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Londrigan issues warning in his last speech as AFL-CIO president

As he closed out this year’s convention, outgoing president Bill Londrigan warned delegates about a grave threat facing our nation.

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Bill Londrigan speaking at the last day of the AFL-CIO state convention. (photo by Berry Craig)

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.”

Londrigan continued by challenging the delegates. “How many times in the past have you heard us really talking about democracy and what it means? 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.”

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, laws guarantee the right of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and even strike.

“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. Shirer wrote that soon after Hitler took power in 1933, he duped German workers and destroyed their unions.

Shirer explained that 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 long-term 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 here” 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 us to spread that message, and to fight back.”

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY

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