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Unionists march to “stop the war on workers” in what protesters dubbed “Solidarity Saturday” on March 26, in Los Angeles.(Photo by: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Stand in Solidarity

If conservatives take away unions, they will take away America’s middle class.

BY Kevin O'Donnell

The impact of the 2010 midterm elections is painfully clear. In Washington and in state capitols around the country, Republicans are enacting a right-wing agenda that guts Social Security, curtails union rights, restricts abortion, defunds public media, stops progress toward universal healthcare and scapegoats immigrants. For May 2011 issue's cover package, "The War at Home," In These Times turned to labor movement strategist Stephen Lerner (Glenn Beck’s latest bête noire) and seven other progressive writers and activists to report on the battles to preserve American rights and institutions. These are their dispatches from the frontlines. —The editors

To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dec. 7, 1941, Sept. 11, 2001, and Feb. 11, 2011 are all dates that will live in infamy. Everyone recognizes the first two dates–the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Twin Towers–but few will recognize the third, the day Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced legislation to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights. Think this is over-the-top rhetoric? Think again.

Walker’s assault–and copycat attacks by radical conservatives in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, New Hampshire and elsewhere–is a blow to the heart of our country. If conservatives can take away workers’ unions, next to go will be the things that workers in unions have achieved–the end of child labor, the eight-hour workday, the weekend, workplace safety standards, and millions of jobs that allow people to visit their doctor, buy a home, save for college and retire with dignity.

If conservatives take away unions, they will take away America’s middle class. Millions of ordinary Americans will suffer. The suffering will not be instantaneous, but it will be broad, lasting and profound.

The good news is that Americans everywhere are taking steps to defend the country. Walker’s actions in Wisconsin spurred weeks of protest, with some demonstrations attracting nearly 100,000 people, including students, farmers, teachers, police, firefighters and nurses.

On February 26, MoveOn.org, AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the AFL-CIO, American Rights at Work, USAction and dozens of other progressive organizations sponsored “Defend the American Dream” rallies in every state capit0l in America.

At the time of this writing the movement is slated to continue with “We Are One” actions to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. On April 4, 1968 King was struck down by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, where he was standing up for sanitation workers who were trying to form a union with AFSCME to improve their brutal working conditions.

Hundreds of events are planned. Many participants will wear red while engaging in teach-ins, moments of silence, coordinated walk-ins (wherein people walk to work together as a show of strength), leafleting, rallies, demonstrations and informational pickets at universities, workplaces and public spaces from coast to coast.

Solidarity is in the air. Millions are marching, many for the first time. The cooperation among America’s often discordant unions is growing every day. The Wall Street Journal is even railing against protest music. As evidenced by one protest sign in Madison (“You screw us, we multiply!”), the demonstrations have been inspiring, creative and fun.

But it isn’t enough.

If we are to stop the attack, our actions will have to be bigger, more focused and, yes, more rowdy. Such measures must, of course, adhere to the nonviolent principles of Martin Luther King. As Stephen Lerner writes in this issue, these activities, like the original Tea Party, are as American as apple pie.

The conservative attack on our country is about more than economics. Union members are the largest, best organized and most effective political force that we progressives have. With unions out of the picture, radical conservatives backed by corporate cash will dominate elections. This takeover of American democracy will mean the loss of much of the progress we have made not only in the area of working conditions, but also in environmental protections, civil liberties and civil, LGBT and women’s rights.

No, you won’t see cable newscasts with nifty “Attack on America” graphics behind the anchor. But progressives should call it what it is–an attack on our nation. Defend America, she’s worth it.

Kevin O'Donnell is the Communications Director of SEIU’s “Stand for Security” campaign, which seeks to improve jobs and public safety in our communities.

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