CHICAGO — Even in the face of the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression, “labor solidarity does indeed work.” So declared Gail Warner before a festive Sept. 7 Labor Day event at the Pullman State Historic Monument, site of the famous 1894 strike.

Warner is one of 50 mental health workers represented by AFSCME who fought four years to negotiate their first contract with Heartland Human Services in Effingham, Illinois. Warner announced the workers had finally won and returned to work September 2 after being on strike for a year, then returning to work and being locked out for a year. “We are proud of our victory. It shows if you organize and fight you can win,” she said.

Over a dozen determined workers and trade union leaders from the front lines of battles raging across Illinois joined Warner at the event organized by the Illinois Labor History Society, Chicago and Illinois AFL-CIO and a score of other labor and community groups.

The event was the culmination of a day of statewide actions demanding health care and immigration reform, passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and creation of living wage jobs.

Progressive radio talk show host Dick Kaye, formerly a political reporter for TV Channel 5, emceed the Pullman event. Kaye told the crowd, “I was also (Screen Actors Guild) shop steward and fought (station) management until I was blue in the face. And they’re glad I’m gone. We are here as a reminder of all the labor movement has done and that the fight goes on.”

Sarita Gomez is involved in an organizing drive being conducted by United Food and Commercial Workers at Pete’s Supermarket in Chicago. “The company is a bunch of thieves. They are stealing from the workers,” Gomez angrily recounted. “We want a union. We are fighting, we are the working people and no one will stop us.”

A large contingent of schoolteachers represented by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) attended. Teachers are fighting battles on two fronts – severe underfunding and privatization efforts by the city. On this day they celebrated organizing victories by the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (AFT) at three Chicago charter schools operated by Civitas.

“Together we win, divided we fall,” said CTU president Marilyn Stewart. “We are not anti-charter. But we are pro-union and against teachers being exploited.”

“Our elected officials need to step up and do what’s necessary to fund our schools. We’re all in this together. An injury to one is an injury to all,” she said.

Also attending the event were many elected officials, including several from Chicago’s South Side community who unanimously demanded passage of health care reform in Congress.

“We have come to these hallowed grounds to remind the nation of the fierce urgency of now,” said Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL). “We are here 115 years (after the Pullman strike) to demand the federal government be on the side of people and not the health care corporations.”

Jackson said under the constitution people have the right to bear arms, but not the right to health care. He called for Congress not to pass a watered down version of health care reform. “This 2nd Congressional District representative from Illinois will not vote for a bill without a public option,” he said to loud cheers.

Also giving greetings was Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. who told the crowd, “We won last November and we’ll win in September. We’ll get a comprehensive health care bill.”

Jackson also hit the loss of 8 million jobs in the current economic crisis and called for stepped up action including for massive jobs creation. He announced a Sept. 12 march in Rockford, IL, the city with the highest unemployment in the state. “We can’t be silent in the face of attacks on workers,” he said.

A delegation of elected officials and religious leaders led by Gov. Pat Quinn kicked off Labor Day observances by delivering a letter signed by 200 prominent community members to the management of the Congress Hotel calling for an end to the six year strike, longest in the country.

Hotel management forced the workers on strike after imposing a wage cut. Today they are paying scabs $8.83/hour while the rest of the downtown hotel workers are making $14.60/hour under the master agreement. Meanwhile, contracts for 6,500 hotel workers across Chicago are expiring and a big battle is looming.

Over 2,000 immigrant workers, their families and supporters marched through the “Loop” demanding an end to the workplace raids and deportations and passage of immigration reform legislation in Congress.

One of those marching was Pedro Garcia, a member of SEIU Local 1. Garcia said he was motivated to march for an “end to the workplace raids and to say no to the separation of families. We need legalization of immigrant workers and have the same rights for all.”

Another marcher was Maria Arias who said, “I’m in support of legalization (of undocumented immigrant workers). I’m a citizen, but I’m in support of everyone else who left behind families to be here.”

“Until workers are legalized, that’s a loss for all workers. We need to bring the bar up instead of down,” said Shelly Ruzicka of Arise Chicago, a workers rights organization. “There needs to be some path to citizenship and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act so more workers can be organized.”

One of the struggles highlighted throughout the day was the strike of 70 workers at S & K Handtools who walked off the job Aug. 24 after the company unilaterally eliminated their health insurance without notice.

Teamsters Local 743 represents the workers and a large group marched in the demonstration. Local president Richard Berg told the World, “We support full equality for all. You can’t have full dignity unless people have rights and are treated equally. Labor Day is a perfect day to march for workers rights, whether it be for healthcare or immigration reform or the right to organize.”

 

 

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CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is national chair of the Communist Party USA. Previously he was Illinois organizer for the party, and is active in labor, peace and justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio and currently lives in Chicago.      

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