Features » February 3, 2006
In Search of Solidarity
It’s a week before the holidays in New York City and there’s a transit strike. A strike? In 2005? It seems an anachronism, like meat rations or air raid drills. There’s a frisson of excitement in the air mixed with logistical dread and disbelief.
The morning the strike begins, billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg accuses the largely black and Latino union of acting “thuggishly” and then proceeds to class-bait the transit workers. “You’ve got people making $50,000 and $60,000 a year keeping the people who are making $20,000 and $30,000 a year from being able to earn a living,” he says. “That’s just not acceptable.”
This sums up the narrative for nearly all of the local press coverage: scowls of harried commuters waiting in line, shots of the hapless souls trudging across the Brooklyn Bridge, an icon of the city in crisis that evokes both the strange thrill of the ‘03 blackout and the horror of 9/11; frenzied live reports from the Mad Max death-cage that is Penn Station; and interviews with grimacing truck drivers banned from entering south of 96th street, waiting to catch hell from their bosses. The message: New Yorkers are pissed, as only New Yorkers can be, at the malcontents who left them to fend for themselves amidst the holiday crush. “I wish we still had Reagan,” one man says in a typical sound bite. “He would have fired the whole lot of them.”
Among liberals–people who loathe Bush, oppose the war, favor national healthcare–there’s an ambivalence about the strikers’ demands: Who gets to retire at 55 with a half-salary pension? The New York Times editorial page calls the strike “unnecessary,” the union’s account of negotiations “ridiculous,” and bellows that TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint “should not have the ability to hold the city hostage.”
But despite the near-unanimous condemnation by the city’s mandarins and negative round-the-clock coverage, New Yorkers, astonishingly, support the strikers.
I get an inkling of this when I walk past an MTA bus depot in East Harlem on the strike’s second day. Instead of a riotous mob shouting insults, cars honk approval as they zip past the picketers.
Polls commissioned by local news outlets bear this out, though you’d hardly know it from the coverage. One, commissioned by a local ABC affiliate and conducted by Survey USA on the first day of the strike, asked the question: “In the transit strike … whose side are you on?” Fifty-two percent of respondents said the union. Forty percent said the MTA. A poll from local radio station WWRL found that 71 percent of respondents blamed the MTA for the strike and 14 percent blamed the union. A poll by local cable channel NY1 found a majority of New Yorkers thought the union’s demands “fair.”
The real story of the strike is not the epic hassle it created. It is the fact that despite universal condemnation from opinion makers, millions of New Yorkers were in solidarity with the strikers.
Solidarity. Now there’s an anachronism. The news media doesn’t talk about solidarity; it employs the assured and peppy tone that speaks to the individual consumer: After the break: We’ll tell you how the strike will affect your morning commute. Solidarity is the opposite of news you can use. No wonder the local media missed the real story. It hinged on a concept that is not part of its vocabulary.
The word “solidarity” may seem the sole provenance of the “left” and the “dying” labor movement, but the strike showed that whether we give it a name or not, people still feel it.
In Which Side Are You On?, Tom Geoghegan writes that solidarity is “the only love left in this country that dare not speak its name.” Enter the word into Google news and you’ll find that in English-language papers from Lahore to Leeds, the word pops up frequently. Not so here. In American publications it appears, if at all, only in neutered form–the simple presence of group cohesion. A company sponsoring a retreat for its employees does so to encourage “corporate solidarity.” Bloomberg’s appearance on the Brooklyn Bridge on the strike’s first morning is described as a “show of solidarity” with stranded commuters.
Yet the word retains a specific moral force. I remember the thrill I felt when I received a correspondence from a union organizer who signed off, “In solidarity.” It felt, at once, a generous invitation to fellowship, and a moral call to arms. I took to signing off correspondences with it.
Recently, an editor I respect wrote to tell me that she and another editor had asked each other: “What the heck is he doing, signing his letter with that?” I asked her what was startling about it. Did it seem strange for a journalist to invoke it? Was it contrived? All of the above, she replied. I e-mailed a conservative friend. Should I not have used it? Did he think it strange, offensive? “Definitely not offensive,” he wrote back. “Might be a bit silly, but not offensive.”
The current state of solidarity in a nutshell: at once too strident and too silly.
Through our blood it runs
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “solidarity” as: “The fact or quality, on the part of communities … of being perfectly united or at one in some respect, esp. in interests, sympathies, or aspirations.” It comes from the same Latin root as “solid” and is adapted from the French solidarité, which by the 19th century, had supplanted the “fraternité” of the French Revolution as the social glue for the impending era of enlightened utopia. Whereas “brotherhood” relied on personal intimacy and a vestigial Christian conception of fellowship, solidarity was capacious enough to lasso together enormous clusters of strangers, perhaps even all of humanity. It soon became a buzzword. At the 1900 World’s Fair, the French minister of trade announced solemnly, “Science reveals to us society’s material and ethical secret, which may be summarized in one word–solidarity.”
In the mid-19th century, solidarité crossed both the English Channel and the Atlantic. Sven-Eric Liedman, a professor of intellectual history at Sweden’s Göteborg University, writes that Americans were skeptical of the French import: In 1844, one American complained of “the uncouth French word, solidarité, now coming in such use.” While the word never quite gained the same cachet it had (and continues to have) in Europe, the American left quickly adopted it. Solidarity was the name of an early anarchist journal. Eugene Debs said solidarity was “a fact, cold and impassive as the granite foundations of a skyscraper.” And, in 1915, Ralph Chaplin of the Industrial Workers of the World wrote the labor anthem “Solidarity Forever” to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Solidarity in the political vocabulary of the American left became class solidarity, workers’ solidarity, the banding together of laborers against bosses. But it possessed more than rhetorical resonance, it was also the foundation of the labor movement’s most potent tool: the strike. Only if workers stuck together under incredible pressures–violent intimidation from Pinkerton thugs and national guardsmen with rifles–could a strike be successful. In the 1880s and 1890s, as members of the Knights of Labor struck across the country for an eight-hour day, its motto was: “An injury to one is the concern of all.”
Years later, the United Auto Workers, born of a series of dramatic sit-down strikes in the 1930s, named its headquarters Solidarity House, its publication Solidarity; at its 1970 convention Walter Reuther told the delegates: “We have taken on the most powerful corporations in the world and despite their power and their great wealth, we have always prevailed, because … there is no power in the world that can stop the forward march of free men and women when they are joined in the solidarity of human brotherhood.”
While in the United States, the word has been ghettoized in the labor movement, solidarity in Europe remains part of mainstream political vocabulary. The labor rights guaranteed in the European Union charter are collectively referred to as “rights to solidarity.”
Of course, any word that packs a moral punch will soon find itself appropriated by political hucksters. To wit: For last year’s State of the Union, Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) organized fellow Republicans in a display of “solidarity” with the Iraqis who had just voted in their first election in decades. “Congress Dons Purple Clothes, Ink, for Solidarity with Iraqis,” read the AP headline. In addition to their ink-stained fingers, the article noted, “Several women, including newly appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traded their red suits for violet.”
From workers’ struggle to Condoleezza Rice’s evening wear–what a long, strange trip it’s been.
The mundane and the sublime
As elusive as its meaning may be, from the amorphous cloud of centuries’ worth of usage and citations, two general categories of solidarity emerge: the mundane and the sublime.
In its mundane sense, solidarity means a robust feeling of togetherness, a “one-for-all, all-for-one-ness” that holds fast a group of people in a common activity. It is best summed up in Benjamin Franklin’s exhortation to his co-conspirators that they must all hang together or surely they would hang separately. This kind of solidarity is morally neutral. Union members refusing to cross a picket line exemplify solidarity, but so do white homeowners in a Chicago neighborhood signing restrictive covenants to keep black families out.
Sublime solidarity, on the other hand, embodies a powerful moral aspiration to realize the fundamental fellowship of humankind. The human subject imbued with full solidarity would treat each person the same way she would treat the interests of her closest kin. My father, a community organizer and one-time Jesuit seminarian, explains why solidarity is his favorite word by sketching a continuum that ranges from pearl-clutching pity through sympathy and empathy to arrive finally at solidarity, wherein you are propelled to do something for your fellow human beings, to act as if their interests were your own.
It is this solidarity Jane Addams described as “not philanthropy nor benevolence, but a thing fuller and wider than either of these,” and what Gandhi referred to when he spoke of the “essential unity of all people.”
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Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.