As summer approaches, Occupy groups around the country are beginning to reemerge from the winter lull and begin picketing public spaces and raising awareness around issues such as economic disparity and the American financial system. This past weekend, however, the Grinnell Occupy group took on a new issue: labor rights. Last Monday, students, professors and community members gathered in Central Park to make a statement of support to labor organizations and laborers the world over.
As part one of a two-part event, Grinnellians gathered in Central Park to sing songs traditionally associated with the labor movement. The second part of the day saw a handful of Grinnellians travel to Des Moines to participate in a 5,000-person rally.
According to Dr. John Stone, Computer Science, May Day was chosen as the day for the gathering so that it would coincide with International Workers’ Day.
“It was a celebration of international workers day with the purpose of expressing solidarity between labor organizations and occupy groups across the country,” Stone said.
Though officially a day to celebrate the progress in the labor movement, Stone continued that while most college students are removed from the realities of the working as a laborer, recognizing those who help keep the College operating is key to really understanding the what the day represents.
“I think [students] being more appreciative of the work that is being done by members of the college community who operate most of the time in the background and understanding the key role of the labor movement is important,” Stone said.
Tim Youtz ’14, who helped organize the Grinnell leg of the Occupy event, said that he feels recognizing the importance of the labor movement is key to promoting active social justice.
“It wasn’t meant to be a protest [or] Occupy event but rather a celebration of the day and celebration of unions which are one of the true sources of power for the individual workers,” Youtz said.
While discussions of unions and labor history often appear in courses throughout the Grinnell curriculum, the gathering downtown offered participants a chance to hear from speakers presenting on issues surrounding current labor debates in Iowa.
“One of the speeches that was given at the event yesterday was an appeal to get rid of the Iowa “right to work” legislation by a union member of some 60 years in the community, Don
Sundale,” Stone said. Referring to the law that bars employers from running a “closed shop”, or hiring system that only allows dues paying union members to work, Sundale argued that the current law creates tensions between union and non-union workers. By taking advantage of the law, non-unionized workers avoid paying dues for the same work that unionized members do. Furthermore, Sundale asserted that he thinks the community and the enterprise function more harmoniously if everyone in the group of workers understands the importance of the rights the unions guarantee.
According to Stone, Sundale’s observations are important for people to understand the importance of unions and the issues surrounding right to work legislation.
“I think this is an argument that should make a lot of sense to people who are interested in social justice. I too am interested in seeing Iowa’s right to work law repealed,” Stone said.
In addition to the gathering in Central Park, several students piled into a car and headed to Des Moines to join in a larger protest hosted by the Occupy Des Moines group.
“Six of us drove to Des Moines and we marched about a mile and half to the Capital in honor of International Workers’ Day,” said Darwin Manning, ’13.
While meant to celebrate the progress labor movements have made across the world, the day also serves to remind people that there is still much work to do. Coming on the heels of the screening of the documentary, abUSed, one of the more current labor issues that is sitting right in Grinnell’s backyard is immigrant labor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of Iowa agricultural workers hailing from other nations; issues concerning international workers’ rights are present and real.
“Immigrant workers rights are an important contemporary issue. The government has taken such a hostile attitude towards guaranteeing them. Anti-immigrant legislation is rife around the country,” Stone said. “Both Debbie Cook-Martin [Sociology] and Montgomery Roper [Anthropology] both spoke at the event yesterday and both mentioned this as a problem that society needs to addressed and an issue that people should be more aware of as people start to formulate their own political ideas.”
Though Grinnellians often find themselves interested in issues such as labor reform, but have little extra time to commit, Stone feels that the best immediate action is for students to learn more about the issues.
“What students can do right now about this is educate themselves,” Stone said. Students could know more about unions, the history of labor unions both in this country and abroad.”