At Haymarket, workers demand EFCA and immigrant rights

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3635.jpgCHICAGO – As the skies began clearing here May 1, several hundred enthusiastic labor activists gathered for the annual celebration at the Haymarket Monument to honor the Haymarket martyrs and step up the fight for workers rights. Workers from December’s Republic Windows sit-in and a group of young anarchists also participated.

The monument sits at Randolph and Des Plaines Avenues, the site of the famous Haymarket rally for the 8-hour day in 1886 in which a bomb was thrown by an unknown assailant killing several police and injuring many protesting workers. Mass hysteria followed, authorities ransacked trade union halls and eight labor leaders were rounded up. After a show trial four of the leaders were framed on false charges and hanged. The others were later pardoned. And so the Haymarket Martyrs were born.

In what Tim Yeager, secretary treasurer of UAW Local 2320 termed, “the dawning of a new day” in the wake of the November election victory, speakers expressed great hope that passage of the Employee Free Choice Act and immigration reform would occur in congress this year. Hope was tempered by acknowledgement that passage would take a great and determined fight.

“Democracy is not rich unless labor laws are strong,” said James Thindwa, director of Chicago Jobs with Justice. “The same forces opposing EFCA oppose changing immigration law. We can’t allow 12 million people to stay on the margins without rights. The only answer is a path to citizenship and the right to join unions with other workers.”

The observance came after thousands of people marched and rallied for immigration reform earlier in the day. The Haymarket Martyrs were organizing workers in Chicago’s booming industrial factories, most of who were recent immigrants. The parallel to today’s struggles was not lost on Marguerita Klein, an organizer for Workers United. She said, “Hopefully we will have a new immigration reform law by the end of the year. But we can’t stop there. We don’t want exploited immigrant workers with documents.”

“Until there is justice for all workers, our work is not done,” said Jorge Ramirez, secretary treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor. Ramirez said many of those attending the celebration were deeply involved in ongoing organizing drives in Chicago seeking justice from unscrupulous employers blocking their organizing efforts. These include Comcast being organized by IBEW, Resurrection Hospital by AFSCME and Chicago charter schoolteachers by Chicago ACTS. The martyrs “taught us we won’t win unless we stick together,” said Ramirez.

Larry Spivak, president of the Illinois Labor History Society, a key force behind construction of the new monument, noted May Day was a workers holiday observed all over the world and finally it’s being reclaimed by working people in the U.S. As part of the observance each year plaques are presented for installation by trade unions, both here and internationally, as an expression of labor solidarity. Federations in Columbia, Iraq, and elsewhere have presented plaques. This year the AFL-CIO presented a plaque.

Ross Hyman, of the AFL-CIO expressed the great optimism of the moment, “This is a religious site and May Day is a religious holiday. Like Passover, May Day associates worker liberation with the coming of springtime after a long winter. Like Easter, it calls us to walk in the footsteps of the activist executed by the state.”

Hyman, who said he was leaving the next day to join hundreds in Pennsylvania to lobby Senator Arlen Specter on the Employee Free Choice Act, read a statement from AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, in dedicating the federation’s plaque, “Because we deeply believe in solidarity with workers everywhere, we're proud that the AFL-CIO now has a plaque at the place where May Day itself—the international day for workers—was born.

“As long as working people struggle for what is right and fair, they'll tell the story of Haymarket. We, our children, and their children will never forget the great demonstration for the eight-hour day—the bomb—the terribly biased trial of eight activists—and the execution of four of those activists, who will always be martyrs in our cause.

“And we know very well that the best way for each generation to honor the Haymarket Martyrs is to advance the cause they fought and died for. Here and now, that means restoring the freedom of workers to organize into unions by passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

“We promise to continue their beautiful struggle. We promise that we will fight with all of our hearts and souls for the freedom to organize into a union and win a better life. The dream of the Martyrs is inscribed on the AFL-CIO plaque:

'Power—Dignity—Respect—Union Yes! We promise above all that we’ll march and vote and lobby and speak and struggle to make their dream finally come true.”

Full message from AFL-CIO officers, John Sweeney, Richard Trumka and Arlene Holt Baker to the Chicago Haymarket Memorial Ceremony.

May 1, 2009

For all of us in the AFL-CIO—for the millions of women and men who build our houses, teach our kids, fight our fires, and nurse us back to health—this is a special day. On this May Day, we join our sisters and brothers from Chicago, and Colombia, and Iraq, and all over the world at one of the most sacred sites for working people everywhere—the Chicago Haymarket monument. Because we deeply believe in solidarity with workers everywhere, we're proud that the AFL-CIO now has a plaque at the place where May Day itself—the international day for workers—was born. That is happening because the Illinois Labor History Society and the Chicago Federation of Labor played a key role in the building of this monument. We will always be grateful to them for what they've done.

As long as working people struggle for what is right and fair, they'll tell the story of Haymarket. We, our children, and their children will never forget the great demonstration for the eight-hour day—the bomb—the terribly biased trial of eight activists—and the execution of four of those activists, who will always be martyrs in our cause.

And we know very well that the best way for each generation to honor the Haymarket Martyrs is to advance the cause they fought and died for. Here and now, that means restoring the freedom of workers to organize into unions by passing the Employee Free Choice Act. It says that when most of the employees where you work sign statements that they want the union, then you get your union. It sounds fair because it is.

The freedom to choose a union is precious to us, but we know that this freedom won't just fall from the heavens. Today, just as in 1886, the corporations are using every loophole and hiring every lobbyist they can to keep us powerless. They're fighting the Employee Free Choice Act tooth and nail. They'll stop at nothing.

So today, as we all remember the Haymarket Martyrs, we know exactly how to honor them. We promise to continue their beautiful struggle. We promise that we will fight with all of our hearts and souls for the freedom to organize into a union and win a better life. The dream of the Martyrs is inscribed on the AFL-CIO plaque:

Power—Dignity—Respect—Union Yes! We promise above all that we'll march and vote and lobby and speak and struggle to make their dream finally come true.