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100 years later, struggle continues in Centralia

The powerful see to divide us from common cause today, just as they did a century ago



The following remarks were delivered by Larry Brown, President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, on Monday in Centralia:

(Nov. 11, 2019) — As we gather today, Veterans’ Day, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Centralia Armistice Day Tragedy, I am reminded that the freedoms and rights we hold dear as Americans were not won without sacrifice.

I served in the United States Navy and took an oath to defend our country and its people from its enemies, foreign and domestic. I took this oath seriously, and I am joined by many of my fellow Veterans in continuing to abide by that oath, even out of uniform.

For example, the Washington State Labor Council recently partnered with VoteVets, a national Veterans group, as part of a broad coalition working to approve Initiative 1000 via Referendum 88, extending opportunity in employment, education, and government contracting to women, people of color, older folks, and veterans. While the results of that important work aren’t what we hoped, the ties built by advocating together on common ground are ones we will continue to strengthen on the foundation of a shared commitment to advocating for the rights of all Americans.

This commitment is central to our work in the labor movement, and directly threatens those in power. People who’ve built their power on the exploitation of working people have long demonized our movement for their own personal gain; it’s part of why organized labor hasn’t always been welcomed in all communities in this state.

The burial of IWW member Wesley Everest, with an armed National Guard unit. Everest was arrested in connection with the events of Nov. 11, 1919, and that night was taken from prison and lynched by a mob. (via WikiCommons)

While details of what lead to the deadly violence here 100 years ago are murky, it seems likely that this fear and misinformation stirred animosity among folks who, in truth, shared common cause.

We do not know exactly what happened that day but some facts cannot be disputed; people lost their lives and freedom. It is a stark reminder of the struggles that faced organized labor at the beginning of the 20th century, and how quickly fear and distrust can turn into violence.

But so many of the factors that shaped this tragedy 100 years ago are still present today. We face a federal government antagonistic to working people, dedicated to dividing the power we build when we stand together as one. Special-interest groups attack organized workers, trying to make the case that there is something un-American about demanding fair and just treatment. Employers in all sectors still seek to exploit and mistreat workers.

Unfortunately we have an example of this exploitation here in Centralia today. Healthcare workers at Providence Centralia Hospital have just voted to authorize a strike after months of bargaining. Their so-called non-profit employer is refusing to offer competitive wages, attempting to take away earned leave, and committing unfair labor practices along the way — despite posting hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Providence employees here in Centralia are joined by their peers in Walla Walla, Spokane, Everett, and Olympia, showing exactly how powerful workers can be when they stand together.

Because, while the struggles of a century ago are still with us, the story of organized labor today is one of working people’s power. Washington was just recognized as the state with the strongest unions in the country, and we’re routinely considered one of the best states in which to work. In part, this is due to our commitment to fighting alongside all people exploited by unfettered capitalism that benefits billionaires and bosses rather than workers.

Hundreds of hospital workers from multiple unions rallied for “Patients Before Profits” outside the Providence Health headquarters in Renton on July 26.

Solidarity across issues and concerns, rooted in our common cause as working people, is how we fight the misinformation and demonization of our movement. It’s how we prevent another tragedy, where working people fight one another rather than recognize one another as allies.

Larry Brown is president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. The WSLC is the largest union organization in the state, representing more than 600 labor organizations with some 550,000 rank-and-file members.



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