By JUSTINE WINNIE
(Oct. 18, 2013) — Fighting the good fight isn’t easy. In the face of government shutdowns, political betrayals, and ever-growing attacks on working people — blatant attacks, infringements of rights and just plain lack of human decency — we have to find ways to keep our spirits up and our feet on the ground.
The friends and family many have in the labor movement help to sustain the work we do. This past Wednesday, I heard someone describe the Spokane Labor Rally as less a rally and more a family reunion. It did have that feel: the vague sense of recognizing everyone, even folks whose names escape you; generous helpings of picnic food; children underfoot with yo-yos and toy planes. Music blared through the fairground building over loudspeakers in between impassioned candidates and a generation of steady trade unionists who have seen a lot in their day.
The event, as we heard from Beth Thew, Spokane Regional Labor Council secretary-treasurer and the godmother of the annual Labor Rally, would give us a chance to hear from candidates who supported our issues and wanted to fight for our fights. I think the Labor Rally is more than that, though. It’s also a chance for people who work really hard to reconnect with a sense of togetherness in their work, whether they’re linemen or secretaries or lobbyists or business representatives.
Among the conversations I had that night, this one stands out as significant in the “family” dialog. I spoke with one ally about the line between between social and economic issues. It’s an old debate in this movement. Are we here for that bottom line — the contract, the paycheck, the pension? Or, in advocating for ourselves and other working people like us, are we also seeing across differences, are we drawing together to stand up for vulnerable communities and vulnerable people because ultimately, they’re our people? Who belongs in our “family,” in our movement?
As the statewide labor movement reaches out to decriminalize marijuana, push for real change in immigration policy, and support marriage equality, it’s fascinating to watch tradition and evolution interact. There is both urgency and context to the work we do as a movement, advocating for ourselves and for working families of many different sorts.
We heard from the leaders of the movement, the strong voices who buoy us in the daily struggle: Jeff Johnson and Lynne Dodson of the Washington State Labor Council, Beth Thew, state Rep. Timm Ormsby, Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart. The microphone echoed across the big barn-like space and the casually milling union jackets, plates of hot dogs and macaroni.
Ormsby was visibly moved as he presented a special gift to the leaders of the Spokane Young Emerging Labor Leaders to commemorate their activism and growth during their chapter’s first year: specially made Spokane YELL hooded sweatshirts, pulled one by one out of a cardboard box and handed out by beaming Beth Thew. Spokane YELL were the proud youth at the family reunion that evening.
Later we joined them at a nearby hotel to celebrate and hold a raffle peppered with Washington YELL tee shirts and gift certificates to local businesses. Amy Cowin, the Spokane chapter president, spoke about her journey to becoming a leader. Even now, after a truly successful first year leading the new chapter, she has a modest quality that belies her effectiveness as a leader.
Children sprinted around the ballroom and we ate corn chips and hummus and listened to Stuckart, a moving orator who grabbed a chair and stood on it a la soapbox: “Who’s heard of the IWW?” he asked. He described the labor town Spokane had once been, the bent of conservatism creeping into the Inland Empire’s current City Council, and his goals and determination for the city’s future. History. The old, the new. We are rooted in each other, in the past and in the future we both fear and long for.
I felt welcomed and known at the Spokane Labor Rally. From my place in the movement, I’m going to keep reaching out to others who need the community, the vision, the history, the support and the future that labor can bring. I know my brothers and sisters are doing the same..
Justine Winnie of OPEIU Local 8 is the Co-President of Washington Young Emerging Labor Leaders. For more information about WA YELL, visit their Facebook page.