Oklahoma honors labor culture

The Central Labor Council of Oklahoma set a high cultural standard for the Southwestern states by holding its Laborfest in downtown Oklahoma City August 26-28. Brad Walker, an unemployed Jobs with Justice activist, drove 200 miles from Dallas for it, and was then surprised to meet two union sisters who had made the nearly 500 mile trip from Houston! Walker said, “It was worth it!” He’d be pleased to go again next year.

The festival was a first effort dedicated “to showing Oklahomans the rich history and future of the labor movement in our state.” Indeed, Oklahomans have bragging rights. The statehood convention in 1907 proudly claimed that 70 percent of their constitution came directly from the American Federation of Labor. Corporations were prohibited under the first constitution. Their state motto, “Labor omnia vincet,” means “Labor conquers all”!

A high point of the event, Walker says, was dramatic readings from Oklahoma writers interspersed with music by Oklahoman Woody Guthrie and others. The Red Dirt Rangers band was the star music attraction. In one of America’s greatest literary works, “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck wrote that a large part of Oklahoma was made of red dirt, and the rest black. Steinbeck and mega-personality Will Rogers were featured in the dramatic readings. So were many notes from labor history that were accumulated when Oklahoma pulp fiction writer Jim Thompson (famous recently for the movie “The Killer Inside Me”) headed the Oklahoma Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the last great economic crisis.

At least one of the presenters of dramatic Oklahoma readings has a big labor reputation nationwide. The Utility Workers’ Stewart Acuff played a high-profile part in the Oklahoma Laborfest.

Photo: Dramatic readings from Oklahoma Labor History, alternating with the music of Woody Guthrie and others, were a high point of the Oklahoma Laborfest. (Stuart E., used with permission of the photographer)