When I was in high school in Virginia in the mid 1960’s, the civil rights movement was raging all around us. The KKK murders of three young civil rights activists, Michael Schwerner; James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, compelled many of my generation into action. For me that meant joining a “Summer Project” in Southside, Virginia, to help register people to vote.

That was the first time I was called an outside agitator and a communist. The man who was yelling at me was spitting mad. How dare I come into his county and stir up trouble. I was 17 and had little idea what an outside agitator or a communist was. The guy, a local storeowner, was cursing and name-calling because I was tearing down “Never” posters put up by the KKK, meaning “never” to integration or African American voting.

I can’t help but remember those times today as the movement for labor rights is building all around the country. In Madison, Wisconsin; in Indianapolis, Indiana; in Columbus, Ohio, the ultra right is once again yelling “outside agitator” and “communist.” And for the same reasons.

Only today the methods are a lot more sophisticated. Today billionaires, company PACs and their political, mostly Republican, servants can buy whole networks and set up phony Astroturf tea bag organizations to do the name calling. Still, the idea is to spread fear and guilt by association. In this case, “union thug” is often added to the mix, much as Black nationalist revolutionary was often added back in the day. Just as the name-calling then had no real effect on the civil rights movement, so too, today it has little effect on the labor movement. Of course, the name-calling is not mostly to scare those already in motion, but to provoke fear in the general public, to try and scare people out of support for the demands and actions of the movement. So it’s no surprise that they are at it again.

Andrew Breitbart: remember him? The right-wing blogger who trashed ACORN and then slimed Shirley Sherrod at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Lately he’s been going after Planned Parenthood. Well now he’s also turned his greasy rightwing eye on the Communist Party.

On March 15, the Communist Party USA held a streaming videoconference on the labor upsurge in Wisconsin and across the country. Brietbart’s Big Government blog copied the video stream of part of it and put it on the web here. Of course their intent is to try and scare people with the idea that if the Communists support workers’ rights and democracy, then the unions and other organizations involved must be communists also: guilt by association.

A friend of mine at the AFL-CIO saw the Big Government video and called me to laugh about it. “Ooooh – we’re just trembling in our boots,” he said, “that is when we’re not laughing out loud.” He then told me to look here and here. In the second link they want to connect us to the Democratic party as fellow revolutionaries. How silly! The video selection shows me saying I’m surprised at the radicalization of the Democratic legislators in Wisconsin and Indiana. It might scare the rightwing, but I was also amazed that one of the Republican senators voted against Walkers union-busting bill – talk about radicalization.

Anyway, Breitbart’s video continues the right-wing tradition of slime and scare. High tech, but slime nonetheless. The redbaiting of the civil rights movement did little but help move a lot of concerned young people like me into motion.

It taught a lot of serious activists what communists and socialists are all about. It helped move a generation to the left. If the racist and bigots were so upset by folks who were throwing themselves into the fight for civil right, then we wanted to know more about them. We didn’t trust their lies, even after years of anti-communist propaganda and rhetoric. Today it has the same effect. Many are surprised to find out that the communists are fully engaged in the nationwide fight for labor rights and democracy. Now they can see in action what we are really about. Now they want to know more.

As to the outside agitator issue, that’s another laugh out loud moment. Republican right-wingers funded by the Koch brothers of California and big business are going to call us outsiders. There are no outsiders. Maybe the right hasn’t figured it out yet but the struggle of labor rights and economic justice is global now. As more and more people watch struggles unfold in Egypt, and Libya, and in Yemen and Wisconsin and in England, they find new meaning in “Workers and oppressed people of the world, unite!”


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.