Occupy generation learns from labor history

The success or failure of the American labor movement in the 21st century will be the work of the young.

Such was the message of the recent United Steelworkers rally, held in observance of the 75th anniversary of the Memorial Day Massacre and entitled “Fighting for Workers’ Rights: Yesterday – Today – Tomorrow.”

“No movement in this country has ever been built by old people,” said scholar and activist Ruth Needleman, highlighting the urgent duty of young workers to build a labor movement capable of responding to the new economic and political realities of global finance capitalism.

Edward Sadlowski, Sr., a long-time union activist, also insisted on the need to preserve and transmit the working-class culture forged in the great labor struggles of the past century.

“We’re doing something wrong, over and over again. We’re not passing the torch… I hope that the philosophy of working people, born from the class struggle, will be passed on,” he said.

Though veterans of the labor movement might see the failure to “pass the torch,” the young workers and high school students at the rally seemed proud to take up the charge laid on them by the older generation.

Ephrin Jenkins, 34, of United Steelworkers District 7, spoke of his own work with the Young Workers Movement, a USW program that aims, he says, “to educate, motivate, and influence young people to get involved in the union movement.”

In his district, young workers organized a Black Labor Week to educate people about the struggle against racism and the role of African Americans in the labor movement. They also have done outreach work to bring community issues into labor organizing.

John-Paul Smith, USW local 7669, one of the workers locked out at Honeywell, says that young people bring a special perspective and energy to the struggle.

“Young people can see where we’re headed.  Everywhere from Occupy Wall Street to the labor movement, they’re getting involved,” he said.

Paying tribute to the murdered workers of Republic Steel, steelworker Nick Young said that workers “can’t take anything for granted,” and always have to think in the terms announced in the rally’s title: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Steelworker Quinn Hartmann insisted on the need to teach young workers the lessons of the past. He brought his son Luke to the rally to show him a kind of history he won’t learn in a classroom.

Luke, 16, said that he came away from the event understanding the significance of the Memorial Day Massacre, and added, “I never learned this stuff in school.”

The incomplete history taught in our schools was a theme among the rally’s school-age participants.

Evelyn Sadlowski, 17, and her brother Ed, 11, visiting from Wisconsin, said their curriculum includes no labor or people’s history at all, even as the campaign to recall union-busting Governor Scott Walker reaches its peak before the June 5 elections.

“Before this year, nobody talked about politics,” Evelyn said, “but now it’s all kids talk about.”

Ed added that political discussions at school often turn into shouting matches about “who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Their father, labor activist Ed Sadlowski, Jr., pointed out that “Scott Walker has divided us, just as he set out to do.”

The inspiring rally wouldn’t have been possible without a group of student-hosts from George Washington High School, the venue for the event. 

Victoria Varela, 17, took time away from serving lunch to the crowd to talk about what she learned. 

“This took a lot of work by a lot of dedicated people,” she said. “I’m learning to appreciate everyone who fought for all the rights we have today.”

She added, “Doing this makes me want to volunteer and voice my opinions.  It showed me that it does work, even if you’re just one person.”

For a longer perspective on the working-class youth movement, I turned to Beatrice Lumpkin, who organized her first workplace at age 15… in 1934.

Regarding current conditions of struggle, Lumpkin said, “I see a type of desperation facing young people that reminds me of the Great Depression, because so many avenues of possible employment have been cut off.

 “I see the working-class youth movement coming back,” she concluded, “and I rejoice that my successors have arrived.”

Photo: Young people march for their teachers and union rights, protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s attacks on working families, Feb. 18, 2011, in Madison, Wis. (PW/Teresa Albano)