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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Labor Vincit Omnia


Last weekend, I was able to attend “Labor Fest” a celebration of workers and labor in Oklahoma history and culture. For three days in the Plaza District and the new Lyric Theatre there were concerts, plays, films, and readings in Oklahoma labor history and presentations on issues of worker justice.
Labor was a big presence at the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention. Union members, in alliance with tenant farmers, won majority support for many of their demands at the state’s constitutional convention in 1906. Oklahoma’s legislature eventually passed laws prohibiting child labor and mandating compulsory school attendance, establishing state mining and factory inspectors, regulating the use of strike breakers during labor disputes and providing for humane treatment of prisoners and the poor.
Workers had a big interest the formation of Oklahoma’s government. During the territory days, workers were often exploited with little help from the federal government. Child labor was common. Mines were typically built with only one exit and cave-ins were a frequent occurrence. Oil field workers worked in hazardous conditions and were often maimed or killed on the job. Farmers were subject to exploitation by greedy banks and speculators along with railroad companies who charged the farmers outrageous prices to transport their harvests, which robbed farmers of a rightful return for their labor. In short, conditions were then pretty much as they are now.
Sometimes one hears that unions were once a good thing, but their time has passed. People will tell me, “If people will only be more productive or get the right training, they can find good jobs on their own. No need for a union to interfere with a company’s employees.” That same argument has always been used by those who either want to exploit workers or are willing to allow exploitation to continue rather than suffer the pains required for the fight for justice.
The truth is that justice is never convenient, never something those in power willingly give up to those without it. None of the economic rights we take for granted now, including the 40 hour week, workplace safety, child labor laws, and anti-discrimination laws, came without a fight. And the fight for justice is never complete, never a matter of the past, never something that can be taken for granted.
God bless the good people of this church who continue to give themselves over to the fight for justice. Let us never grow weary in this fight. Let this Labor Day weekend remind us of why we are in it.