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This Day in Labor History: September 19, 1981

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On September 19, 1981, the AFL-CIO held Solidarity Day in Washington, D.C. This event was organized labor’s strongest reaction to the Reagan administration and although largely forgotten about today, deserves our attention as part of the history of protest and to broaden our popular understanding of labor during this era.

In the aftermath of Reagan busting the air traffic controllers’ union, organized labor realized what was to befall them: a new era of union-busting and the decimation of the welfare state unions had fought so hard to build, if incrementally, over the previous half-century. Of course, quite a few of those unions had known that well before Reagan took office, even if PATCO and a few others were dumb enough to endorse Reagan. The AFL-CIO had not had particularly inspiring leadership for a very long time. In fact, it never had since the 1955 merger. George Meany was at least a working class guy, even if pretty conservative and more concerned with fighting the Cold War abroad than the class war at home. His replacement, Lane Kirkland, was even more lame, a corporate guy who was more comfortable around the wealthy than around workers. That in itself is more of a cultural critique than one of effectiveness, but at best, he was a caretaker in a time when the labor movement needed to reconnect with its radical past and engage in widespread organizing campaigns. Kirkland was by and large completely unable to deal with the new reality of Reagan, in no small part because many of the AFL-CIO’s constituent unions were in the same boat and had no desire to return to the days and tactics of the 1930s, which many of them had opposed anyway.

But that doesn’t mean Kirkland was a monster or the reason the labor movement failed in this country. And it doesn’t mean that Kirkland didn’t try to right the ship. Reagan was openly insulting the AFL-CIO early on, talking about how Kirkland and others were out of touch with union members because they supported Democrats. Despite an ongoing belief that union members are conservative, both in 1980 and 2016, union members voted Democratic in numbers significantly higher than non-union members. And this really irked Kirkland. In the aftermath, Kirkland and his lieutenants did return to a classic play in the union playbook–the mass march to protest injustice. Angry, the federation announced the march to resist Reagan’s so-called mandate to cut social programs, which labor leaders denied he had. This was mostly Lane Kirkland’s baby, which shows leadership from him that he does not frequently get credit for. The other main player in this was AFSCME president Jerry Wurf, a pioneering organizer of the public sector who had turned his union into an active organization of government employees flexing their muscles in politics across the nation, even when that challenged supposedly progressive black leadership in southern cities that turned into pro-corporate hacks. No union had more to lose from Reagan’s cuts than AFSCME. The march also happened seemingly overnight. Not planned until early August, September 19 was only 6 weeks away. And that a very short time for a lumbering bureaucratic beast like the AFL-CIO.

As all this was happening, PATCO went on strike. The air traffic controllers were arrogant jerks to the rest of the labor movement. Supportive of Reagan because they hated Carter so much and because it was a bunch of white men with military backgrounds who were socially conservative, PATCO didn’t even consult with the rest of organized labor when it announced its strike. The federation didn’t really support them, in part because they had alienated the rest of the nation through their constant work actions that ruined people’s travel schedules. But the crushing of that union by Reagan reiterated how important it was for labor to organize against this monster of a man in the White House.

Solidarity Day managed to reach far beyond labor. Somewhat like the marches opposing various aspects of the Trump administration, it hit people well outside the movement who saw it as a place to protest the horrors of the Reagan administration. With Reagan slashing the budget for nearly everything in the welfare state, $25 billion in the 1981 budget, lots of activists who believed through the 1970s that the liberal government would continue or more less indefinitely rapidly woke up to the new reality. Supporters of these movements helped make Solidarity Day a success. The NAACP got on board quickly, which was a huge add. Seniors’ groups worried about Social Security and Medicare cuts did too, as did various peace groups. Environmental, religious, and Latino organizations joined up. Coretta Scott King, Jesse Jackson, and Bayard Rustin played active organizing roles. Estimates vary on attendance, between 260,000 and 500,000, which at the high end would make it larger than the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (the proper name, not the shortened one that erases the economic demands of the civil rights movement) or the 1969 Vietnam War Moratorium March.

The dedication of organizers, mostly out of the labor movement, made the event go off. The National Park Service, which owns much of the public land in Washington, had a portable toilet requirement for marches and organizers brought trucks full of toilets all the way from Canada to make sure there wouldn’t be any problems. Transportation, food, and entertainment all had to be arranged. Organizing an event like this is really a titanic task. Like with the anti-Trump protests, Solidarity Day brought random people who weren’t used to marching–who would rather be having brunch as one sign at an anti-Trump rally noted–but who were scared and outraged at what Reagan and his cronies were doing to this country.

In the end, the AFL-CIO said September 19, 1981, “was a day which will live as a landmark in American history.” But it did not. Like many mass marches, it led to some short term action perhaps, but that’s about it. It helped mobilize people for the 1982 midterms, where Democrats took 27 seats, which helped resist Reagan’s policies. That was a really good thing. In the short term, there were also accomplishments. Congress refused to approve Reagan’s cuts to relevant departments such as Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. It also significantly improved Kirkland’s standing as AFL-CIO head. Seen as weak before this and open to a challenge, he consolidated control, for better or for worse given that he didn’t have much of a plan to build on the success of Solidarity Day to create a long-term strategy to defeat Republicans. Reagan also stopped attacking labor so directly, worried about the implications for his reelection. Unfortunately, he managed that just fine. There were attempts to make this an annual event, with the 1982 version helping again with those elections and then another shot in 1983, but the momentum was hard to maintain. The 1984 version happened and had decent attendance but Reagan crushed Mondale. The last time Kirkland tried a Solidarity Day march was in 1991. 250,000 people attended, but it didn’t lead to much. Bill Clinton may have won the presidency but he was pretty much a disaster for organized labor with his support of NAFTA.

This post borrowed from Timothy Minchin’s article, “Together We Shall Be Heard: Exploring the 1981 ‘Solidarity Day’ Mass March,” in Labor: Studies in Working Class History of the Americas, Volume 12, Issue 3, from 2015.

This is the 282nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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