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Labor Solidarity March Connects Past with Present

April 20, 2011

Yesterday, about 100 people gathered in the rain at the Spirit of Solidarity Monument in downtown Grand Rapids.

Yesterday, was also the 100th anniversary of the 1911 Grand Rapids furniture workers strike, which involved thousands of workers who walked off the job during a 4 month long strike. GRIID spoke with local labor historian Michael Johnston about that strike and its significance for today.

Along the march people engaged in chants that ranged from worker solidarity to a recall of Rick Snyder. However, the dominant theme of the chants reflected people’s anger over the economic theft of the nations wealth at the hands of Wall Street and other corporate interests. This sentiment was best expressed in the chant, “They got bailout out, we got sold out!

Once people arrived at the Alabama Street warehouse site they were invited inside to hear a few speeches. The first to talk with State Representative Brandon Dillon who made the point that the forces behind the anti-worker policies and the state austerity measures are claiming that the economy is in trouble and that cuts need to be made because working people have drained the state budget. Dillion did mention the importance of the 1911 strike, but instead of encouraging working people to engage in direct action he emphasized that what people need to focus on is the 2012 election.

The next speaker was Jay Egan, a retiree with the CWA and President of the local Labor Heritage Society. Jay stated that he is from New Jersey and he is not used to working people not walking off the job as a tactical response to labor repression. Egan admitted that the 1911 strike did not win in “the technical sense, but the furniture owners did start to meet the demands of the workers in the years following the strike.”

Egan then made the connection with what is happening today by saying that despite the federal and state governments claiming that the economic cuts to working people is purely a budgetary response. However, Egan noted that this is little more than a diversion. He stated that Wall Street got bailed out, the banks got bailed out and the mortgage companies got bailout out. “Those in power are saying that the problem is working people. Well, what the hell did we do to cause these economic problems? They are diverting the attention away from them and putting on us and we feel compelled to defend ourselves. I say screw you, you’re a God damn liar!”

Tracey with the local government workers union (GREIU) then spoke to the crowd gathered in the old warehouse space. She said that the City management has recently rejected all of the union’s suggested concessions for the current labor contract negotiations. Tracey also said that the City wants them to accept all their demands, which would include giving back the 2.5% pay raise from last year, further cuts to their pensions, they want to alter the worker’s insurance and change the language of the contract to allow for more temp and seasonal workers.

Tracey said that these kinds of cuts will make it very difficult for many of the workers to maintain cutting financial expenses, especially home mortgage payment. She finished by inviting people to join them in a solidarity picket before the weekly City Commission meeting and that they need support on their contract negotiations since the City is claiming these cuts are necessary before the upcoming 2012 budget can be approved.

The last person to address the crowd was Michael David who is both a member of IATSE and the Kent-Ionia Labor Council. David said that the space that people were standing in up until recently had provided union workers in IATSE and the local Teamsters work through the Michigan Film incentives policy. Dozens of local people were able to make a decent living because of this work in the past few years, but since Snyder cut that program he and many others in the area are now unemployed.

Throughout the speeches the crowd remained animated, often interjecting their own thoughts and feelings about the current anti-worker policies and state imposed austerity measures that threaten their financial well being.

There was no clear strategy laid out during the event on how best to respond to the harsh state and local cuts, but there clearly was plenty of worker rage that could be channel into a popular movement for change.

Organizers also mentioned that next week there will be another action of worker solidarity. On April 28 there is a Worker Memorial Day event at the Kent-Ionia Labor Hall at 918 Benjamin NE in Grand Rapids. This day, recognized around the country, is an opportunity to remember workers who have died on the job, quite often due to a lack of worker safety protection, which have increased since funding and staff for OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act) has been cut.

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