The Republic Steel mill in south Chicago is sacred ground for the American labor movement. The mill is empty and silent now, the fields around it a vacant lot, but the land has been hallowed by the blood spilled in the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, when police fired on a peaceful picket line, killing 10 and wounding dozens of others.
Seventy-five years later, on May 26, across the street from Republic Steel, labor leaders, academics, rank-and-file activists and elected officials gathered at a commemoration and rally organized by the United Steelworkers under the title, “Fighting for Workers’ Rights: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
The solemn occasion brought together black, white, and Latino workers, women and men of every age: from Beatrice Lumpkin, a trade unionist and Communist who has been organizing workers for more than 75 years, to Levi Marshall-Bawden, age five weeks, son of teachers and grandson of steelworkers, sporting a bib with the slogan, “Don’t make me call my union rep!”
The event opened with a tribute to the 10 Memorial Day martyrs, where women steelworkers dressed and veiled in black recited the names of the slain trade unionists, urging participants to remember the struggle for which they gave their lives. The day’s ceremonies ended with a prayer at the monument to the fallen workers.
Between the opening tribute and the final benediction, a series of speakers celebrated the fighting spirit of American labor, but also drew attention to the acute problems facing the working class in its struggle for justice.
Edward Sadlowski, Sr., opened the morning panel by noting how little things had changed since the massacre at Republic Steel: “We haven’t done the job… we still have the same injustices and inequities that we had 75 years ago.”
Ruth Needleman, professor of Labor and Community Studies at Calumet College, echoed Sadlowski’s comments. Recalling the great victories of the labor movement (shorter hours, good wages, legal protection of the right to organize, an end to child labor…), she asked, “How is it that we are fighting today for what we already won?”
Democratic Congressman Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., answered her question in his own speech: “Labor is under attack by right-to-work laws, by Republican governors and legislatures, and by an economic ideology that sees finance as sacred and workers as disposable.”
Indeed, the need to defeat the Republicans at the ballot box was a major theme of the event. Even as speakers acknowledged that the Democratic Party has not been a fast friend of working people, they laid the blame for the worst abuses, the hardest union-busting, the most shameless corporate pandering, squarely at the door of the GOP.
Ed Sadlowski Jr. of a Wisconsin-based American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees district spoke with particular vehemence about the need to recall Scott Walker, comparing the embattled Wisconsin governor to Republic Steel chairman Tom Girdler, under whom the Memorial Day Massacre occurred.
On Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, USW President Leo Gerard was equally blunt.
“That slimy bastard never worked a day in his life,” he said. “I don’t know how working people could think of voting for him.”
Gerard continued to suggest that trade unionists honor the sacrifice of the Memorial Day martyrs by “making sure we use every bit of energy from now until November to return the president to the White House.”
But electoral organizing was far from the only arena of struggle identified by the speakers at Saturday’s event.
Sadlowski Jr. encouraged workers to understand electoral work as one tactic in a larger strategy whose ultimate expression is in militant, grassroots action like that seen last year in Madison, Wisc.
In a speech punctuated by cheers and standing ovations, Rep. Jackson Jr. called for a “constitutional agenda” for labor: a struggle for amendments guaranteeing every worker the right to a job or income, health care, and full economic and social equality across lines of race and sex.
Jackson also announced that he will introduce to the House, June 6, legislation that will immediately raise the federal minimum wage to ten dollars per hour, and peg that wage to the Consumer Price Index to protect it from inflation.
Steelworkers Gerard highlighted the necessity of building a worldwide workers’ movement to fight globalized corporate greed. He emphasized the importance of uniting workers across national boundaries in contract negotiations with multinational corporations.
In keeping with Mother Jones’ famous injunction to “pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living,” Saturday’s rally struck a balance between honoring those who gave their lives before the gates of Republic Steel, and learning from their sacrifice to build a labor movement capable of fighting, and winning, in the 21st century.
Photo: Women of Steel honor those killed in the Republic Steel Massacre at the 75th anniversary commemoration, May 26. (Ike Gittlen)