A parade of several thousand union members flooded Detroit’s downtown streets on Sept. 2 to celebrate Labor Day 2002 and to remind Detroiters that “we are the union.”

After the parade participants joined other thousands at the 6th annual LaborFest, a gathering of unions, political organizations, community organizations, and the friends and families of labor union members. Entertainment was provided by the Motor City Rhythm and Blues Pioneers, the Latin Counts, and the UNITE chorus. Food and drink, games, floats, information booths, and exhibits are the usual fare at Detroit’s Labor Day celebrations.

Labor Day 2002 comes in the middle of times of struggle, as the labor movement across the country demands “no more business as usual,” that the Bush administration bring corporate criminals to justice, provide compensation for swindled workers, and take measures to curb the deepening recession. It was against this background of struggle that Detroit workers took the day to celebrate the wins and losses of the last year.

Theatrical workers and health care workers saw bargaining agreements reached for the first time. Transit workers in the Detroit-Windsor tunnel won a new contract after several weeks of being locked out. A newly formed UNITE local is on the verge of an important victory in the local garment industry.

Residents of Southfield, a major Detroit suburb, won a victory when the city council voted to enact a living wage ordinance. State employees in United Autoworkers (UAW) Local 6000, successfully launched a petition drive to place an initiative called True Collective Bargaining for State Workers on the November ballot.

None of these victories would have been possible without the unity of the UAW, the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO, other central labor councils, retiree and senior organizations, and labor-led coalitions such as the Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice. It is significant that each of the struggles was undertaken with a growing knowledge of the need for solidarity to defeat the political forces on the right that push this agenda.

Another important step has been the formation of the Detroit Labor Committee for Peace and Justice (DLCPJ) that enjoys the support of Michigan Congressman John Conyers. DLCPJ has sought to bring the issues of endless war on Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, or anywhere, into the labor movement.

According to its missions statement DLCPJ “oppose[s] draining essential public programs, such as education, health care and the social security trust, for a massive giveaway of tax dollars to wealthy corporations under the guise of national security and economic stimulus.” DLCPJ was initiated by UAW Local 909 and is supported by members of numerous Detroit-area unions and retirees’ organizations. Its program opposes attacks on immigrants and civil liberties and calls for unity in “challenging George Bush’s foreign and domestic policy more aggressively.”

On more local issues, Michigan workers continue to face attacks from the outgoing ultra-right administration of Gov. John Engler. In places like Flint and Highland Park, Engler used local fiscal difficulties as an excuse to intervene and sell off public services to the highest bidders, putting hundreds of union workers out of jobs. His recent attempt to privatize Michigan’s publicly-owned Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance corporation was exposed as a scheme to enrich a few of his big business friends. His attacks on public employees began with attacks on Detroit public school teachers when he pushed Public Act 112, outlawing real collective bargaining rights for school workers, through the legislature.

Dick Posthumus, the Republican nominee for governor, has promised to continue this anti-union trend and attempt to undermine local living wage ordinances by withholding funding for projects that would fall under the jurisdiction of these laws.

The Posthumus-Engler agenda was rejected in the Draft Program of the Communist Party USA, Michigan District, for a labor-led progressive agenda for the 2002 elections and beyond.

In its call for unity of labor and all democratic movements, the Communist program highlighted the anti-worker and anti-people abuses of the Engler years, urged Michigan voters to turn the tide against the ultra-right by continuing to demand greater prescription drug coverage and wider health care insurance coverage. It also called for more money to fund more and better health care facilities.

Additionally, the program urged the defense and strengthening of public education by refusing to balance the state budget at the expense of education funds, retirement benefits for teachers and school workers, and overturning P.A. 112. The Communist Party’s draft program concluded, “we think defeating the right wing in November is good practice for building a hopeful future.”

Workers in Detroit have scored a number of accomplishments this year, but unity against the right wing agenda will be decisive in defeating the main obstacles to preserving the only organizations workers have to defend themselves against “Englerization” and to insure even bigger and more momentous victories. Detroit workers know that their standard of living depends on the strength and endurance of the organizations they have to protect themselves from the worst effects of these trends, their unions.

Joel Wendland is the managing editor of Political Affairs.
He can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net