Memorial Day 2010: A steelworker point of view

Joe Gutierrez needs no introduction to thousands of steelworkers. But other readers might need to know a bit about him to fully appreciate his Memorial Day address. Below is the text of Joe’s presentation at  our annual Memorial Day Massacre Commemoration 2010 held by the South Chicago chapter of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees.

We hold an event every year at the former Steelworkers local 1033 union hall, right across from the field where ten striking steelworkers and supporters were killed in 1937 fighting to build our union.  The Chicago police charged into a peaceful demonstration and picketline killing 10 and severely beating dozens more at the gates of what was then Republic Steel.

Joe spent 43 years at Inland Steel in East Chicago, Indiana, now owned by Mittal/Arcelar. Three of the steelworkers killed in 1937 were from Inland Steel. Joe went to work at Inland in 1959 after spending 4 years in seminary studying to be a priest. Joe was active in the famous 1959 steel strike after being a member for less than two months. Over the years he was elected to union office multiple times and worked full time for the union.

But Joe is also well known in our area as the steelworker’s poet laureate. He is a great writer who has written many stories, essays and poems about steelworkers. When I asked him for permission to post this piece to the PW site I purposely called it a poem. Joe laughed and said he didn’t know if he would call it a poem, but “I do try and write poetically.”

Let the readers be the judge.

— Scott Marshall, District 7 SOAR


Memorial Day May 30, 2010

Someone said that in a progressive society there is nothing permanent except change.

In 2008 we voted for change.  In 1937 we died for change. The Republic Steel Massacre galvanized working people into a common bond with a clarion call of solidarity.  Corporate greed and police brutality proved no match for the blood that flowed on Avenue O.  Workers, men and women, stood together as one against the obstructionists and won and we exist today as a union because of them.  Their struggle, our struggle, was the first step of a long, difficult journey that culminated in the most vibrant expansion of unions this country has ever seen and the United Steelworkers of America was born on Avenue O and we fought the fight and we won.

But today is a new day and a new time.  Close your eyes and listen to the silent sound of change echoing through empty factories and boarded-up homes foreclosed and foreboding; weep with your brother and sister and neighbor, over 15 million strong and growing, standing without hope in unemployment lines extending across this country;

listen to the hypocritical Republican Representatives who voted without question for unlimited spending under Bush but now refuse to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off workers because it’s an unsecured cost item;

listen to those washed-up, wrung-out, mean-spirited, narrow-minded same Republicans who now call themselves tea-baggers, and their second cousins, the Libertarians, spew their hatred and racist demagoguery because we have a black President in the White House who in spite of their opposition has made bold steps in the right direction with health care and fairness and decency;

we stood in disbelief and dismay at the Supreme Court Justices who dared give corporations a soul – those same corporations that siphon our resources and move off-shore to avoid paying taxes;

and with profound sadness and growing anger we watch the horrific devastation inflicted on our coast line and the Gulf of Mexico by British petroleum; manufacturing has all but disappeared in this country because we allowed the politicians, Republican and Democrat, to export our jobs and destroy our middle class; we bailed out Wall Street and they bailed out on us.

The government’s interests and our interests are not the same. We must refuse to be intimidated into silence. How long do we remain complacent?  We must remember the past and look to the future. Death and anger were the catalysts for the beginning of the end of despotism in our factories.

Perhaps those same elements will bring our soldiers home from two unjust wars that cannot be won. Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of those of who have died in these wars, but did they die for our country or our government? Did they die unwittingly for the oil cartels? We must question and stand opposed to end this destruction and save our country. And we must stop those who wish to rewrite history. T

oday is a new day but we are mired in this muck because we allowed Bush and Cheney and the Karl Roves and the Supreme Court to steal the White House and we said nothing; we stood aside and watched Bush scuttle the EPA, OSHA, NLRB and reduce them to nothing but empty words. That mentality made a mockery of oversight and regulation, all of which nearly collapsed our economy and came home to roost in a coal mine in W. Virginia and now the Gulf of Mexico.  Workers died and continue to die because of that mindless duplicity.

Today is a new day. Listen closely and you will hear the sad cries of those who died on Avenue O asking, why?

In 2005, as the war in Iraq escalated, the late Howard Zinn said, “Sooner or later, profound change will come to this nation tired of war, tired of seeing its wealth squandered, while the basic needs of families are not met.  These needs are not hard to describe.  Some are very practical, some are requirements of the soul: health care, work, living wages, a sense of dignity, a feeling of being at one with our fellow human beings on this Earth.”  And the fight goes on. 

Photo: Joe Gutierrez (Scott Marshall/PW)