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On Ferguson solidarity, unions, and people power: a 2014 reflection / by Allison Smartt

"Years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things . . . I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free." - Eugene V. Debs

I read this quote after attending a solidarity rally in Northampton, MA in December 2014 with hundreds of other demonstrators outraged by the injustice served in Ferguson, MO. This quote about solidarity hit home like never before.

In Northampton, I'm a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, IATSE for short. I joined as part of a successful organizing campaign of a string of local performance venues. I was an employee of one of the venues before the campaign and after union representatives and the employer reached a collective bargaining agreement, new member application fees and tests were waived and I was welcomed in with about 18 other new members. I had hopes of joining IATSE since 2010, when I worked side by side with union members as a house employee (aka does not benefit from collective bargaining agreements). In many ways, it was my first real audio gig and it could be very lonely. I've written about it before. The venue's IATSE crew protected, encouraged and supported me and helped me succeed during a tough season. Aside from the comradery that can come with union membership, there are other benefits: guaranteed breaks, overtime and odd hours pay (ie. getting paid time-and-a-half for working between 12am-7am), representation and pathways for settling workplace disputes...the list goes on.

I believe being a union member is a political act. The mere existence of unions exposes inequalities in our capitalist society and provides paths to counter these inequities. My activism isn't limited to union membership - it extends to many issues where power, money and exploitation reign supreme - and let's face it, there are virtually no areas of our lives and society that aren't affected.

The events in Ferguson and the hundreds of solidarity demonstrations across the country are connected to our labor struggles. To see the connections, consider the Minneapolis Trucker's strike of 1934. At the most basic level, the 1934 strikers were a group of disenfranchised people fighting to change a broken labor system that didn't serve their basic human needs. The strikers demanded higher wages, shorter working hours, the ability to unionize workers throughout the industry (i.e. not just truck drivers, but truck loaders, mechanics, etc.) and that employers recognize that workers had unionized. They fought for their rights to food, dignity, and safety. Both violent and peaceful protests were met with savage police brutality in the form of beatings, bogus arrests and riot guns spraying buckshot, killing two and injuring sixty-seven. When the Governor deployed the National Guard to brutalize strikers and undermine the strike by providing military issued trucking licenses to scab drivers, pickets and strikers brought traffic to a standstill and entire industries to a grinding halt. When labor leaders were wrongfully imprisoned, 40,000 people marched to demand their release - and their demands were met!

Like during the Truckers strike, peaceful and violent protests in Ferguson have been met with police brutality, deployment of the National Guard, and racist, negative mainstream news coverage. Thousands are demonstrating all over the country, demanding accountability of our leaders and fighting to change our broken justice system. Many are still skeptical that these demonstrations will accomplish anything and think that these issues will just fade away like they always seem to do.

It's important to remember the power of the people - the power of Minneapolis in 1934 and of Ferguson in 2014 - to bring about incredible and lasting change through direct action and grassroots organizing. Thousands of people, from union members to farmers to the jobless, united and struck for over three months until they were heard and forever altered the future of unionism in the US: non-craft workers were unionized on a large scale, membership grew to new heights and legislation acknowledging the rights of workers to organize and bargain, like the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, were enacted. Despite facing incredible opposition by those in power, Ferguson has said "enough is enough," and though 80 years apart, I believe we can remember this lesson of unrelenting people power to bring about change now.

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