By BOB BUSSEL, U of O Labor Education and Research Center professor emeritus
After Richard Trumka died last August, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne praised the late AFL-CIO president as a man who “lived in solidarity.” Dionne cited Trumka’s admission that “we as a movement have not always done our best to support our brothers and sisters of color” as an example of his commitment to inclusion and his insistence that labor live up to its highest ideals.
The concept of solidarity is the most profound expression of these ideals.
Looking back in labor history, the Knights of Labor adopted the slogan “an injury to one is the concern of all” to reflect this spirit of mutual obligation and shared responsibility for the well-being of all workers. Written over 100 years ago, “Solidarity Forever” remains the anthem that is still sung at many labor gatherings. On September 19, 1981, I was proud to attend “Solidarity Day,” a demonstration in Washington, D.C. that brought together over 250,000 unionists and allies to protest Ronald Reagan’s labor and social policies.
“Solidarity is a virtue we neither discuss nor practice enough,” E. J. Dionne declared in his tribute to Trumka. “We hear a lot about compassion and empathy, and certainly need more of both. But solidarity is a deeper commitment, rooted in equality and mutuality.”
My first lesson in solidarity came early in my career, when the United Auto Workers warmly welcomed me as a young United Farm Workers organizer and showed up time and again on our picket lines. This was a union that had triumphed over the nation’s most powerful corporations. It knew what it meant to “live in solidarity,” and was committed to acting on this belief.
I recently learned about some powerful examples of solidarity in an article on a Starbucks strike in Worcester, Massachusetts. Nurses union members taught chants in English and Spanish to the strikers. A semi from a Teamsters local circled the picket line honking in support. The Carpenters Union, the local NAACP president, and elected officials joined the line. As a USPS driver explained, “I literally just pulled up and grabbed a sign.”
Of course, labor’s record on solidarity has been far from perfect. Many unions practiced policies of racial and gender exclusion, refusing to open their ranks or use their power on behalf of those they deemed unworthy. Too often, our movement has allowed jurisdictional and turf concerns to take precedence over mutual aid and support. However, we have fast been replacing “Solidarity Whenever” with “Solidarity Forever,” as labor has increasingly embraced inclusive policies, and more workers are actively supporting fellow workers who are organizing, striking, and seeking justice.
Living in solidarity is not just a matter of personal integrity; it’s also a social necessity. Solidarity presents a clear alternative to the “I’ve got mine, the heck with you” mentality all too dominant in a culture that values self-interest and individualism over mutual obligation and social sacrifice. And we especially need solidarity to confront the clear and present dangers we currently face: the climate crisis; threats to reproductive rights; and frontal assaults on democracy.
On Labor Day 2022, let’s renew our vows and pledge to “live in solidarity.” Then as now, “an injury to one” must remain “the concern of all.”