Today in labor history: Huge Solidarity Day march in Washington

On September 18, 1981, an estimated 500,000 unionists converged on Washington D.C., for a Solidarity Day march and rally protesting Republican policies.

On the death of Ronald Reagan, our senior political correspondent Tim Wheeler wrote:

In 1981 the 12,000 members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) went on strike against brutal stress on their jobs that endangered their own health and the safety of airline passengers and crews. Within 48 hours President Ronald Reagan, just months after he became president, fired the air controllers and brought in military personnel as strikebreakers.

Wall Street banks and corporations greeted Reagan’s smashing of PATCO with joy. He was giving them a green light to bust unions even as they spouted clichés about “labor-management partnership.”

The labor movement responded by staging “Solidarity Day,” Sept. 19, 1981 with hundreds of thousands of union members marching past the White House to protest Reagan’s union-busting.

At the age of 76, long-time union activist Irene Hull was one of nearly 60 union members from Washington State who flew via Canada to join in the “Solidarity Day” march protesting President Reagan’s firing of PATCO workers.

Copper miner Steve Valencia recalls how Salt of the Earth’s Lorenzo Torrez helped encourage the march. In 1981, Valencia was recording secretary of United Steelworkers Local 6912. “Lorenzo suggested that I write a letter to AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland urging him to host Solidarity Day, which I did.”

The late, great Fred Gaboury was labor editor of People’s World when he died in 2004. PW Editor Teresa Albano wrote in his obituary:

Fred was a field organizer of the Chicago-based Trade Unionists For Action and Democracy (TUAD) during the 1970s, Gaboury helped mobilize the rank and file movement seeking to break out of the “stand pat” trade unionism of AFL-CIO presidents George Meany and Lane Kirkland.

That movement reached a high point in the spring of 1981 when union activists met in Buffalo, N.Y., to plan a huge march on Washington. Kirkland opposed the march but support mushroomed so quickly that he reversed course. On “Solidarity Day,” Sept. 19, 1981, hundreds of thousands of trade unionists marched in the streets of Washington protesting Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controllers union. Gaboury organized the distribution of nearly 100,000 copies of the TUAD publication Labor Today at the march.

Covering a Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) meeting in 2003, our labor reporter Roberta Wood wrote: It was a resolution passed at its 1980 meeting, at the initiative of steelworkers in the Chicago chapter, that first called for a national labor march on Washington against the anti-labor policies of the Reagan administration. After many locals and internationals adopted that call, the AFL-CIO called the historic Solidarity Day March in 1981.

In U.S. labor history, the significance of the Solidarity Day march, especially the tremendous grass roots organizing that led to it, cannot be underestimated.


Barbara Russum
Barbara Russum

Barbara Russum is a longtime reader and supporter of People's World who worked in production and program support from 2003 to 2021. She is particularly impressed by the new, young writers who submit stories from their union organizing, campus work, and neighborhood actions. "I encourage everyone to read People's World, share articles on social media, and donate to support the work."