It’s time to revisit Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous quote:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Niemoller (1892-1984) first made this statement in 1946 after he was freed from a Nazi prison where he had been held since 1937, and he repeated it in many versions since then, mainly to urge people to break out of their apathy and get involved when groups are being persecuted.
One thing is certain and that is that in the various versions trade unionists were often listed as groups being targeted for destruction. Niemoller at first supported Adolf Hitler’s NazI party, but soon left it when he realized its true purpose; in a sense, his famous quote became his own penance for his earlier actions.
It’s ironic that the Nazi (the National Socialist Workers Party) proclaimed to be a party for the workers and the downtrodden; in doing so, they fooled many into supporting their earlier goals. And yes, free trade unions were among the first to be destroyed, being outlawed in January, 1934, one year after the Nazis took control. In the place of the traditional unions, the Nazis established the German Labour Front in which all workers in larger workplaces were expected to join; while union membership was nominally voluntary, those who failed to join the state-sponsored unions were looked upon to be suspicious. The Labour Front’s main purpose was to serve the Fatherland, not to protect the rights of its worker members.
Many union supporters compared Scott Walker’s action in passing Act 10 with the actions of Hitler; Walker supporters roundly criticized such comparisons with the man responsible for butchering six million Jews and causing the carnage of World War II. Also, many rightwingers claimed Hitler favored unions, as shown by his establishment of the Labour Front. They were, of course, dead wrong; the Labour Front was a tool of the Nazi regime, not a free trade union capable of questioning actions of the Nazis.
Thus, the comparison of Walker’s actions with those of Adolf Hitler’s in killing the free trade union movement is chillingly accurate. (Certainly, no one would claim Walker or others like him would exterminate millions as Hitler’s Nazis did.)
Today, trade unionists are being assaulted by a cohort of right-wing politicians (i.e. Scott Walker in Wisconsin) and their Big Business allies. Make no mistake about it: Walker’s key purpose in offering Act 10 (the law passed in 2011 to ban most collective bargaining rights for public workers) was not to save taxpayer dollars but to weaken, if not kill, an effective trade union movement in Wisconsin. His success in such anti-union legislation has made him a hero among big business and rightwingers alike.
Since less than 10% of workers today are in union jobs, there’s a tendency to read this and say, “so what?” It doesn’t matter to me.
As Pastor Niemoller’s words so eloquently tell us: it should matter to workers and to all persons who believe in democracy.
Labor unions in the United States are “free” organizations; outside of following a few procedural rules that require them to be democratically run, they are free to advocate and take actions, regardless what the government may like. If they don’t like an action of government, they are free to campaign against it.
Right now, the labor movement represents the ONLY relatively powerful institution blocking their way to turning our government over to the whims and ambitions of Big Business or the one percent. To weaken labor is to help lead the way to a government run by and for the privileged few. Can fascism be far behind?
Authoritarian regimes, like Stalin’s Russia, routinely ban free trade unions, mainly to weaken one of the few institutions capable of opposing their rule. Even in today’s Russia where trade unions enjoy greater freedoms than in the past Soviet Union times, President Vladimir Putin is beginning to crack down on some of those freedoms, precisely for the fear that they would oppose his increasingly dictatorial rule.
Yes, Labor unions remain a bulwark of democracy.