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Solidarity Forever? - Last week the AFL-CIO broke my heart, releasing a statement supporting construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline

By Brendan Orsinger - Medium, September 21, 2016

My grandma Gloria is 92-years old and the single greatest influence in my life. She has inspired me through the way she has led her life. She has strengthened my moral fabric as a human being and shaped what I believe to be right. She has given me the gift of music, and understanding and deep appreciation for justice, solidarity, and unions. Through the stories she’s told with great passion and conviction, she’s the reason I feel so moved and empowered to act.

Among her accomplishments, she:

  1. Alone raised three young children after being widowed when my grandfather Arthur died very suddenly.
  2. Graduated from law school at the age of 60, and was elected keynote speaker by her classmates.
  3. Worked on passage of and was present at the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and has one of the pens!).

Gloria came to Washington, DC to work for the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or the CIO, where she met my grandfather. After a secretive office romance, they snuck away one Friday afternoon to Alexandria Courthouse in Virginia to exchange their vows. When my grandfather Arthur passed away, it was their colleagues and union members who surrounded her with love and support and made sure she had a job to support her three small children.

In the 1960’s grandma Gloria was a legislative representative for the IUE, or the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America. They exist today as the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers — Communications Workers of America, or IUE-CWA. She worked with members of Congress and the White House during that time for passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. She was invited to the signings of both pieces of landmark legislation. She believed deeply in equality, and when Dr. Martin Luther King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28th, 1963 and shared his dream, she was there with my mother.

She later would go on to work for AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.) Then for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC.

The labor movement runs in my blood through four generations, going back to my great-grandmother, Rose.

Gloria was influenced by her mother Rose, who worked in the garment district in New York. She worked for a dress factory/sweatshop and after seeing a need for improvement of conditions, became a member of the IWW or the Industrial Workers of the World — also affectionally known as the “Wobblies”. Under the IWW, she specifically worked with the International Ladies Garment Union.

Back then, conditions were really bad. There were stories of women with out means for childcare who would be forced to work with their babies beside them, asleep on the dirty floor covered with garment lint. There were no laws or protections for these women, so the doors were locked to force higher productivity. These were the same conditions that led to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire in New York City that killed 145 workers.

It was my great-grandmother Rose who became a leader on then picket lines to demand the right to a reasonable wage and better working conditions. She ensured during strikes that the picket lines were held and never crossed. When the police tried to open the line to let the “scabs” through. Rose was punched by a cop after she warned him, “Don’t you put your hands on my girls!”. It’s unclear if the slap she landed on his cheek prior provoked the officer to violence.

There are so many stories like this I have heard from my grandmother about her “Mommy Rose”, but there are two in particular that stuck with me last Friday afternoon and Monday morning in the rain when I stood outside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO yelling and singing until I had lost my voice and my megaphone died — and even then, with no voice I sat outside in the rain and whistled union songs my grandmother taught me.

Here’s story #1: When my grandmother grew up in Asheville, North Carolina with her mother and father who owned a small grocery store. They struggled to keep the store open throughout the Great Depression, particularly because they felt a stronger obligation to the people of the community over profit. They extended credit to their customers not knowing if they would ever be paid back.

As my grandmother tells it, Mommy Rose noticed that a regular customer who lived on the outskirts of town had not been by the store in a few weeks. He had already taken out and exhausted his line of credit.

After asking around, Rose learned that he had lost his job, and was unable to feed his wife and his six children. She put together a car load of groceries and drove them over. When she knocked he answered the door, and assuming she had come to collect on he debt to her store, he immediately was embarrassed and apologetic. She stopped him and explained the real reason she was there, and ask him if he would give her a hand unloading his groceries from her car.

Here’s story #2: Another time in my grandmother’s youth she recalls a Red Cross worker coming to the door to ask for donations for a devastating flood (I believe it to be Ohio River Flood of 1937) that had left families helpless and in need of life-saving supplies. Not being a family of great means, my great-grandmother still went the the dining room table and began writing a check out in the amount of $25 to support the victims.

$25 was a lot more back then, and when Gloria saw her mother do this she tried to intervene because she knew that $25 was the cost of a new coat she had wanted. Mommy Rose shot her a look, handed the check to the Red Cross worker, and saw them out. When she returned, Mommy Rose told my grandmother Gloria something that would stick with her through the years:

While $25 means a new coat for you, for the victims of that flood, it could mean the difference between life and death.

“Life comes first. Life always comes first.”

Water is Life. Pipelines will leak and contaminate water the supply.

The AFL-CIO put out (this) statement last week.

When I read this on Friday afternoon, I didn’t understand. I thought: This must be a mistake. I wanted answers. So I went down to the AFL-CIO headquarters on 815 16th Street NW in Washington, DC.

While in transit, it saddened me further to realize the AFL-CIO is physically located a short block from the White House and Lafayette Park where countless #NoDakotaAccessPipeline events had been happening all last week in a coordinated and planned “Week of Solidarity with Standing Rock”. These rallies were happening literally within earshot of the AFL-CIO building!

After arriving, I asked to speak with someone regarding the statement. I then waited patiently in the lobby. When I was told no one would be able to answer my questions, I left the building and pulled out my trusty voice amplifier (aka bullhorn). I stood on the sidewalk outside the AFL-CIO for the rest of the afternoon and into the evening — until I was basically yelling and singing (labor songs) at an empty building. My wonderful and closest of friends, Vasu, came and joined me.

When I got home later that night I read this release from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) — the specific union that is benefiting from constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline.

WOW. They called the Native American Water Protectors “Extremists”?!?!

Now LiUNA & AFL-CIO, you’ve made my union blood boil. So, I scheduled an ad hoc protest for this past Monday morning, where I lost my voice and was rained on.

When the union of all unions loses sight of it’s mission and let’s one affiliate compromise it’s values for a handful of short-term jobs — they have clearly lost the moral high ground. It’s time for the AFL-CIO to soul search and to read their own mission statement really carefully. Here’s an excerpt:

“We resolve to fulfill the yearning of the human spirit for liberty, justice and community; to advance individual and associational freedom; to vanquish ­oppression, privation and cruelty in all their forms; and to join with all persons, of whatever nationality or faith, who cherish the cause of democracy and the call of solidarity, to grace the planet with these achievements.”

AFL-CIO & Richard Trumka: You must change your statement of support for this pipeline — or change your Mission Statement & Union Constitution. Choose one.

Thank goodness though, there are still other AFL-CIO affiliated unions like Mommy Rose’s IWW, the CWA, the UE, and countless AFL-CIO constituency groups of color standing with Standing Rock Sioux.

And the list goes on….

Life comes first, Richard Trumka.

Life comes first before good paying jobs. If four generations of union blood taught me anything, it’s that there’s a broader community of people who you are responsible to protect. You have a moral obligation to stand in solidarity with all whom are oppressed.

My great-grandmother Rose, and my grandmother Gloria are the real union organizers who carry a proud legacy forward through my words I write here today. You, Richard Trumka, are nothing but a big hypocrite:

“For every last worker out there, black, yellow, RED, and brown!” — an excerpt from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka’s speech titled: “Whatever the Color of our Skin”,

Retract your statement today. Or we’re coming for your “high-quality job”. It requires a higher quality and morally centered leader to carry out.

Lastly, a suggestion for when you retract that horrific statement — I suggest you replace it with a verse from my favorite and relevant union song:

Is there aught we hold in common with the greedy parasite,

Who would lash us into serfdom and would crush us with his might?

Is there anything left to us but to organize and fight? 
For the union makes us strong!

Solidarity forever, solidarity forever!
Solidarity forever!
For the Union makes us strong!

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