Since there is no democracy at the workplace the labor movement has always fought for civil rights. There can be no workplace rights if these rights don’t already exist in the broader society. In addition free speech and economic rights cannot be separated from each other. The Civil Rights Movement in the South in the Reconstruction period at the end of the Civil War and again in the 1960s fought not just for political freedom, but also for economic freedom. Workers who were trapped in sharecropping arrangements could never exercise any political rights. The Bill of Rights, which came out of the farmers uprisings at the end of the Revolutionary War, has set the framework for what workers demand.
During the early days of industrialization workers throughout the country fought for shorter working hours because they wanted some control over their time. The slogan of the 8-hour day movement was “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will”. This simple slogan had deeply radical connotations because it assumed workers had the right to determine how they spent their time. In the 1900s and 1910s the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) led free speech fights throughout the West. Union organizers would go into company mining or railroad towns and demand the right to speak about the union. A company town means that everything in the community is controlled by the company – all semblance of democracy is gone. The Wobbly organizers were ran out of town and dropped into the desert, beaten and branded, tarred and feathered for fighting for free speech. The government never stepped in to assist the IWW, instead they jailed and deported the majority of the IWW leadership.
Workers movements have always fought to expand the basic concept of rights within the society. During the Depression in the 1930s unemployed and employed workers together demanded the government provide basic assistance and jobs. These were seen as basic necessities to survive that the government had a responsibility to provide. This was a big step forward for the civil rights movement because it expanded the concept of what are our rights. In addition the Works Project Administration unions that were part of the Workers Alliance of America demanded and won racial equality both in terms of job distribution and pay.
The labor movement has confronted attacks on civil rights by building mass movements that the government cannot ignore. Typical strategies have been mass picketing where thousands or even tens of thousands of people confront an employer and demand justice. Another effective strategy has been sit-down strikes where workers take over the workplace by sitting down and refusing to work until their demands are met. This is very powerful because employers are cautious about breaking up these strikes because they don’t want to destroy their property and in addition employers cannot bring in scabs to replace the workers. But the most effective strategy that workers have used to demand civil rights is the general strike.
When police shot striking dockworkers in San Francisco in May 1934 on “Bloody Thursday” the entire city responded. There was a general strike where the workers shut down the entire city demanding justice for the dockworkers. This mass outpouring of support terrified the city government and they pressured the port owners to make concessions to the union. The result was a group of very poor contingent laborers became one of the highest paid and protected group of workers.
At the end of World War II when employers tried to reassert their control over working people the working class rebelled. We had just fought a long war against fascism for freedom and democracy and working people were not going to accept not having democratic rights on the job. There were more strikes in 1946 than any other year in American history. This lead to a wave of general strikes in 1947 where entire cities went out on strike all over the East Coast. Workers were encouraged by general strikes they heard about in near by communities. Employers and local and state authorities could not crush these mass mobilizations and were forced to make major concessions in both economic and civil rights. But the Federal Government fought back by passing the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which strips unionized workers of all their First Amendment Rights and makes all militant strike actions illegal.
Today our civil rights are under attack again by the government. Once again we must use the strategies that have been used by the labor movement in the past to demand political and economic justice. The Civil Rights movement in the 1960s relied heavily on the strategies used by the labor movement in holding sit-ins and mass protests. Today we need to use those same strategies and build the broadest movement possible to take back the democratic rights that we have won through hard struggle.