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'If we don't have free democratic unions we don't have a democracy.'

Berry Craig
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of stories on the just-ended Kentucky State AFL-CIO's 35th biennial state convention.


AFT Retiree


In his farewell speech at the Kentucky State AFL-CIO's recent convention in Lexington, outgoing federation president Bill Londrigan echoed The Atlantic's David A. Graham.

"Much of what Trump is discussing is un-American, not merely in the sense of being antithetical to some imagined national set of mores, but in that his ideas contravene basic principles of the Constitution or other bedrock bases of American government," Graham warned.

"They are the sorts of ideas that would have been shocking to hear from any mainstream politician just a decade ago. And yet, today, Trump—arguably the single most influential figure in the United States—says these things, and they hardly register."

"How many times in the past have you heard us really talking about democracy and what it means?" Londrigan challenged delegates. "We haven't had that conversation. We've always focused on what we're doing as a union movement to improve the wages and benefits of our members and the rest of society.

"We haven't necessarily gone out and talked about what role we play in protecting democracy. You need to think about that."

Trump tries hard to con union members into believing he's their champion. But his hostility to democracy extends to labor unions, Click here, here and here.

Londrigan, who is stepping down after 24 years, said free trade unions reflect a familiar picket line chant: "This is what democracy looks like." In a democracy, unions are able to strike without fear of being beaten, jailed, tortured or even killed, he explained.

"One real way to look at what democracy looks like is to look at what democracy isn't," he proposed.

To that end, the veteran union leader read from William L. Shirer's The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940, the journalist-historian's first-hand account of how Adolf Hitler and the Nazis destroyed Germany's fledgling democracy.

Germany’s powerful unions opposed the Nazis. So soon after Hitler took power in 1933, he duped German workers and destroyed their unions.

Explained Shirer: "When Hitler spoke to more than 100,000 workers at Tempelhof airport in Berlin, he "pronounced the motto of the day: 'Honor work and respect the worker.' He promised that May Day would be celebrated to honor German labor 'throughout the century.'

"The next morning, May 2, the trade-union offices throughout the country were occupied by the police, the S.S. and the S.A. All union funds were confiscated, the unions dissolved and the leaders arrested, beaten and carted off to concentration camp."  

Hence, Londrigan warned, "we need to listen to what happened before."

Returning to the book, Londrigan read where Shirer quoted Robert Ley, who would head the puppet German Labor Front:

"Workers! Your institutions are sacred to us National Socialists. I myself am a poor peasant's son and understand poverty....I know the exploitation of anonymous capitalism. Workers! I swear to you, we will not keep everything that exists, we will build up the protection and the rights of the workers still further."

(Hitler knew democratic socialism appealed to many German workers, so he cynically added "Socialist" to his party's name. The party became the "National Socialist German Workers' Party," or Nazi Party for short. "But it was not a socialist party; it was a right-wing, ultranationalist party dedicated to racial purity, territorial expansion and anti-Semitism — and total political control," wrote Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post. Many German industrialists helped bankroll Hitler and they made millions building and feeding the Nazi war machine. Hitler repaid the capitalists not only by eliminating free unions but also by providing slave labor.)      

Londrigan concluded by quoting Shirer again: "Within three weeks the hollowness of such promises was exposed. Hitler decreed a law bringing an end to collective bargaining and outlawing strikes."

“The union movement is what democracy's about," said Londrigan. He urged the convention to think hard about the future of American democracy because "this is a pivotal time for this country....If we don't have democratic, free unions we don't have a democracy."

Londrigan said he never imagined that he would stand before a union crowd "talking about such things as losing our democracy, and here it is right in front of us." He challenged delegates to "figure out what the hell is going to happen going forward” for the sake of "our children, our grandchildren." Otherwise, they won't "have a labor movement" or "a right to collective bargaining. It's up to spread that message and to fight back."