Ensuring Our History Doesn't Get Lost

Reposted from AFSCME Council 5


Local 3800’s Sharice McCain sings at the Council 5 Convention in a moving performance to honor historical leaders.
Local 3800’s Sharice McCain sings at the Council 5 Convention in a moving performance to honor historical leaders.

The rich history of working men and women who fought for the union rights we enjoy today too often goes untold. Labor history isn’t taught enough – if at all – in many schools, and we’re certainly not hearing about union gains for working people from some politicians and media sources.

That’s why AFSCME Council 5 is working hard to celebrate labor history.

At the annual Council 5 Convention, AFSCME members also took to the stage to portray famous labor leaders. Their moving performance featured music by Larry Long, Georgia Wettlin Larsen, Billy Steele and Local 3800’s Sharice McCain. You can view those performances on our new site, AFSCMEroots.

Members also volunteered at more than 130 shifts at the Minnesota State Fair, handing out postcards about labor leaders and informing the public about union gains. In 2017, you’ll find one of these postcards in every issue of Stepping Up.

Musicians Billy Steele (left), Larry Long, Georgia Wettlin Larsen and Sharice McCain (pictured at the top of the page) jam during the convention's labor history show.
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“With labor history, we suffer from gross ignorance,” says Local 66 president Dennis Frazier. “We have an inaccurate vision of the past, and no sight of the future and present. We need to realize how much people struggled and worked, whether it’s Eugene Debs (who Frazier portrayed at the Convention) or the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. You struggle, you sacrifice, and you stay with it.

“Nothing was ever given to us,” Frazier adds. “It wasn’t easy.”

Labor leaders were jailed repeatedly, suffered injuries and sometimes even gave their lives to win safe working conditions, eight-hour workdays, holidays and weekends off, and an end to child labor, just to name a few.

“We have to continue to fight to keep those things and to continue to grow,” says Sara Franck, the Local 2474 president who portrayed the feisty organizer Mother Jones. “The bosses would love to take that all away from us if they could. We have to be OK with taking risks, supporting what is right and having the courage to do so.”

Frazier, Franck and several other Council 5 members reflected on how the characters they portrayed on stage inspire them in daily life:

Eliot Seide, Council 5 executive director
Portrayed Jerry Wurf
(AFSCME International leader who greatly expanded our union and moved public workers from "collective begging" to "collective bargaining."
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 “I can’t quit. Every worker deserves dignity at work. Every worker deserves a job that treats people with respect, and every worker deserves fairness when they’re working. That’s what Jerry Wurf was about. That’s what I’m about, I hope, on my best day.”

Vaughn Thompson, Local 1092 (DHS Moose Lake)
Portrayed Bayard Rustin
(Leading strategist of the Civil Rights Movement who brought Gandhi's peaceful-protest teachings to the movement)
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“Bayard was a very strong person. To be able to step out and have everything thrown at you and continue to do the work is the epitome of not giving up. He really stood out and stood strong. No matter what hit him, he just continued.

That unselfishness in how he was affecting other people and really trying to get them to be treated humanely, it’s really inspiring.

I hope people come away with his approach: No matter what they’re going through or who they are, they can step out and be strong and put others before themselves.”

Sara Franck, Local 2474 president (Hennepin County Medical Center)
Portrayed Mother Jones
(Called the "most dangerous woman in America" for her work organizing coal miners and their families)
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“My role as Mother Jones inspired me to never quit and to never give up on the oppressed, the hungry, the children, our members and their families, on fighting for what is right, because she never did either.

I could only hope that I could continue her legacy by being a fighter, by being that aggressive, deliberate, caring person. The care in her heart that she had for the oppressed folks, I could only hope that I could have some piece of that compassion.

We can’t give up – otherwise we lose.”

Mary Falk, Council 5 secretary, Local 4001 (MnSCU)
Portrayed Pauline Newman
(Triangle Shirtwaist Factory worker who went on to become a great organizer)
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“I enjoyed reading as Pauline Newman because Pauline started as a child in the garment business and worked to organize other garment workers to get safer workplaces. She fought very hard for workers’ rights, particularly women’s rights.

She never quit on doing that work, so that’s what I want to strive to do, to never, ever quit on doing the right thing for workers, especially women. We’re still struggling, we still don’t have pay equity.

We need to get more women on the international Executive Board, more women in Congress. We haven’t come far enough.

The labor movement as a whole has kind of slid backward, but I feel that AFSCME, particularly Council 5, is moving in the right direction. I hope celebrating our history will encourage even more members to become active and stand up for our collective rights.”

Dennis Frazier, Local 66 president
Portrayed Eugene Debs
(Labor leader and socialist leader who ran for U.S. president five times)
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“The characteristics about Eugene Debs that I love are his determination to make life better for all working people and families. I’m committed to the children and families I serve and my union brothers and sisters because it’s about human rights, dignity and respect for all. Children and families struggle to have a voice, and they struggle every day and get a raw deal. It’s the same with so many workers. What’s good for workers is good for families and children.

He believed that organizing and mobilizing members and workers was the answer. He saw the evils of exploitation and greed through our system of capitalism and how we need to prevent that by caring about others. The thing I come away with that we need to do today is organize and mobilize. The answer isn’t solely in politics, but politics are a necessary evil.

It’s like anything else in life, whether it’s how we grow our food or how we live, we become weaker when we stray from our roots. We need strong, vibrant voices in the workplace, to organize around dignity, and respect all facets of life.”

Sametta Hill, Local 34 (Hennepin County Human Services)
Portrayed Sojourner Truth
(Abolitionist who fought for the rights of African-Americans and for women's right to vote)
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“After reading her story, it really resonated with me that we had a lot in common.  

She was an African-American woman who struggled with hardship and survived, and realized she deserved more and wanted more, and wanted people around her to have more. That’s always been a passion of mine: I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself.

Raised in the inner city, there was a lack of resources and a lack of jobs. I just have always wanted to ensure the next generation after me would have more and better, and I would be able to feed my family, and that my fellow union members as well as my clients would be able to feed their families and have equality and jobs, so we can all have a better quality of life.”

To see the full performances and download labor history postcards, visit www.AFSCMEroots.org.