Labor Memorial Day

Growing up, May Day always conjured up Maypole dances and the smell of beautiful flowers at church festivals celebrating Mary, a reputed virgin mother. I learned that it was the day to celebrate St. Joseph the worker, the patron saint of workers, which I know today only partially acknowledges the importance of the holiday.

May 1 has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, in memory of the protesters killed at Haymarket Square, Chicago, campaigning for the eight-hour workday. The labor activists had set May 1, 1886 as the day for a nationwide strike for better working conditions, but the peaceful May 4 Chicago rally quickly became a confrontation with police and agitators.

The “Haymarket Massacre” became a rallying cry for the union movement in the United States and around the world. Through the struggle of those unionists and others who have followed in their footsteps, we have won not only the 8-hour day and the 40-hour workweek, but also overtime pay, fair labor standards and protections, job safety regulations, and laws that allow us to bargain with employers over pay and conditions of work, including pensions and health care.

So, May Day is something to celebrate. It doesn’t require a march with the trappings of war, as the despots in Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang have staged, or even with bullhorns and protest signs at the local Wal-Mart – although that would be appropriate. But it does require an understanding that nothing will be won in our society without a unified struggle against the corporate powers that control industry and, to a great degree, government.

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Mother Jones, right, helps a little girl with her shoe at the tent encampment of miners in Ludlow, Colo., in 1886.

It’s also a good time to remember those who have paid the ultimate price in the pursuit of economic justice – not only at Haymarket Square but also in other seminal labor fights. This is a time when the United Mine Workers honor the memory of the 66 men, women and children who were killed in April 1914 in an attack on striking miners’ camp at Ludlow, Colo., and in the protests that followed – one of the deadliest labor confrontations in our history.

The attack on the miners, orchestrated by oil baron John D. Rockefeller Jr. and a detective agency he hired, with the assistance of the governor of Colorado and the National Guard, is one of the saddest chapters in the long-running war on organized workers in this country. While the violence may have dissipated over time, corporations still take no prisoners in their systematic assault on worker rights.

May 1 also is the day famed schoolteacher, dressmaker and union organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones claims as her birthday, although the record is not clear on her birth. But she made sure the record was clear about Ludlow, where she went to help the families during the strike. Here’s her first-hand account from her 1925 autobiography:

“All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.

“Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the miners’ families burned. Coils of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners’ only water supply.

“After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found – unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bedsprings writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror. Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women. Done by order of Lieutenant Linderfelt, a savage, brutal executor of the will of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company.

“The strikers issued a general call to arms: Every able bodied man must shoulder a gun to protect himself and his family from assassins, from arson and plunder. From jungle days to our own so-named civilization, this is a man’s inherent right. To a man they armed, throughout the whole strike district. Ludlow went on burning in their hearts.”

Ludlow burned into the conscience of a nation, helping to improve the lot of workers everywhere, as Colorado historians explain in a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary:

The UMWA’s two-day centennial anniversary event at Ludlow May 17-18 includes family activities including a simulated coalmine, a craft area for kids and performances by local musicians. Noted authors and academics join political and labor leaders in addressing the crowd.

Arlo Guthrie is not scheduled to play, but if he were he would certainly sing his tribute to the brave miners and their families:

For more information about why Ludlow matters, check out this article in The New Yorker.

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Reinventing Labor

Although I’m not on the scene, the pressure that labor faces this week at the AFL-CIO Convention in Los Angeles is palpable across the nation. The labor movement is at a crossroads, and major changes are on the horizon. We will soon see if the federation can implement a radical plan to revive a labor movement that, left to continue its decline, is headed to the ashbin of history.

ImageThe evidence for labor’s possible demise is depressingly clear, given the depths to which this vital counterweight to corporate power has sunk since 1970. Once representing a robust 37 percent of American workers in 1954, the U.S. labor movement now represents less than 11.3 percent of the labor force – only 6.6 percent of the private sector.

As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka noted in his keynote address this morning, “At the end of the day, it’s on us to build a movement not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent. Not just the 11 percent we are right now – the 99 percent.” Trumka is proposing major changes in the structure of the federation to achieve this broader base of support, a bold move to inject formal religious, environmental, civil rights, women’s rights and other progressive advocacy into the federation’s structure.

These groups are natural allies, although sometimes the common grounds have been rocky. It remains to be seen how much a majority of unions in the AFL-CIO are willing to cede to outside organizations in the drive to survive. Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times reports here.

Leaving aside for the moment the all-important corporate assault on labor law, a little history is in order.

Back in 1984, union presidents voted to create a “Committee on the Evolution of Work,” chaired by Secretary-Treasurer Thomas R. Donahue, to anticipate changes in the workforce so the labor movement could adapt and succeed in the 21st century.

ImageThe resulting final report in 1985, “The Changing Situation of Workers and Their Unions,” served as a blueprint for important structural changes for the federation over the next several decades, including:

Union Privilege, a benefits program that increased the purchasing power of union members, from credit card and home mortgage to travel and dental care discounts.

Working America, an associate membership program that allowed nonmembers to participate in the political and community activity of the labor movement.

Those programs, as important as they have been to giving labor a toehold among workers who would not or could not join unions, have not been enough to stem the tide swamping the labor movement. But Working America, in particular, is now seen as a model for the kind of affiliation that could transform labor into  “a movement of the 99 percent,” in Trumka’s words.

By walking neighborhoods and organizing for community issues, Working America has kept millions of Americans informed and energized for election campaigns. Karen Nussbaum, the founding director of Working America, used her 9-to-5 organizing skills to organize for political action, especially in Ohio where those votes have been critical in recent elections.

These millions of Americans who are not union members have signed up to join Working America, for a nominal fee, because they want to participate in a campaign to help working families, to create good jobs and services in their communities. Using email and Twitter, plus viral marketing with YouTube and the social media, an expanded labor movement built on the Working America model, with millions of potential new members, can rival MoveOn or Organizing America to promote collective action.

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Trumka: “We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

You don’t have to be a member of a bargaining unit to be a part of the movement for social and economic justice, Trumka says. People want a culture shift, “We heard that all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways and they call their unity by all kinds of names – workers’ unions, associations, centers, networks. We need to organize ourselves in ways that fit with the jobs people do now and how the economy works now.”

This may seem obvious, but many institutions have failed to adjust to a new environment, and simply faded away. Labor must tailor its organization to match the needs of workers and the economy, and not demand that they fit the organization. We must change. Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation outlines how a broad-based associate membership for nonunion allies might work here.

How that idea is translated into practice remains to be seen. Some unions are concerned about organizations at cross-purposes on some issues – the building trades and the Sierra Club over the Keystone XL pipeline, for example – and how those differences are resolved.

ImageBut strange bedfellows can be powerful allies, as witness the blue-green alliance, which for the past decade has promoted green industries, retrofitting and community redevelopment. The advantages of forging more formal alliances far outweigh any other consideration. The only question is how much will it cost to join this super labor movement.

And will it have the punch to lure back those big unions that abandoned the federation eight years ago? One of those unions, the Teamsters, has used its “independence” to raid several AFL-CIO unions, organizing the organized at American Airlines. This kind of power grab was specifically outlawed in Constitutional Article XX, another good recommendation by the Donahue Committee.

Article XX could have undergone a facelift as a result of the unfriendly actions by the Teamsters, which still works bilaterally with other AFL-CIO unions and coordinates some political activity. But the proposed constitutional amendment to allow the federation to punish non-members for raiding member unions was left on the table. The suggestion of a new era of union hostilities certainly is not the message Trumka wants to send as he tries to grow the federation. But what is to be done with the Teamsters?

Trumka prefers to highlight the return of the United Food and Commercial Workers, a million-member union that was welcomed back to the federation with much pomp and ceremony at the opening day session on Sunday. Another prize would be the Service Employees International Union, which led the disaffiliation charge eight years ago but is also the mover and shaker behind the one-day strikes for higher wages by fast-food workers, and other campaigns for a living wage and immigrant rights.

But the big story out of the convention will be what is the shape of the labor movement going forward. There must be some concrete steps to expand the vision and the organization of the AFL-CIO. This is a time for change, and there’s really nothing to lose.

Whither Labor

Four years ago, in Pittsburgh, the American labor movement was retooling for the challenge of an economy gone terribly wrong. Rich Trumka, the fiery former coal miner and inveterate boat rocker, was assuming the helm of the AFL-CIO with a warning shot across the bow of Wall Street and K Street. And he elevated two feisty women, labor leaders in their own right, as his top lieutenants.

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Arlene Holt Baker, Rich Trumka and Liz Shuler taking the reins of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations in 2009. Holt Baker announced her retirement at the 2013 convention

This was not your father’s labor movement. Liz Shuler, the tough and polished Oregon legislative aide, electrical worker, editor and union leader was elected Secretary-Treasurer, and Arlene Holt Baker, daughter of a Texas domestic worker who rose through the ranks of AFSCME, the nation’s largest public employees union, was elected Executive Vice President. Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, was introduced with a video biography, which I’m proud to say I helped to create.

I drafted all of the speeches for Trumka and his new leadership team as they left that convention and stormed into Cleveland, site of some of the worst foreclosure rates and neighborhood blights; Atlanta, where the religious community was rallying around minorities who were being “redlined” by the mortgage industry; and Wall Street, scene of the crime. In Cleveland, as in every location, Trumka decried the human cost of globalization: “The real tragedy of globalization,” he said, “is that corporations have lost their sense of community. They’ve turned their backs on America. … The system is broken.”

In the boisterous rally before tens of thousands on Wall Street, Trumka recited the litany of abuses by the titans of Wall Streets and said, “we’re going to fight you!” “We’re going to tell the truth about what you’re doing,” he said. “And we’re advocating for new regulations to make sure the financial sector is the servant to the real economy, and not its master.”

In that one whirlwind weekend, Trumka also addressed labor-environmental issues in a New York international confab and supported a New York borough community-based development campaign spearheaded by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), a former member of the federation.

It was a brilliant beginning, but many wonder whatever happened to that determined leader and his team. True, they’ve spent a lot of time cultivating a “new base,” younger workers, students and low-wage workers. But little has been done to heal the wounds of the labor movement, except for Trumka’s recent announcement that the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) will rejoin the federation.

That is big news, and it will not go unnoticed at this convention. The UFCW represents more than a million retail workers at America’s groceries and other services, and it’s a mature union with a storied history within the overall labor movement. And it’s no coincidence that the UFCW is the parent union of the RWDSU. Trumka has been persistent in his pursuit of the Food and Commercial Workers and calls Joe Hansen, UFCW’s president, a good friend.

The UFCW was one of the major unions that defected from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – a ceremonious “disaffiliation” led by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters. Trumka’s professed goal in assuming the presidency in 2008 was to reunite the labor movement. The UFCW decision is a small first step.

Still, the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) announced last month that it is leaving the federation, and the East Coast-based International Longshoreman’s Association could follow. Others have indicated their irritation at Trumka and current federation policies, and particularly the AFL-CIO’s close affiliation with President Obama.

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Trumka and President Obama have made no secret about their fondness for each other.

Trumka’s political moxie definitely is at issue given his strong support for President Obama, who he has hailed a hero for working class Americans, someone who is working for our best interests. The jury is still out on Obama, who has consulted with labor even as he ignored its counsel. Obama has fallen far short of labor’s proposals for financial reform, among other issue.

As the 2013 convention gets underway this week, Obama’s promise and resolve are very much on the line as he prepares to address the delegates on Monday, Sept. 9. Obama has received his share of criticism among unions for his less than wholehearted support for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its champion, Elizabeth Warren, now senator from Massachusetts who will deliver what is described as “one of the keynotes” of the convention.

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Elizabeth Warren, apostle for bank regulation.

Obama also has been slow to address major concerns raised by unions about his signature health care program, Obamacare. Unless changes are made, the law will penalize multi-employer plans that provide good benefits at minimal cost. Also, we need to know what avenues exist for people who fall through the cracks of states that refuse to extend the benefits.

Four years ago, I was at the AFL-CIO convention working on the speeches for Trumka, Shuler and Holt Baker in Cleveland, Atlanta, Columbus and New York’s Wall Street. It was an exciting time in which everything seemed possible. Four years later, while I may wish I were there in L.A. with the gang, I’m thinking I’m in the best position now to take stock in what is happening.

Join me here over the next week or so to learn more about the history and the future of the American labor movement. They are indelibly linked.

Lessons in Social Justice

The Fairness at Patriot rally in Henderson, Ky., on Tuesday sent me tripping back through time. Here we were at the County Courthouse at the edge of Henderson’s idyllic Central Park, where I worked and played for years, demanding justice for those who mine coal while celebrating the continued importance of that resource to the community.

In this blog, I have written about the history of King Coal and Henderson, and the Mine Workers struggle for justice, including the series of rallies in St. Louis that challenged the bankruptcy court to do the right thing, which, sadly, it did not.  But nothing hit home quite so dramatically as the rally on June 4.

Again there was the deep sense of the moral outrage – expressed by politicians as well as labor leaders – for the abandonment of mining families and retirees by Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, the villains in this story. They dumped all the legacy liabilities and conveyed few of their assets onto a company that seemed to be created to fail, Patriot Coal, now in bankruptcy.

As eloquent as the speakers were, none captured the spirit of the moment as well as an associate pastor at Henderson Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church, where I once served as an altar boy and choirboy.  Opening the rally with a homily and a prayer, the Rev. Anthony Shonis set the mood and the story for the event:

Father Shonis, a native of Pennsylvania coal country who has ministered at the Henderson parish for the past decade, told the story not only of the rally but also of the union that has struggled for justice in the coalfields since 1890, when its founding President John Mitchell led the charge against the ruthless coal barons of the day.

He also invoked the memory of John L. Lewis, the legendary president of the Mine Workers who revolutionized the labor movement by leading the CIO to organize industrial unions — from auto and steel to utilities and furniture manufacturers. The history of American labor largely began and was transformed through the Mine Workers – although the Locomotive Engineers, Carpenters and other craft unions may claim earlier roots.

It was Mine Workers’ struggle that inspired so many to strive and succeed. And in the words of Father Shonis’s prayer, that ongoing struggle may also hold the keys to the future:

Today, the fight that UMWA President Cecil Roberts calls “the Mine Workers Traveling Salvation Show” is offering a warning and a prescription to workers of every stripe, in every industry. The signs waved across the park with the legend, “Are You Next?” carry special significance in an era when U.S. corporations are using bankruptcy courts to dump retirement obligations and seek unilateral changes in existing contracts.

ImageThe UMWA campaign already has generated legislation in the House and Senate to protect retirement benefits for the miners, as well as calls for changes in the nation’s bankruptcy laws to prevent the easy relief for U.S. corporations at the expense of employees, a process that Roberts likened to “curb service” – just drive in and get what you want, few questions asked.

“Let’s just move the bankruptcy court to the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Roberts said. “They have long lines. You’ve got to have your paperwork in order. At least they have to stand in line with their paperwork!”

Roberts decried that the nation has become “a nation of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations,” saying that the Fairness at Patriot campaign can help the nation get back on track. “I’ve got a message for Peabody and Patriot and the judicial system in this country,” he said. “This is a movement of the people, by the people and for the people.”

I felt a sense of great pride as I listened to his words, to be a part of this democratic movement that bubbles up from the people who work for a living. And even though I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, I was also proud of Father Shonis and the Church’s longstanding campaign for social justice that he represented so well at the rally in my hometown.

The Church’s teachings about social and economic justice are lessons I will carry with me all my life. They underline the truth and the strength of the labor movement, a galvanizing influence on our people and our democracy. Thanks for the reminder, Father Shonis.