“There’s no such thing as neutral. You have to be on one side or the other. In Harlan County there wasn’t no neutral.”
This is how Florence Reece, spouse of National Miners Union organizer Sam Reece, described life in the Kentucky coal fields in 1931.
Sheriff J.H. Blair sent his deputies to the Reece family home looking for Sam, who had learned the law was after him and escaped. The deputies instead terrorized Florence and her children. Incidents like this were commonplace in mining country throughout the 1930s.
After the gun thugs left, Florence Reece composed one of labor’s most beloved anthems: “Which Side Are You On?” Set to the music of a familiar hymn, the song pointedly states, “If you go to Harlan County / There is no neutral there / You’ll either be a union man / Or a thug for J.H. Blair.” The chorus then repeats the question, “Which side are you on?”
With the trial of Boston union leader Stevan Kirschbaum on trumped-up felony charges beginning March 3, this question is as relevant as ever. The union of Boston school bus drivers, Steelworkers Local 8751, is in the crosshairs of the entire ruling-class establishment. There are no neutrals there.
Class struggle in Boston
This historic union, one-of-a-kind in the belly of the beast, has not gone unnoticed by the international capitalist class. The union’s will to struggle has put it in a life-or-death situation with Veolia, one of the largest transnational corporations in the world.
Immediately after the illegal lockout of the bus drivers on Oct. 8, 2013, without bothering to get the union’s version of the events, the ruling establishment launched a red-baiting attack. Employing Cold War McCarthyite rhetoric, the Boston Globe assailed Kirschbaum for his activism, radicalism, militancy and anti-racism, and his Workers World Party affiliation.
The paper’s diatribe portrayed him as “polarizing” and “menacing, narcissistic and dangerously disruptive.” The then mayor, Thomas Menino, attacked Kirschbaum as a “bully” and part of a “rogue element” within the union. But the workers all come to listen and applaud when Kirschbaum speaks at the almost daily rallies at the bus yards. And at each court appearance, co-workers come out in force to show Kirschbaum their solidarity and support.
After the bogus charges were filed, the Globe ran more libelous, “guilty until proven innocent” attacks on Kirschbaum and the union and chastised Local 8751 for “filing dozens of grievances, coddling its lunatic fringe, and ranting about injustices in far-off lands.” With no evidence, the charges — including the two that were subsequently dropped — were presented as fact. In this way, through its subservient corporate media mouthpiece, the ruling class laid bare its true agenda: To get rid of the “troublemakers” and the “reds.” To behead the leadership of this militant, anti-racist, class-conscious union. To stop Local 8751 from setting an example of real social unionism. And to break the school bus drivers union once and for all.
The new mayor, Marty Walsh, has done nothing to defend the drivers, despite labor’s backing of his election campaign. His attacks on the community, with whom the drivers have solidarized themselves for 40 years, include employing prisoners to shovel snow for 20 cents an hour, misusing school bus drivers to transport police officers during a Super Bowl celebration, trying to force all middle school students off school buses and onto public transit, and firing a city worker for participating in Black Lives Matter.
‘Don’t let red-baiting break you up’
The Globe’s base appeal to anti-communism calls up the ghosts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and Congressperson Martin Dies. Dies originally formed the House Un-American Activities Committee to break the back of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, whose drive to organize the vast industrial working class was in no small part led by members of the Communist Party and other leftists. The Dies Committee, started as a reaction to the wave of sit-down strikes that peaked in 1937, had a rough start, and in fact Dies, a Texas Dixiecrat, was defeated by the CIO’s Political Action Committee, which was revived after the post-World War II strike wave. But then communists were driven from union leadership positions when they refused to sign “loyalty oaths” stating they were not members of the Communist Party.
The union-busting Taft-Hartley Act made it illegal for CP members to hold union office. By this time, the CIO leadership had embraced anti-communism. Eleven unions that refused to abide by this provision of Taft-Hartley were expelled from the CIO. Only two — the United Electrical Workers Union and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — still exist today.
Civil rights organizations that collaborated with the CIO in organizing drives among oppressed workers were driven out of existence during this period. Among them were the National Negro Congress, the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples and the Committee for the Defense of the Foreign Born.
The red purge had a devastating and lasting effect on the U.S. labor movement. With the anti-capitalist forces driven from leadership, the movement lacked an anti-racist orientation as well. Thus, when A. Philip Randolph organized the 1963 March on Washington, best known for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, only the Randolph Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and the United Auto Workers supported the march from organized labor. The UAW, however, having cleansed itself of reds, was slow to bring Black workers into top leadership positions.
Side with the school bus drivers
In these times, Local 8751 is a rarity, a seeming throwback to a bygone era. But the bosses fear this union. The bosses are treating it as such a threat because if this local union’s example spreads, the capitalist class is in trouble.
Imagine all over the country, as in Boston, organized labor uniting with “Black Lives Matter,” with the “Dreamers,” with the best elements of “Occupy Wall Street,” and with the communities in motion for justice. These actions make real the slogan, “Workers and oppressed peoples of all countries unite!” That is the embryo of social revolution.
In the song “Talkin’ Union,” the late Pete Seeger sang that “If you don’t let red-baiting break you up / And if you don’t let stoolpigeons break you up / And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up / And if you don’t let race hatred break you up / You’ll win.”
Harlan County 1931. Boston 2015. There are no neutrals there.
Which side are you on?