Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Harold Washington wore a union label

By Pepe Lozano
People's Weekly World

CHICAGO — There are a million things people remember about Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, who was elected in 1983. But the thing I remember the most about him was his great big hands. I remember as a child shaking or holding his hands, and now, thinking back, his hands seemed to symbolize the greatness of ordinary working-class people. And Washington, who unexpectedly died in office, will be someone Chicagoans will never forget.

Washington’s election was the outcome of a multi-racial citywide coalition beginning within the African American community. Then immediately he included the involvement of Latino and white working-class communities representing a progressive and independent reform movement that eventually carried him to victory.

Unsung heroes, she-roes

One thing that has been unsung was how the Chicago labor movement, especially Black trade unionists, led the way in registering tens of thousands of new voters, including a recruitment drive of petition signers, door knockers, phone bankers and an army of volunteer foot-soldiers on Election Day.

It was precisely labor’s role in Chicago that helped shape Washington’s campaign turning it into a broad people’s movement that revolutionized the city’s Democratic machine politics under former Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Washington was a progressive leader who stood up for working people’s causes including the peace movement, civil and immigrant rights and especially the rights of workers. In the late 1970s and early 80s when Chicago lost over 120,000 jobs, mostly in the manufacturing sector, especially in steel, Washington advocated saving jobs and providing relief to working families.

Racism won’t ‘turn us around’

By 1983 when Washington decided to run for mayor, he was a respected member of Congress and became an important ally in progressive political circles throughout Chicago. Still, many people in the city’s political machine just didn’t believe an African American could win. And some – deeply influenced by racism — were extremely hostile to the idea of a Black mayor.

Many white working class people, including union members not to mention many long-standing Democrats and officials like Alderman “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, switched political parties and endorsed the Republican candidate against Washington, after he won the Democratic primary in 1983.

Despite the racism, a labor coalition for Washington was formed and led by Black unionists. It became one of the most organized forces in his campaign.

Teachers, African American unionists play leading role

Before the 1983 mayoral primary, the Chicago Teachers Union held a delegates’ meeting where pro-Washington campaign literature including “Washington for Mayor” buttons were passed out before a motion was made to have the union endorse his run.

During the meeting teachers were chanting Washington’s name, and the white and Black union leadership had no choice but to endorse him with overwhelming support. After that, support for Washington started steam rolling within some of the city’s unions.

Leaders of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), including service workers and Teamsters, endorsed Washington. It was CBTU that pressed the Chicago Federation of Labor — made up of integrated unions with white, Black, Latino and Asian memberships — to endorse Washington in the 1983 general election.

“We saw Washington as a viable candidate and we endorsed him wholeheartedly, and we felt he was more qualified than those before him,” said Elwood Flowers who just retired as vice president of the Illinois AFL-CIO and was a close friend of Washington. “But we as labor were just one arm of the Washington movement.”

Flowers was incoming president of Local 308 with the Amalgamated Transit Union during Washington’s campaign. He is now the assistant to the president of that local.

There were a number of African American labor leaders who were important allies for Washington and played influential roles in his administration, Flowers said. For example, he cited Charles Hayes, vice president of the then United Packinghouse Workers Union (now known as the United Food and Commercial Workers union), who won Washington’s seat in the 1st District, a powerhouse African American community on the city’s south side, after Washington was elected mayor.

Other notable allies of Washington at that time included Addie Wyatt, who was the first African American woman vice president of the Packinghouse Workers, and Jim Wright, who was the first Black director of United Auto Workers Region 4. Jackie Vaughn, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union and first African American to hold that post, was also instrumental in Washington’s administration. All were leading members of CBTU.

“They were all leaders in that labor connection and very close to Washington,” said Flowers. “They were his eyes and ears” for working people’s concerns.

Flowers said many of Washington’s political rallies, meetings and campaign events took place at the United Packinghouse Workers union hall at 49th and Wabash.

¡Labor presente!

In the predominantly Latino communities of Pilsen and Little Village, my father, the late Rudy Lozano was also a key ally in Washington’s labor-based coalition. Lozano was a Mexican American labor organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (now known as Unite-Here).

He was also a community activist and decided to run for alderman in the 22nd Ward, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican American neighborhood. Although he narrowly lost, Lozano was a rising political star and leader that advocated for multi-racial coalitions and worker unity. He rallied and mobilized the Latino constituent base to vote for Washington.

Lozano understood the need for Black, Latino and white working class unity, especially the importance of union solidarity among all workers including undocumented immigrant workers. Lozano’s independent and grassroots-based organizing, along with Washington’s mayoral victory, sparked a movement throughout Chicago’s Latino communities, which hardly had any representation in City Council. Washington’s victory galvanized the majority of the Latino electorate and soon new Latino leaders emerged as viable elected officials under his administration.

All boats rise

Better contracts and a fair share to women, African Americans and Latinos were all a part of Washington’s agenda. “These were people who traditionally have been cut out, and Harold’s accomplishments helped all communities,” Flowers recalled.

“Harold stood for fairness and that is the definition of the labor movement,” he said. “He was an individual inspiration for all workers.”

And in 1987, when Washington ran again, he won a bigger vote from the predominantly white communities that had opposed him in 1983.

Twenty-five years later

Twenty-five years later the struggle for workers rights and the fight for multi-racial unity continues — perhaps not on the same level that Washington was able to achieve — but it continues. Witness the 2007 aldermanic elections where labor-backed candidates won and helped to strengthen the City Council.

The movement to elect Barack Obama today is almost identical to Washington’s, but nationwide, said Flowers. “Our members wanted to be involved in the political process, similar to people today for Obama,” said Flowers.

“What Obama can do for the country will help all communities including providing jobs and health care. And the number one issue is stopping the Iraq war, which is draining our economic resources. If those things bear fruit, then they will benefit all working-class communities,” he added.

It was Washington’s example and the power of working people that will always remind us about what is possible. The greatness is in our hands.


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