indeed talk politics, but only by urging rally participants to get out and vote for Democrats.
"It was unclear what the rally was about exactly," said Mark Haller, a factory worker from Erie, Pa. "The only message that was clear was to get out and vote for Democrats who have been doing little for working people."
While the politics message was mixed, the rally was definitely energizing for the thousands that participants. One black civil rights activist came up to white workers locked out from a Honeywell Facility in Metropolis, Ill., and asked them to sign his NAACP placard as a sign of solidarity. The civil-rights activist had been going around to different activists from different organizations asking for signatures to commemorate the ability of all these diverse groups to come together for this cause.
"I think the larger message of today is that there is another America out there beyond those who want to divide us based on race, gender and other issues," said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. For progressive and especially communities of color that have been heavily under attack by the right wing since Obama took power, it was a sign that people of color and whites alike were going to continue fighting for their progressive values.
Despite the misgivings of the politics of the rally, it was indeed an impressive feat for the progressive movement to bring tens of thousands of activists into Washington D.C. One Nation showed that the left still has the energy and strength to organize on a grand level. Now it needs create strong enough pressure to actually win those jobs.
Originally posted at Working In These Times, where I am a contributing editor.