The Times dedicated space to labor in its Sunday issue, a welcome effort. The voices included, however, do not represent all the voices critical to labor’s future.
The vast majority of workers today are nonunion, female and people of color, including immigrants, youth and the unemployed.
The first Monday in September is, in fact, just one of two labor days. The American Federation of Labor set up the September celebration to oppose the class struggle that gave us labor’s international holiday: May 1. On May 1, 1886, workers across the United States went on strike nationwide for the eight-hour day and unions representation. It was the first national action by workers.
They were met by repression. Workers were killed. Following the subsequent protest at Haymarket Square in Chicago, labor’s leaders were framed for the violence caused by an unknown bomber and police attacks. May 1 is commemorated all over the world. Labor’s slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” explains solidarity.
In 2017, workers have little to celebrate, much to commemorate but even more to protest. Here in Northwest Indiana, that is certainly the case. We have a state law prohibiting any local effort to raise the minimum wage. We have a “right-to-work” union-busting law and a prohibition statewide of sanctuary cities. Women’s rights to reproductive care have been slashed to the bone. Unemployment among youth in Gary hovers close to 40 percent. Yet a $45 million building went up at IUN in Gary without hiring Gary workers. Drive up and down Broadway and count the number of African American construction workers in a city that is overwhelmingly black.
Working people in East Chicago have been repeatedly poisoned by lead, arsenic and PCBs in water, soil and air. The resistance has been powerful, but where are unions in the protest to block the permit that would allow further dumping of PCBs within a half mile of schools?
It was labor in the 19th century that fought for public education. But with the exception of teachers’ unions, where is organized labor in the struggle to stop the privatization of our schools?
What we can celebrate, though, is the increased activism in Northwest Indiana: the defeat a year ago of a GEO private immigrant prison in Hobart and then Gary; the push to pass Welcoming City ordinances (Gary and East Chicago have done so); efforts to protest the deportations at the Gary airport; community resistance in East Chicago to contamination and forced relocation; and the long-term struggle for local hiring throughout the Region. Unfortunately, “organized labor” has had little presence in these struggles.
It is critical for labor to stand united with working-class communities, immigrants, youth, workers of color and women who for so long have been some of the hardest workers, strongest union supporters and some of the least protected and compensated.
As John L. Lewis, founding leader of the Congress for Industrial Organization, said in 1937, “Raise the valleys, and the mountains will also rise.”