As Ted Rall put it: If irony were money, we'd all be rich.
Am I talking about Egypt and Wisconsin today? I could be, but I'm not.
Instead I'm talking about events that happened two and three decades ago.
In the summer of 1989, hundreds of thousands of coal miners from Siberia to the Ukraine went out on strike for better working conditions. The events were covered on the front page of the New York Times and most other American newspapers.
''Half measures!'' one striker shouted to describe the concessions made so far.The strikers garnered praise from Washington politicians for their bravery and courage for standing up to police repression. They were freedom fighters.
Meanwhile, a coal miner strike in the Appalachian mountains was largely ignored by the news media and Washington politicians. On the rare occasion it was mentioned, the strikers were referred to as violent law-breakers.
The strike I'm referring to is the Pittston Coal Strike.
When 1,500 miners walked out on strike after 18 months of working without a contract the company was prepared and the local government wasted no time helping to crush the strike.
Some prosecutors and judges basically refused to participate in suppressing the strike; other judges actively and enthusiastically punished the strikers. What political factors may have influenced these decisions, and to what extent were the findings of contempt completely discretionary?With Pittston refusing to negotiate, the miners resorted to civil disobedience.
. . . The US Supreme Court’s ruling in BAGWELL mandating that the question of quelling union resistance be appropriately handled through criminal rather than civil contempt is a major protection for strikers. Cynics might note that well-heeled corporations can always hire legal talent to frame strikers’ acts as violent and unlawful. Still, forcing such cases to be heard by juries both insulates strikers from neoliberal judges’ free exercise of discretion and opens up space for the radical identification of the jury with workers and their underlying conceptions of justice and fair contract.
99 miners and one local priest performed a sit-down strike of Moss #3 Preparation Plant. After four days they left the plant, only hours before the Virginia National Guard was going to move in and arrest them.
The outcome of the strike was tipped in the miner's favor because of efforts from women's groups, specifically the “Daughter’s of Mother Jones”. They prepared food, raised money and walked the picket line. Still they felt they weren't doing enough.
On April 18, 1989, a group of 39 women went into the Pittston Coal headquarters and held a 36 hour sit down strike. The women stated that they would not leave until a contract was signed. When questioned by police and media reporters to give up their names, the women responded by saying that they were daughters of Mother Jones. The Daughters gained the attention of the media and completely halted production at Pittston for an entire day and a half. The women involved were not members of the UMWA but wanted to support their cause, and due to this they were linked to the UMWA and considered by some to be a part of the union.Early in 1990, the UMWA settled with Pittston. The miners had won.
On 14 August 1980, tens of thousands of workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Poland went out on an illegal wildcat strike. This was the start of the Solidarity trade union. The strikes would sweep through Poland, upsetting power politics in Eastern Europe, and becoming the lead story on broadcast news in America for months.
Until the end of December, 1981, when they were crushed by the military, these labor leaders in Poland were rock-star, hero, freedom fighters to Reagan Republicans in Washington.
Reagan declared that "the right to belong to a free trade union" was "one of the most elemental human rights". The Reagan Administration used the AFL-CIO, European Unions, and the CIA to smuggle in money, radio, cameras and other equipment trying to prop up Solidarity.
During the same time, on August 3, 1981, PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization) also went on strike. Their demands were similar to Solidarity - better pay and working conditions.
On August 5, President Reagan, without a sense of irony, fired the 11,345 striking air traffic controllers, and banned them from federal service for life. The workers were temporarily replaced by air traffic controllers from the military, much like the Solidarity workers after the Polish government crushed their labor union.
"For those of you who think it is revolutionary for government workers to strike, I tell you that this is the only country in the free world that does not allow government workers to strike. I know a strike causes inconveniences. It is supposed to."
- Terry Duffy, PATCO striker
So what can we learn from this? For starters, our politicians are outright hostile to labor unions except when they are harming a government that is already hostile to American corporations.
Secondly, whenever a Washington politicians talks about "freedom" and "freedom fighters", chances are it has little to do with reality. Examples include when Reagan referred to Islamic fighters in Afghanistan as "freedom fighters", or when he referred to the Contra terrorists as the same as our Founding Fathers.
But most importantly, we can be certain that our government officials have no love for the idea of Americans practicing democracy and exercising actual freedom.
The best example I can give is this quote from Michael Reagan:
The war cry against unions holding taxpayers hostage should be: "Remember PATCO!"Michael Reagan is right...but not for any of the reasons he thinks. The breaking of PATCO was the start of an assault on labor unions in America. What is happening in Wisconsin, if successful, will begin a similar assault.