Labors flame still burns for justice

CHICAGO — August Spies told his executioners that if they went ahead with the hanging they would ignite a fire that could never be put out.

He and three other Haymarket martyrs were indeed hanged because they led an 1886 Chicago rally for the eight-hour day, marking forever May 1 as International Workers Day. And on May Day this week, 120 years after the hanging, it was clear in this city that the fire they talked about is still burning.

Ten major unions representing 100,000 workers, led by the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, rallied May 1 at the Haymarket Memorial to demand passage of the most radical labor law reform in 60 years of American history. When they finished they staged a dramatic march to join the hundreds of thousands who were rallying for immigrant rights at Chicago’s Grant Park.

Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, installed a plaque to the fallen labor heroes at the Haymarket Memorial and urged the crowds “to have courage as they had courage. We pledge, in their memory, to fight courageously for the Employee Free Choice Act and to fight for the rights of immigrant workers.”

Gannon said the fight for the EFCA must continue to focus on the electoral arena. He said, “Labor has to lead a fight to win bigger majorities for labor law reform in both houses of Congress and it must kick the Republicans out of the White House in ’08.”

A Bush veto, of course, is the only thing that can hold off the passage of the law for now. This fact has not been lost on the massive labor-led movement that continued in the week leading up to May 1 to lobby Congress for the passage of the EFCA.

U.S. senators last week had little time to listen to or meet with the normal contingents of corporate lobbyists who come in and out, because their offices were flooded with hundreds of steelworkers instead.

The United Steelworkers union was the latest labor organization to move into the lobbying business — a business that was once the prerogative of the big corporations. The union told senators it wanted them to support passage of the EFCA.

Labor’s push for the bill was launched by the AFL-CIO last December, and since then the House has approved the legislation. Although Democrats who favor the bill have a 51-49 majority in the Senate, they don’t have the 60 votes needed to prevent a Republican filibuster or the 66 votes needed to overturn a promised Bush veto.

Right-wing groups like the Chamber of Commerce are spending millions to oppose the bill because it would require fines for employers who break the law during organizing drives, make majority sign-up (card check) rather than an election the standard way for workers to decide on union representation, and require mediation and arbitration to ensure that workers get a first contract quickly.

At the Haymarket Memorial rally, the World interviewed Matt Chaperone, 30, a member of Local 21 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who is now employed at AT&T. Chaperone was recently fired from his job as a technician at Comcast, the country’s largest cable provider.

“What happened to me is what happens to workers when they try to organize in the United States of America,” he said. “I tried to help build a union for myself and my co-workers at Comcast, and you know what happened? I got fired.

“The bosses asked me, always one on one, when no one else was around about my involvement with the union. I was told I better quit talking union or I would be committing career suicide,” he said.

“One day I caught some customers who were stealing cable service, and because it was my job, I reported it. They turned around and actually tried to blame me, accusing me of fraud.

“I asked what proof they had,” he said. “They had none. I had no grievance procedure. I had no representation. I had no union. This is why I came out to rally here for the Employee Free Choice Act. I don’t want anyone else to ever have to go through what I went through.”

Chaperone apologized for cutting short the interview. “I gotta march to the immigrant rights rally with my union,” he said.

You could see in his eyes that the flame was still burning.

jwojcik @pww.org