February 15, 2009
Seventy-five men and women, steelworkers, delegates from the Northwest Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO), anti-sweatshop student activists, representatives from Purdue’s Graduate Employees Organization, and other peace and justice activists from the community marched to “Rebuild America” on Saturday, February, 14, 2009 in Lafayette, Indiana. Organized by the United Steel Workers of America as part of four rallies around the state, steelworkers are calling on community activists, union and non-union alike, to “Join the Main Street Revolution.”
After two rousing speeches that called on government to marshal resources to rebuild America in the spirit of the New Deal of the 1930s, organizers led marchers from a public plaza to the Lafayette Courthouse. Participants then circled the old Indiana architectural wonder several times chanting for jobs, health care, investments in American industry, and union rights.
Using traditional symbols of the flag, patriotism, and appeals to God, organizers urged people of all parties, religions, and work statuses to join in future mobilizations. Some organizers urged peace, anti-sweatshop, and other activists to bring their placards to the next rally planned for February 28.
Three days earlier, Purdue Students for Labor Equality (POLE), hosted an evening educational event on the university campus to introduce two Honduran workers who were losing their jobs in a textile factory that was in process of organizing a shop floor union. POLE students are demanding that Purdue University honor its commitment to end contracts with companies, such as the one the Hondurans worked in, that produce products with the university logo that are produced in factories that deny workers rights to form unions. The event, a standing room crowd of 130, was largely made up of students. Several indicated that they had not been aware that their university had economic ties with corporations that used low paid sweatshop labor.
Images of the working class figured prominently in an event the next night at Purdue University. Distinguished progressive historian, Linda Gordon, gave a presentation on the life and work of the great documentary photographer, Dorothea Lange. Lange’s portraits of workers, Gordon argued, created in the American mind the reality of the Great Depression and its impacts. While her subjects, workers, women, African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, had been primarily victims of the capitalist system, Lange’s subjects were also strong, pensive, proud people. For Lange, these were the people who built the country and cared for it, its families and communities. And while Lange did not take many pictures of demonstrations, protests, and strikes, Gordon said, Lange believed that those she had photographed were the kinds of workers who were on the front-lines of class struggle. They represented the democratic spirit, demanding that a new America be created, one based on principles of economic well- being and justice.
In the end no one can predict what these mobilizations in Indiana for worker rights will create. It does seem that everywhere around the country there is a new consciousness emerging. In North Central Indiana it is appearing among workers and students, on the streets and in the academy. In addition it is rising among local activists around a whole array of peace and justice issues. While these manifestations take different forms in different places, it does seem like people are beginning to make a new history.
We’ll have to stick around and see.
Harry Targ teaches Political Science at Purdue University and is a delegate to the Northwest Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO.