“Don’t trust your employer to say everything’s all right,” says Al Bouchard, a member of NH COSH and an advocate for workers injured by chemical exposure.
Re-Awakening the Spirit of 1912
NASHUA — Keeping their fingers crossed that the biggest legislative battles of the year are behind us, union members and labor allies rallied in Nashua on May 5 to raise spirits for whatever struggles lie ahead. The “Solid as Granite” rally drew about 75 people to the Greeley Park band shell.
The mood was defensive and defiant sixteen months into an intense State House battle that isn’t over yet. “We will not be intimidated. We will not go away,” shouted Mark MacKenzie, president of the NH AFL-CIO.
With two right-to-work-for-LESS bills tabled in the State Senate, prospects are good that Speaker of the House Bill O’Brien’s anti-labor onslaught has been stopped. But the Speaker, who recently took other proposals sidelined by the Senate and re-attached them as amendments to other measures, may have more tricks up his sleeves.
“Do not let up on any of us,” said Rep. Mary Gorman, one of ten local Representatives recognized for their “dedication to the middle class.”
The role of unions in creating and defending the middle class is by now well established. Labor would be making a mistake, however, if it fails to connect with the issues facing people who aspire to the middle class. Diana Lacey, president of the state’s largest union, was the only labor speaker who explicitly linked labor’s agenda to the needs of the poor.
Lacey, whose mom migrated from Mexico, also linked labor’s agenda to the importance of stopping the Arizonification of America. She was also the one who mostly clearly identified labor with “the 99%.”
MacKenzie also understands that labor’s fortunes are tied to other sectors, including “the religious community who care about the labor movement.”
“That’s how we gonna take back the state of New Hampshire,” MacKenzie said. I’m not sure we ever really had it, but his point is well taken. With O’Brien already running again for Speaker, the 2012 election is looming large for labor.
Other speakers included Robert Sherman of the Nashua Federation of Teachers; Paul O’Connor from the Metal Trades Council at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; Magnus Pardoe of the Nashua chapter of SEIU 1984; Ed Foley of the Sheet Metal Workers; Ed Barnes of the Mail Handlers; Craig Lange of the new union of Community College adjunct faculty; and Laura Hainey of the AFT. Matt Murray, editor of NH Labor News, served as emcee. Gerry O’Connor spoke about growing up in Lowell and made reference to the “Bread and Roses” strike of 1912.
If the New Hampshire unions are working hard to stand their ground and defend the status quo, labor activists and scholars a few miles south are looking back to 1912 in order to look forward. The 100th anniversary of the landmark “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts has occasioned a variety of cultural programs, including last week’s Academic Symposium. 300 people ranged between several buildings in the city’s historic mill district for workshops on topics as diverse as “Music and Culture and Labor History,” “The Strike and Immigration in the Classroom,” The Importance of Strike Activity in Building New Unions,” and “The Legacies of Labor’s Response to Racism.”
One hundred years ago thousands of workers, mostly immigrants and about half women, walked out of Lawrence’s mills when employers cut their pay. According to the Bread and Roses Centennial Committee,
What started as a wage protest quickly became a fight for better conditions both on and off the job. The strikers angrily complained about mistreatment by overseers and a job pace that made them work “like horses.” They also objected to a premium system that held part of their expected earnings hostage to month-long production and attendance standards.
After eight weeks of strike activity led by the Industrial Workers of the World, the bosses gave in and granted a 15% pay hike, with the biggest raises going to the lowest paid workers.
The Centennial is “an incredible event for my family being able to reclaim our own history,” said Donna San Antonio, whose grandparents participated in the 1912 strike and who now teaches educators.
While there were plenty of professors at the symposium, everyone present seemed eager to apply scholarship to current struggles for workers and immigrants. That group includes the last unionized textile workers in the city, 500 UNITE HERE Local 311 members working at Polartec. “We continue to fight for bread and roses in our community,” said Juan Williams, who spoke at a lunchtime plenary that also featured AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
At an afternoon workshop other Polartec workers explained that they have better benefits than non-union workers in the city and that the union helps them solve workplace problems. “If you have no union and someone doesn’t like you, there’s no way to defend yourself,” said a worker named Tony. Another worker, Anya, said she has developed leadership skills through her union activity. “Thanks to the union I have the opportunity to go anywhere to express myself,” she said.
Formerly known as Malden Mills, the company where the Local 311 members work had a massive fire in 1995. In the aftermath, the company shrunk from 2500 workers to 1000 and got bought out by Versa, a private equity firm which tried to cut benefits. But the union is hanging on.
Labor’s resurgence is an essential ingredient of halting the drift toward plutocracy and lifting up the spirit of 1912.
In the words of James Oppenheim’s now famous poem,
No more the drudge and idler,
Ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories:
Bread and roses, bread and roses.
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