Sacred Unions

Street festival for the working class: Recalling bygone labor battles
Daniel Corrigan

Let there be no illusions that last Saturday's "street festival for the working class" signifies a sea change in current societal apathy toward the organized labor movement. The festival commemorated the 70th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," when the Minneapolis Police Department opened fire on striking truck drivers and their supporters July 20, 1934, killing two and wounding 65 others. But organizers were rightfully heartened to garner nearly 1000 people for at least some portion of the eight-hour program, about twice the number they had estimated on their street permit.

(Meanwhile, a similarly sized crowd was jammed into Minneapolis's Grand Hotel that same day, auditioning for a chance to be one of Donald Trump's belligerent bozos as a contestant on The Apprentice.)

Pity the cynics jaded beyond the capacity to be intellectually impressed and emotionally stirred by the event. Sure, the weather was perfect, the food better (and cheaper) than what's found at most outdoor fests, and the music was crystal clear bouncing off the buildings along 6th Street North in downtown. But what distinguished the event was the engulfing spirit that came from people who know the litany of woe--the decline in union membership to its lowest level in decades, the growing disparity in income between rich and poor, the transfer of hundreds of thousands of jobs overseas, the erosion of health insurance and pension benefits--better than anyone. They are not "labor leaders."

As Rick Sather of Teamsters for a Democratic Union and Teamsters Local 638 archly noted, "Bloody Sunday created the Teamsters in this town. But we've got roughly 15 or 16 locals in Teamsters Joint Council 32, and I haven't seen one officer I know here."

Instead, they are rank-and-file people like Gladys McKenzie, Michelle Sommers, and Chris Nelson, who helped organize recent strikes among clerical workers at the U of M, bus drivers at Metro Transit, and nurses and aides at Walker Methodist nursing home, respectively. In terms of tangible economic benefits, none of these actions can objectively be regarded as a rousing success. But each of these women spoke of the pride and dignity they and their co-workers unearthed in themselves through the process--something the self-debasing Trump wannabes will never taste.

You didn't need a union card to fit in on Saturday, just a visceral feeling from being disenfranchised, a stubborn resentment toward authority, and an illogical faith in justice. That sums up Brother Ali--an albino rapper plying an art form dominated by African Americans--whose reddish, lazy eyes got him teased at school. "This ain't hell/This is a piece of my puzzle," he rapped. "If we were put here to carry a great weight/Then the very things we hate are here to build those muscles."

Like all nine musical acts, Ali kept the day's entire expenditures below $7,000 by playing for free. The motivation was most elegantly stated by labor historian Dave Riehle near the end of the evening, shortly after he called for a moment of silence to honor the victims of 1934. "We are standing on hallowed ground," Riehle said. "This is our working-class Gettysburg. Take an oath: We do not forget the martyrs of 1934 and we do not forgive their attackers. They made Minneapolis a union town. Swear that you will keep it that way."

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