The Story of Labor Day


Jonah Walters writes.

American workers did contribute at least one lasting legacy to the international movement for working-class liberation — a workers’ holiday, celebrating the ideal of international solidarity, and eagerly anticipating the day when workers might rise together to take control of their own lives and provide for their own well-being.

That holiday is May Day, not Labor Day.

Read More: Labor Day is May 1st | Jacobin

To Fight the Good Fight

Over the past four years, as I began to awaken politically, it’s become important to me not only to try to recognize and understand the causes of injustices in our society, but to actually make a contribution to the struggles against them. The challenge has been to identify opportunities to make a difference, living in a small (and fairly conservative) metropolitan area. Outside the realm of party politics, which I have mostly rejected as a dead end, there is a decided dearth of organized activism in my community. This was even more the case when we lived in a small rural community in the southern part of the state.

I more or less stumbled on to a set of pursuits that form the core of my activism. I didn’t set out consciously or methodically, but simply started working on things that I thought were of value, and only realized in hindsight that they essentially comprise a political program that turns out to be just what I would have wanted to undertake. Here’s a quick list of some of those things. I share it not to pat myself on the back, nor to seek the approval or praise of others, but to spark the imagination of folks who face a similar predicament. I’d also love to hear about your projects, and what has drawn you to your own personal activism, so please feel free to comment below.

I joined a union. In another day, even the billionaires recognized the value of labor unions to democracy. None other than J. Paul Getty once said “I do believe in unions and believe that free, honest labor unions are our greatest guarantees of continuing prosperity and our strongest bulwark against social or economic totalitarianism.” Tyrants recognize this, and have routinely suppressed organized labor on the path to total power.

Although I was raised in a union home, I had never held a union card in my life. I worked in jobs where we were not organized, and it never occurred to me that we could be. Once I became more conscious, and began researching options, I was delighted to learn that the Industrial Workers of the World organize the worker, not the job. I joined the Wobblies in November of 2011. My location and the type of work I do precludes me from being a participant in most direct face-to-face activities of the union branch, but the opportunity to lend support and solidarity to my union sisters and brothers (and to learn from them) remotely has been wonderful. I’m now also a dues paying member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981. The mere act of identifying as a union member has brought a new perspective to daily life, and has opened up conversations and opportunities to further the cause that were not possible before.

I became active in the NAACP. Much like joining a union, it had not occurred to me that someone like me could be a part of an organization like the NAACP. If you click on the “About” section of this site, you’ll see from the picture that I am a grey headed white guy. I didn’t know that the NAACP was open to people of all races, and didn’t know whether I would be welcome in its ranks. But when I read about some pamphleting that had been done in our county by the KKK, I felt compelled to do something formal and substantive to stand against racism. I found welcoming arms and the fellowship of kindred souls in Kankakee Branch 3035. I created a new website for the branch, got involved in the city council campaigns of some of our members, and am currently working to organize a community town hall on race.

I marched for marriage equality. This was at my wife’s prompting. It was a small demonstration, organized by the LGBT community and their allies, friends and family members here. We walked from the farmers market gazebo to the county courthouse, where we heard speeches and learned about the bills that were being considered in the state legislature. Besides showing solidarity by taking a visible public stand for justice, my wife and I also became acquainted with some of the local organizers. We joined them when they met with our state representative, and advocated for their rights under the principle of religious liberty. I also subsequently helped organize their tabling at the county fair. These efforts seemed almost trivial to me at the time, but thousands of similar efforts across the nation brought the movement to victory.

I started a community singalong and a radical reading group. Pete Seeger had great confidence in the power of song to change the world. He said this.

“Finding the right songs and singing them over and over is a way to start. And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

So on May Day of 2014, we held our first gathering of the Key City Singalong. We sing a wide variety of songs, in fact, everyone who attends gets to decide what we’ll sing. So it’s not all specifically songs about social issues, but we do sing our share of old union hymns and other songs of relevance. We are also creating a small community of people who demonstrate, each month, that there are things of value in the world that are not commodities.

This month will also mark the first meeting of the Chicago Southland Jacobin Reading Group. It’s too early to tell whether we’ll be successful in creating and sustaining any scale of interest in monthly discussions of explicitly socialist ideas in the area where I live, but I have hopes.

Both of these events are held at Feed Arts and Cultural Center, where I’m a resident artist. The place also hosts lots of other wonderful activities to build community and nurture the arts. We’ve even had concerts from notable singers in the political folkie tradition, like Matthew Grimm and David Rovics.

I help out at a food pantry. Pope Francis says this is how prayer works: “You pray for the hungry, then you feed them.” Although our family contributes funds to organizations that feed and care for others, I wanted to get involved directly in some work that helps to alleviate the effects of poverty and meets the basic needs of people in our community. After speaking with Sister Denise Glazik, who is a Pastoral Associate at our church, I began volunteering at the Center of Hope. It’s about an hour of honest work on Thursday morning, unloading trucks, sweeping and mopping floors, stocking shelves and such. I find it to be one of the most satisfying and rewarding activities of the entire week.

I’m working to organize against the military recruitment of our children. While attending a talk in Chicago last month about the realities of the war on terror, one question was stirring in my heart. What can I do about this? Our nation’s unrestrained militarism around the globe seems like just too big an issue to approach. Fortunately, the presenters mentioned in their talk that under the No Child Left Behind legislation, schools were compelled to give the personal data of students to military recruiters unless a parent explicitly opts out, and that groups formed to educate parents on the issue were springing up around the country. I’ve begun to reach out to school board members and others about this issue, and plan to make it a project in the coming months.

Will any of this matter? Considering the massive and daunting problems we face, we may not know for a long time, perhaps not even in our lifetimes, whether any of our efforts will be enough. I do know that each of these activities are concrete, practical and have potential. Beyond that, they make sense in terms of the grand narrative of our era. The principal menace in our world today is an ideology centered on corporate power, militarism, racism, anti-intellectualism and attacks on freedom and democracy. So to fight the good fight we join unions. We work against the war machine. We build friendships and unity across racial lines. We support the arts and cultural literacy. We engage in intellectual pursuits and discussions. We feed the hungry.

When we do any of that, we rise up against the forces of greed and death. Whether it will be enough to turn the tide in that struggle, I know not. But I must believe that it matters. There’s just no sense in believing that there’s nothing we can do.


The Irony of a Union Win

Michael Kazen writes in Dissent.

The hard struggle the AFL-CIO just spearheaded could become yet another example of a long, ironic tradition in labor politics: When union activists fight for issues that clearly affect large numbers of ordinary people, they often win. But when they try to persuade voters and legislators to defend or expand the membership of their own organizations, they usually lose.

Read More: Why Unions Win When They Win | Dissent Magazine

Things That Caught My Eye This Week

Here are some links of interest that I ran across this week.

Rauner, Public Unions Not Close On Contracts

The contracts for more than 40,000 Illinois state workers will expire at the end of the month, and their unions and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s negotiating team apparently aren’t close to agreeing on new ones. The impasse has gotten more public attention in recent days, with union members staging nearly 100 protests throughout the state to rally public support to their calls for fair contracts. With the potential for a far-reaching strike or lockout looming, here are things to know.

What Would a Sanders Administration Do on K-12 Education?
The most progressive candidate in the 2016 race has some interesting ideas on public education.

Right-to-Work’s big moment | TheHill
People can reasonably debate the merits of unions or how labor law should balance the interests of employers, employees and labor organizations. But the contemporary push for Right-to-Work, like its historical predecessors, doesn’t do this. Today it is being used to burnish the credentials of aspiring politicians on the right and as a blunt instrument to defund a political adversary. The well-being of employees has always been much further down the list.

The Real Meaning of Obama’s Trade Defeat | Robert Kuttner
The real story here is a deep and principled split between the Congressional wing of the Democratic Party, most of whose members are still fairly progressive, and a presidential wing that has been in bed with Wall Street at least since Bill Clinton and Bob Rubin (who among his many other roles is the mentor and patron of Obama’s top trade official, Mike Froman).

To be an anarchist | Adbusters
When an “entire society,” i.e., almost everything around you, seemingly to the smallest detail, reflects assumptions contrary to your most deeply held convictions about what the world is and can be,  merely to persevere in imagining and acting on the assumption of the possibility of another kind of world is, in itself, a monumental and continual effort of resistance.

RWU Statement on Amtrak 188

Here are some excellent thoughts from Railroad Workers United concerning the derailment of Amtrak 188.

If we are serious about preventing future catastrophes of this nature, we must equip railroad workers with the necessary tools to enable them to perform the job safely. Pointing fingers at this or that employee (at any level in the company, union or management) might make some folks feel better, but it does little or nothing to prevent future accidents. Railroad Workers United believes it is time we learn from these terrible tragedies and get serious about implementing the necessary measures to ensure safe railroad operations.

Read More: Railroad Workers United: The Wreck of #AMTRAK188 Talking Points From RWU

From The Jungle to The Chain

Bill Droel takes a look at the meat packing industry as exposed in The Chain: Farm Factory and the Fate of Our Food by Ted Genoways, a new book in the tradition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

A dirty and perhaps infected carcass more likely makes its way down the line. Workers suffer more injuries, including a nerve-damaging infection that is only detected later. Our relatively inexpensive meat “comes at a high cost to its workers.”

Read More: Food Processing | Catholic Labor Network

Chicago May Day 2015


May Day Celebration – Noon to 1: 30 PM Haymarket Memorial, Corner of DesPlaines & Randolph

May Day 2015 March, Rally, and Noise Demonstration – 2:30 PM Union Park

Illinois Labor History Society Annual Membership Meeting – 5 to 7 PM Chicago Federation of Musicians, 656 Randolph Street, Haymarket Square

The Joe Hill Roadshow – 9 PM Hideout, 1354 West Wabansia Avenue, Chicago

Privatization: Profits Over People

Paul Buchheit at Common Dreams takes a look at The Project on Government Oversight’s latest report on privatization. They found that in 33 of 35 cases the federal government spent more on private contractors than on public employees for the same services. The authors of the report said “Our findings were shocking.”

For the U.S. Postal Service, for instance, it costs less than 50 cents to send a letter to any remote location in the United States. For an envelope with a two-day guarantee, FedEx and UPS charge about four to five times as much.

USPS is so inexpensive, in fact, that Fedex actually uses the U.S. Post Office for about 30 percent of its ground shipments. As Ralph Nader notes, the USPS has not taken any taxpayer money since 1971, and if it weren’t required by an inexplicable requirement to pre-fund employee benefits for 75 years, it would be making a profit. Instead, this national institution has been forced to cut jobs and routes and mailing centers.

In other words, privatization places profits over people.

Read the entire article: How Privatization Degrades Our Daily Lives | Common Dreams | Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community.

Solidarity with our ILWU Brothers and Sisters

A dispute between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association has drawn the attention of President Obama, who has now sent Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to meet with the sides. It is not yet known what specific message was conveyed to the negotiators. Some have speculated that the Obama Administration is threatening to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports in the event of either a strike or a lockout.

A Department of Labor press release on the matter stated the following. “On behalf of President Obama, Secretary Perez made clear that the dispute has led to a very negative impact on the U.S. economy, and further delay risks tens of thousands of jobs and will cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars.” It also said that the two sides must come to “immediate agreement to prevent further damage to our economy and further pain for American workers and their employers.”

This sort of talk seems a far cry from Obama’s campaign rhetoric, where he pledged to “put on a comfortable pair of shoes” himself and “walk on that picket line with you, as President of the United States of America.”

The PMA, an association of the owners of the 29 ports on the West Coast, has stepped up a media campaign to draw attention to the harm that the dispute may be doing to the larger U.S. economy. The President of the ILWU, Robert McEllrath, fired back two weeks ago, accusing the PMA of distorting the facts, threatening to close the ports and bargaining in the media instead of at the table.

“What the ILWU heard yesterday is a man who makes about one million dollars a year telling the working class that we have more than our share,” said McEllrath. “Intensifying the rhetoric at this stage of bargaining, when we are just a few issues from reaching an agreement, is totally unnecessary and counterproductive.”

The PMA on Wednesday distributed letters directly to workers at major ports from Los Angeles to Washington state that detailed what they called their last, best and final contract offer, apparently in hopes that the rank-and-file will pressure union negotiators to make concessions.

As the situation unfolds, we may get an opportunity to see whether or not the Obama Administration truly stands with the workers.

For nearly a century, the West Coast longshore and warehouse workers have stood, time and again, on the front lines of the struggle for freedom and justice. They deserve our attention, our respect and our support.

Solidarity Forever Centennial

On a windblown, gray Chicago day 100 years ago, January 17, 1915, Ralph Chaplin left his home on the South Side for a raucous, poor person’s rally at the city’s famous women’s center, Hull House. He asked a visiting friend he’d met organizing coal miners with Mother Jones to listen to the lyrics of a new tune he had been working on. Here’s the story behind one of the most beloved Labor Hymns.

Read the article: ‘Solidarity Forever’ Written 100 Years Ago, Today | Labor Notes.