Global Climate Convergence: Earth Day to May Day Celebration at Workers United Union Hall
125 years ago, the international workers’ movement declared our own holiday — May 1st. Workers the world over have been marching as one on this day, continuing the struggle for justice, the right to organize, the right to jobs for all at a living wage. The power of the May Day tradition is ever more important in this age of corporate globalization.
This year’s commemorative plaque will be placed on the Haymarket Memorial by the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT). After our ceremony, we’ll join the annual march for Immigration Justice.
The annual May Day immigrants’ rights march steps off from Haymarket Square May 1 at 3 PM.
Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.
Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs. Click here to read more
From Pilsen to Pilsen:
May Day and the immigrant worker
BY CHRIS MAHIN
May Day began in the United States, and immigrants played a decisive role in creating it.
On May 1, 2006, more than 750,000 workers – most of them immigrants – took part in a demonstration for immigrant rights in Chicago. They marched past Haymarket Square, the very spot where immigrant workers had rallied in 1886. Many of the workers in the 2006 demonstration lived in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood named after a city in Central Europe where many of yesterday’s immigrants came from. The immigrant workers of Chicago had revived the celebration of May Day in the city where it had been created — by an earlier generation of immigrant workers.
On May 1, 1886, workers throughout the United States struck to demand the eight-hour day. Chicago was the strike’s center. At that time, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. Its factories were being filled by workers from England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Bohemia, Sweden and many other countries.
Three days later, a rally was held at Haymarket Square in Chicago to protest a police attack on a group of strikers. Speeches were given in several languages. As this protest was winding to a close, cops moved in. They ordered the last speaker – an English immigrant, Samuel Fielden – to stop. Then someone threw a bomb. It killed one police officer and wounded many. The police opened fire, killing many participants in the rally.
The police responded by breaking into homes, wrecking the printing presses of foreign-language newspapers, and beating and arresting union leaders. Immigrant workers were accused of being terrorists.
Eight union leaders were put on trial, charged with being accessories to murder at Haymarket Square. One – Samuel Fielden – was from Lancashire, England. Six had been raised in Germany: George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Oscar Neebe, Michael Schwab, and August Spies.
Despite worldwide protests, four of the defendants were hanged. (A fifth, Louis Lingg, died in his cell under suspicious circumstances.) Three were given long sentences.
In 1889, at the International Labor Congress in Paris, a delegate from the American Federation of Labor proposed that the Congress adopt May 1 as International Labor Day.
# # #
This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of the Tribuno del Pueblo newspaper. For more information, go to www.tribunodelpueblo.org.
In March 1980, when the industrial firm Wisconsin Steel abruptly closed its main mill in southeast Chicago, longtime employee Charles Walley was among 3,400 people who lost their jobs. The plant closure — which led to protests, controversy and lawsuits — had an enormous impact on Walley, a third-generation steelworker. He found intermittent employment as a tollbooth attendant, a janitor and a security guard, among other things, but never landed a better job, and remained bitter and depressed about his situation until his death in 2005.
“Yeah, we thought we were middle class there for a while,” one of his daughters once overheard him musing aloud. “We were almost middle class.”
The daughter who heard that comment, Christine Walley, is now an associate professor of anthropology at MIT and author of a new book, “Exit Zero,” about the impact of deindustrialization on the lives of blue-collar workers in Chicago. In the book, published this month by the University of Chicago Press, Walley explores the lasting economic and psychological toll of such plant closings on her father and other working-class people like him.
In the book, Walley also builds an argument that rapid deindustrialization in the United States was not simply the result of seemingly inevitable shifts in the global economy, but a consequence of corporate-friendly policies, and a new emphasis on raising short-term share prices, that pitted the interests of management against the long-term interests of companies and their workers.
“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization,” Walley says. “We have to think historically about how we got into this position and how we can come out of it.”
While the steel industry is a notable sector in which American industry has downsized, the same issue has been borne out in many areas of manufacturing and many parts of the country. As Walley notes, in 1960, one-third of all American laborers not working on farms had jobs in manufacturing, while in 2010, only one-eighth worked in the sector.
“The stories from Chicago are so similar in so many other communities that have experienced deindustrialization, I think it does have resonance with a lot of other places in the U.S.,” Walley says.
The paycheck and self-respect
Most anthropologists do their research by immersing themselves in other cultures. But in Walley’s case, she was immersed in the working-class neighborhoods of industrial southeast Chicago from birth. It was an area, Walley writes in “Exit Zero,” where “neat lawns and never going on public assistance were quintessential points of pride.”
“If you really want to understand why there is this expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization.”
Associate Professor of Anthropology
But when several mills closed in the early 1980s, the tens of thousands of newly unemployed steelworkers in Chicago and the surrounding area had massive problems keeping themselves, and their families, afloat. Within a decade of the Wisconsin Steel closure, 800 of its 3,400 former workers had died, many after struggles with alcoholism or other problems tied to their unemployment and lack of other options. Many steelworkers felt that because of their membership in unions, they were discriminated against when looking for other work; in many households, wives had to go back to work to keep families going, a further humiliation to the steelworkers.
“It was my father’s paycheck from the mills that was his source of manhood and self-respect,” Walley writes.
Walley also asserts that we should reconsider the “dominant narrative” of the decline of the American steel industry, which many observers characterized as having grown inefficient. Actually, Walley asserts, empirical research has shown that American steel mills were still more profitable in the 1970s, just before the shutdowns commenced, than their state-subsidized Japanese competitors. The problem, she writes, was that “they weren’t profitable enough, in comparison to … high finance.”
In this way, Walley says, the Wisconsin Steel case is an early example of contemporary corporate practices, linked to the financialization of the economy, which occur at the expense of workers and their communities. Controversially, the firm had been sold in the late 1970s in what was effectively a leveraged buyout; the legal maneuvering around the firm’s closure allowed the holding company to force the government to pick up the tab for its unfunded pension guarantees. More generally, this kind of buyout, followed by asset-stripping and closure, Walley notes, allows enterprises to steer cash to more lucrative investments in financial markets, instead of being bound to bricks-and-mortar businesses.
Cancer and class
“Exit Zero” takes an unexpected twist when Walley recounts how, at age 27, she was diagnosed with an unusual form of cancer. While her treatment was successful, she suspects, but cannot prove, that her illness was related to environmental conditions in southeast Chicago, where many potential carcinogens were released.
More generally, Walley states, exposure to environmental hazards is yet another way that class stratification manifests itself in America. As she writes, “just as throughout our lives we drag our class experiences and the related aspects of who we are with us, our bodies also carry this legacy of chemical exposures as we move into the future.”
Walley’s book is part of a larger project on industrial southeast Chicago — accompanied by a documentary film to be completed this year, also called “Exit Zero,” that Walley has produced in collaboration with her husband, documentary filmmaker Chris Boebel. She is also helping to develop a related website, in conjunction with the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum, intended to feature archival materials and oral accounts from others who experienced the same economic changes. A daylong event featuring the book and film will be held at Chicago’s Field Museum in April.
“Exit Zero” has been praised by other scholars of labor; David Bensman, a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, has called the book an “illuminating” analysis that makes clear that “the working-class world is poorly understood both in popular culture and in mainstream academic literature.”
As Walley acknowledges, her family’s story is just one historical thread within the large, complicated fabric of American industry. But precisely by making her account a personal one, she says, she aims to show to a general audience the human effects of economic changes that public figures often describe in abstract, impersonal terms.
“This is a book of stories … but those stories are the terrain for further analysis,” Walley says. “I wanted it to be accessible to many kinds of readers, including those who don’t normally read academic work, as a way of having a discussion about these issues.”
IT’S GAAF Weekend — or Glenwood Ave. Arts Fest
This year featuring
*Booth 26 dedicated to continuing the work of
Chris Drew and the Art Patch Project
new patches printed on site!
**Booth 27 Chicago Labor & Arts Festival
the annual HUMOUNGOUS (great price) BOOK SALE
with books in all categories including kids, Spanish language, black history and literature, fiction and non fiction, Marxist and other political science; buy three, get one FREE.
***Plus we are a source of information about all things ré
Public Education Crisis:
It’s not tax deductible, but your $$$ help tremendously!
Please make checks out to CL&AF
and mail to Lew Rosenbaum, 1122 W. Lunt 4A, Chicago, IL 60626
As always, thanks for checking in with us!
PS. Have you heard about the Pied Piper of Rogers Park? Ask us about this . . .
[In the following piece a few things might need to be clarified. Greta, my sister, died almost 4 years ago, at 80 years old. Often I want to have a conversation with her. Occasionally I'll write a letter, as this piece begins, because I still feel the loss and because there is something I want to say anyway. She was a trained classical musician who listened to me because she said she envied my ability to appreciate so many genre's that she could not. Chris Drew has contributed to this blog and I've written about him in the People's Tribune as well. Chris died on May 7, 2012 after a heroic battle with lung cancer. Bill Glahn is a friend and music writer and jack of all trades who shared his insights generously to a community of political thinkers and music enthusiasts of which I am privileged to be a part. Clicking the link for each song will lead you to a video recording of the song. The entire album may be heard by clicking on Wrecking Ball here. And last, the comments in this piece reflect what I think of this music, what I take from it into my life, in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks, when she wrote: "I give you my poem, it is my life, now do with it what you will." Because I do believe the Highway is Alive Tonight in ways I have never seen. This is the most amazing time in which to live.]
May 10 is drawing to a close. I wanted to wish you Happy Birthday, even if it is an abbreviated greeting. There are just so many things on my mind now, things that I want to talk over with you. Things like why I think this is such an amazing moment in history. Things like how it has felt — felt, not what I think about it, but felt — to wind up the artistic life of Chris Drew. I want to tell you how that feels. I want to tell you how when I looked into his eyes as I saw him dying, I thought every minute of you. That will never go away.
And I want to tell you, perhaps most of all, about music. I want to tell you about the Bruce Springsteen album, the one I have been listening to over an over again. Wrecking Ball. How I would have made you a copy, how you would have said the words were good, but the music is still too loud for your ears. How we would have had a conversation about the structure of the album. How I listened over an over to We Take Care of Our Own, learning by bits and pieces the irony and anger and ambiguity and hope in that song. How my friend Bill Glahn made me understand, even before I heard it, the meanings of Jack of All Trades, how the dirge resonates with me more than any other song in the album. How at the same time the travelers on the rocky road remind me so much of the rocky road we are all traversing, and how the bridge to Land of Hope and Dreams is so perfect. And how the tribute to Clarence Clemons which illuminates each show this tour, makes it clear why I am writing this letter. Bruce tells his audience: if you’re here, and we’re here, then they (Clarence and Danny Federici also) are here. And so it is with Chris Drew. And with you.
But as with Clarence’s now stilled sax, so it is with your stilled voice. Rest well.
May 10, 2012
The Highway Is Alive Tonight
I admit to some confusion, some anxiety when I first heard “We Take Care of Our Own,” the song that opens the new Bruce Springsteen record. “We take care of our own, wherever this flag’s flown,” he sings. And inside my head I said “Wait a minute: from Fort Bragg to Baghdad, we are not taking care of our own nor of others — or we are taking care of them like the mob does.” More and more, though, the song resonates with questions, ironies, ambiguities. Who are “we,” who are “our own,” what is “this flag,” and where indeed is it flown? This song cannot be taken at face value.
“The road to good intentions has grown dry as a bone.” This line ends the first verse, that emphasizes the stance of the song and the album. The “good intentions” –debatable of course, but rhetorically correct — of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” FDR’s “New Deal” have no promise left in them. They came from knocking at the door of the throne room. The throne! The uncrowned emperor of the USA. So when the singer intones that we take care of our own, from shotgun shack to the Superdome, it evokes an abdication of responsibility during Katrina specifically, but a more general abdication, a boast that covers a festering reality.
Where are the eyes with the will to see . . . where’s the promise from sea to shining sea?” This series of questions deepens the dissatisfaction with we take care of our own. We can’t really be doing what we are saying. And “this flag” — if it is the flag of the USA, that “wherever” also is an opening to a bigger question, since “this flag” is flown in the most distanced parts of the world, from countries in a crescent surrounding China and Russia, to the NATO countries to wherever there is an armed forces presence around the world, thousands of military bases. Are we taking care of our own? Even if “our own” is defined as US citizens? The casualties, deaths, trauma just among “our own” soldiers. But what about the question about who “our own” really is? Don’t we bear responsibility for the destruction of the countries we bomb, the people killed and left homeless? Are they not as much “our own” as the soldiers we have sent to render that destruction?
These are all questions raised by this song not because the song is explicit, but because it is deliberately ambiguous. And because of this it raises the ultimate question for me: how do we get to the place where “we” — the working class — take care of our own, protect our international class brothers and sisters, wherever our flag, the flag of the international working class, is flown. That is the challenge of this album and it starts from the first song.
“Easy Money” seems like it doesn’t belong. But here is this character in the bleak world, that is tumbling down without him even seeing it, already described, who takes his Smith and Wesson 38 to go out on the town looking for easy money. “Put on your red dress,” we’re goin’ out on the town “lookin’ for easy money.” Bravado without substance marks this song, it seems to me. Can’t make it any other way, which then leads into “Shackled and Drawn.” Bruce Prescott, in a blog he calls “The Mainstream Baptist,” writes about this song:
Bruce Springsteen describes the result of the inequities of our economic system in a number of songs on his new “Wrecking Ball” album. Here’s my favorite:
Gambling man rolls the dice,
working man pays the bill
It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill
Up on bankers hill, the party’s still going strong
Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.
Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn
Pick up the rock son, carry it on
We’re trudging through the dark in
a world gone wrong
I woke up this morning shackled and drawn.
The gambler and the banker are the ones making the easy money. The poor boy in a world gone wrong can pick up his smith and wesson, but that won’t get him anywhere. The bankers rob you without a gun (or rather, with the armed force of the state behind them). The song ends calling on you to stand up and be counted and pray tonight.
Prescott might like “Shackled and Drawn” best, but “Jack Of All Trades” hits me hardest. “I’ll mow your lawn, clean the leaves out your drain,I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain.” I’ll do anything, I can do anything — pull that engine apart — “the hurricane blows, brings a hard rain, when the blue sky breaks, feels like the world’s gonna change, we’ll start caring for each other, like Jesus said that we might, I’m a Jack of All Trades, we’ll be all right.” We’ll be all right is still sung like a dirge, an enduring funeral march almost, a death march, a survival march. But with a hint of possibility this time. It’s not the fantasy of easy money, it’s not the despair of shackled and drawn, it’s not the sarcasm or irony of we take care of our own. It is the bridge to possibility of taking care of our own.
Now, jack-of-all-trades, in my family recollection, was always followed by the phrase “master-of-none.” Meaning not being able to do anything well. You can always count on him, he can do anything, he’s a jack-of-all-trades; versus don’t let him do anything too complex, because he can’t do the really tough jobs. Taken collectively, and referring back to “we take care of our own,” the working class is that jack of all trades. All trades are found within the class, all are developed to their specialities within the class. The class will survive. The class will be all right.
I’m not writing an exegesis of each line or even each verse, but read these lyrics, listen to the patience and sorrow of “it’s all happened before, it’ll happen again,” living through rough times and good times, and bad times of all varieties, and yet you see a chance, a possibility, a new world that hearkens back to a promise made before (the Jesus image), meanwhile living with what exists, making and re-making.
the banking man grows fat
working man grows thin
it’s all happened before
it’ll happen again
now sometime tomorrow
come soaked in treasure and blood
we stand the drought
now we stand the flood
there’s a new world comin
I can see the light
I’m a jack of all trades
we’ll be all right
so you use what you’ve got
and you learn to make do
you take the old
and you make it new
. . .And then there is that one line, coming near the end, where frustration breaks out but where the tone is the same patient sound that has filled this song, the same dirge, and still the character says what he would do
if I had me a gun
I’d find the bastards and shoot em on sight.
No hint that that was coming.
The song ends with an instrumental wail of defiance. This is a Tom Morello solo, a scream of guitar sounds which says more than we’ll be all right, says we will triumph, foreshadows the challenge to those who wield the wrecking ball of the title song. Which then leads into “Death to My Hometown.”
This is not a quiet death, but it is accomplished without one shot being fired. No blood soaked the ground. No bombs from the sky. Still “they brought death to my home town.” The singer mourns the destroyed factories and homes, the vultures picked their bones. Intensity identifies the corporate enemy, and while others have commented about the allusion to Irish music, I hear a French carmagnole, the tumbrils of the mind filled with the bodies of the oppressor. In a workshop on May 13, leading up the the protests against the NATO summit taking place in Chicago, poet Matt Sedillo reminded his audience that the bombs raining down on civilians (and combatants) in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere were only part of the story. The economic side of NATO, the G8 were carrying out murder in the cities of their own countries, but without weapons of mass destruction, other than starvation, deprivation of health care, and numerous other methods accomplished without soaking the ground in blood. The very point that this song intensifies.
Next comes “This Depression,” another dirge. And death to my home town is something to be mourned, to be depressed about. I’ve been down, but never this low. I need your heart, I need your love in this depression. There is a depression of the economy, clearly spelled out in “Death to My Home Town,” alluded to in “Jack of All Trades” and “We Take Care of Our Own.” And perhaps when he sings “I’ve been strong but I’ve never felt so weak” it’s both the physical and emotional toll of the overwhelming and matching depression. I mean it is obvious that there is an emotional toll taken and sung about. But when he says “I’ve never been so low,” it seems that is both.
“Wrecking Ball,” the title song, is a song of defiance. Written about the destruction of baseball stadiums (Mets and Giants), these arenas assume a metaphorical relation to society, where indeed giants have also played the game and suffered the same consequences that we learned about in “Death To My Home Town,”. The character in this song, having weathered the coming and going of hard times over and over again, refuses to accept this fate. Bring on your wrecking ball is at once a voice of experience, coming from the depths of depression, and a challenge. Here is a John Henry for the modern era. In the mythic past, men strove to compete with machines, to prove they were better, faster, harder working. They could not be replaced. But as the machine itself was replaced, so was the life of the town in which they were housed. That death also squelched the lives of the people left behind. Except from out of the rubble, people emerge to challenge the wreckers.
What is it that can tell the rulers/destroyers of our society “Bring on your wrecking ball”? From where does the defeat of the new world order come? “No school ever taught it,” Springsteen sings, “no one ever bought it, Baby you’ve got it come on and give it to me.” This is the real thing. One thread running through all of Springsteen’s work has been trying to find out if love is real. In the context of this record, what are we to think of this love song, “You’ve Got It”? There is a quiet intensity to this piece, sort of a parallel in intensity to “Jack Of All Trades.” No school, because you can’t teach someone “this.” “It” is not a commodity to be bought and sold. We inherit this consciousness by our experience and by our devotion to exploring and learning. It demands an engagement with new ideas that challenge our connection to what makes up the old society. For me this means definitively a break with private property. I say “for me” knowing I am treading on my ground here, not necessarily Springsteen’s. But I would also argue that now that it is out in public, it is the responsibility of the listener to make of it what he or she will. And I would argue that this is a love song to the collective, and “give it to me” is the only love that can transform society.
And then comes “Rocky Ground,” which is my second favorite song on the album. We’ve been traveling over the rocky ground. We certainly have. From “We Take Care of Our Own” to this one, filled with religious allusion without hope for religious redemption. There’s a new day is coming (repeated quietly in the background), but its up to us. Of course every song on the album is a collaboration. But this one seems even more a collaboration of styles and artists, reinforcing the collective response to the collective experience of traveling on rocky ground. Just the repetition of “we’ve been traveling” makes this a journey of suffering and of quiet redemption. In the midst of this comes a gospel influenced rap segment that leads inevitably and seamlessly to the “Land of Hope and Dreams,” where all are welcome.
All of the cast out characters of the previous songs are welcome on the train leading to the “Land of Hope and Dreams.” This train is filled with people who will take care of their own. Whores, gamblers, lost souls, saints, sinners, losers and winners. Don’t know where you’re going but you know you won’t be back. Thankfully. We’ll take what we can carry and we’ll leave the rest. We don’t need the baggage that drains us where we live now. It is a glorious celebration, reaching back to “there’s a new day coming,” rescuing us from the depths of despair and misery. (The album contains a version that includes the Clarence Clemons solo; touring for the album and playing sax is Jake Clemons).
“We Are Alive” closes the album http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXrHQsmON2U&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PLCCF33C028B32189C . “We” are of course reading this. “We” are listening to this album. “We” are listening to Clarence Clemons saxophone solo, Clarence who died 6 months ago. “We” are the ancestors who died in freedom struggles, but who are alive and with us. Bruce intones, in his concert performances, “If you are here and we are here, then they are here.” We are alive if we are engaged in the struggle for the future that this album implies is possible.
In another song, from another album, one which he performs regularly with Tom Morello, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Springsteen’s narrator sings “the highway is alive tonight.” Indeed it is, it has not been so alive in decades. And if you look in their eyes, those who populate the highways, you will see the ghost of Tom Joad everywhere.
The highway is alive tonight.