Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Gully Washer No Damper on Labor Day Celebration in Woodstock

The fourth annual Labor Day Celebration on Woodstock Square got under way despite threatening clouds.  One of several photos I will use here by Steve Stukenberg since my cell phone camera shots turned out crappy again.

I walked home from my overnight shift at the gas station in Crystal Lake in a light rain yesterday.  I checked the weather on line and found conflicting predictions for rain during our Labor Day Celebration on Woodstock Square later that morning.  As the rain outside picked up, some sites were predicting severe thunderstorms would wash us out.  Organizer scrambled for alternatives—or faced the real possibility of scrubbing the program.  Before I lay down for a short nap, Stage Left, the coffee house venue next to the Woodstock Opera House was tagged as a rain location.
When I woke up at 10 am, the sun was shining in Crystal Lake and weather radar show a line of thunderstorms north of the Wisconsin border and an ugly looking blob out west of the Mississippi in Iowa.  A window of opportunity had opened.  On the Square Keith Johnson of Off Square Music and our sound maven decided to set up in the Gazeebo.  The Celebration was going on as planned and damn the rain.
The uncertain forecast may have discouraged some folks, but a small but hearty crowd was in the Square for the scheduled 11 am start time and continued to build.  Hosts Robert Rosenberg of McHenry County Progressives and Kathryn Potter of the Democratic Party of McHenry County greeted the crowd and set the tone for an inspiring program. 

Story teller Jim May spins a yarn or two and makes some cogent points.
With labor anthems by Off Square Music still ringing in our ears, story teller Jim May got things started weaving personal and family recollections, the reality of McHenry County and America today, and folk tales to exhort the audience to commitment and action. 

Kathleen Spaltro of Woodstock Celebrates and the upcoming Debs/Pullman program helped make the historical connection between the Labor Day holiday and labor leader Eugene V. Debs’s time as a prisoner in Woodstock’s McHenry County Jail after the Pullman Strike of 1894.    She also read excerpts from speeches by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld who pardoned the surviving Haymarket prisoners and resisted President Grover Cleveland brutal intervention in the Pullman strike with Federal troops.  Among the passages she read was this one:

The world has been slow to accord labor its due. For thousands of years pillage, plunder and organized robbery, called warfare, were honorable pursuits, and the man who toiled, in order that all might live, was despised. In the flight of time, it was but yesterday that the labor of the earth was driven with the lash, and either sold on the block like cattle, or tied by an invisible chain to the soil, and was forbidden to even wander outside his parish. In the yesterday of time, even the employers of labor were despised. The men who conducted great industries, who carried on commerce, who practiced the useful arts, the men who made the earth habitable, were looked down upon by a class that considered it honorable to rob the toiler of his bread, a class which, while possessing the pride of the eagle, had only the character of the vulture…

It is a universal law in nature, in religion, in politics, in society, that the stronger force will destroy the weaker, and only those individuals, those agencies, and those combinations will survive that are able to maintain themselves. The government of the world is not a philanthropic affair. It is based on force, although rarely brute force as was once the case. It has become more refined in its method, but nevertheless the underlying principle is force, legal force; and this legal force is often shaped and directed by social, financial and political force. Enormous wealth when controlled by a few individuals is some- times a very powerful factor in shaping the policy of government, because it can frequently control the press and the agencies which form public opinion; it can control fashionable society and the sentiments of many men who, although occupying high positions, are often influenced through that agency. Frequently by looking after the matter of selecting candidates it can control not only the construction of the laws, but the making and the execution of the laws. If our institutions are to undergo great change, it is vital that the men of America, and not the money, should direct the change. Money may be a blessing as a servant, but it is a curse as a master. Money never established republican institutions in the world. It has no natural affinity with them, and does not understand them. Money has neither soul nor sentiment. It does not know the meaning of liberty, and it sneers at the rights of man. It never bled on the battlefield in time of war, and it never voluntarily sought the public treasury in time of peace. To safely guide our country through important changes requires the same characteristics which were possessed by the men who founded it. There must be lofty sentiment, honesty of purpose, love of country, love of fellowman, and, above all, love of justice. Money possesses none of these virtues.

If concentrated capital shall meet with no checking influence, or force, then republican institutions must come to an end, and we will have but two classes in this country, an exceedingly wealthy class on one hand, and a spiritless, crushed, poverty-stricken laboring class on the other. The hope of the country depends upon having a number of forces that will counterbalance or check each other.


The Old Man mounts a familiar stage.  Soap box oratory ensues.

Rounding out the historical prospective to the day was the Old Man, honored to have been asked back for the fourth time.  I reviewed an arch of Labor and social justice history that spanned the Great Railway Strike of 1877, the Haymarket, the Pullman Strike and Gene Debs, the pivotal year of 1919 and the crest of the Red Scare to crush labor and dissent, the Depression and Memorial Day Massacre, Civil Rights protests like Martin Luther King’s open housing marches in Chicago, the Democratic Convention protests, to the Black Lives Matter and the Resistance marches of the last two years.  But I was not in a professorial mode.  I was channeling the great old labor soapboxers I was privileged to have known from my Wobbly days and was aiming for a rabble rousing stem winder aimed at action here and now.  I wanted to move folks to two equally important duties as we face a rising tide of overt fascism and oppression—active Resistance at every opportunity in the street and concerted electoral activity to turn the bastards out before it is too late.  Classic offense and defense.  Solidarity in action.

Suzanne Ness District, County Board District 2 candidate, echoed a theme from Jim May which would be repeated often over the afternoon—the personal story of her family who had been lifted up by the gains of the labor movement and protections we often have taken for granted until they have come under new attack by the resurgent right—Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, etc.  She recounted from personal experience campaigning door to door all of the people she has met who have been either left behind for the Republican prosperity for the 1% or who have been wounded by the savagery of the kleptocracy.  Suzanne, the daughter of my old friend and social justice warrior Lou Ness was an exceptionally fine speaker and proof that the apple had fallen close to the tree.
Brian Dupois of the Northeastern Illinois Federation of Labor AFL/CIO began by debunking the myth that Social Security is bankrupt and will not be there for us in the future—hysteria whipped up by the Right to attack and destroy it along with all of the other life-boat reforms since the Great Depression.  He went on to recount the victories of labor.  Dupois ended with a slight paraphrase of AFL founder Samuel Gompers’s most famous quote:

What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books [and computers] and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures, to make manhood more noble, womanhood more beautiful, and childhood more happy and bright.

Mike Williamson, President Illinois Education Association local in District 300 opened his remarks recalling the wisdom of kindergarteners and first graders.  Then he noted that education is now in the cross hairs for the same folks who want to snatch your social security and make you work for peanuts. 

His remarks were interrupted by large rain drops plopping on the crowd and ominously lowering clouds approaching.  As Keith Johnson and the musicians scrambled the hosts called an audible—instead of going across the street to Stage Left by the Opera House as announced earlier in the morning, we were moving half a block up Main Street to the PourHouse, a homey saloon across the street from the movie theater.  A surprisingly large slice of the crowd made it to the new venue moist but not soaked before the heavens opened up with a gully washer. 


Some of the crowd that jammed into the PourHouse to continue the program.  I noted a saloon was an appropriate venue--the Eight Hour Day strikes in 1886 that led to the Haymarket affair were planned and organized in freindly neighborhood German beer halls.  
After chairs were set up and drinks ordered Williamson resumed his remarks to a crowd that over flowed the back room and spilled well into the main bar area.  He noted that the corporate funders of the Republicans are not interested in well informed citizens but only in narrowly trained, docile, and disposable minions.  He pointed to the stunning victories of five state wide teachers’ strikes in deep red states that not only had won economic gains for educators, but had forced legislators to fund basic needs and enhancements from students ranging from replacing decades old tattered text books, incorporating modern technology, and reducing class sizes.

McHenry County Democratic Chair Kristina Zahorik takes a moment to ponder as she addresses the crowd.  Photo by Drew Knobloch.
Kristina Zahorik wears many hats—an elected trustee in the Village of Oakwood Hills, State Central Committeeman for the 14th Congressional District, feminist activists and now Chair of the Democratic Party of McHenry County.  She emphasized the need to challenge the Republicans at every level from national races down to the most local level.  The issues are almost limitless from long neglected infrastructure investment in local roads and streets, to the preservation and extension of health care.   She praised local citizen activists who have been aroused and are stepping up to challenge the vaunted dominance of Republicans in McHenry county and encouraged more people to file for upcoming non-partisan local races for village boards, school and park boards and the like.  She noted that Tea Party activists are planning a stealth campaign to run for seats on local library boards where elections are often uncontested.  Libraries are the new target for budget slashing despite representing a tiny sliver of citizen’s property tax obligations.  It is a cover for restricting the free availability of information, those pesky facts that drive them to distraction.  With just 64 days until the November election Zahorik challenged everyone to get skin in the game and bring along their friends and family to walk precincts, ring doorbells, staff telephone banks, write letters to the editor, and to monitor local governments.
The program continued uninterrupted by the now raging storm outside, claps of deafening thunder, and two momentary power outages.

Aaron Goldberg of the Lake-McHenry Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) Chapter gave a solid socialism 101 address.  The DSA is a descendent of Eugene Deb’s Socialist Party and has bloomed into the largest independent left and/or socialist party in the United States with more than 32,000 activist members.  Rapid growth has been fed by those energized by Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign and young people who are not allergic to the mere mention of the word socialist.  The DSA is not an independent political party but supports left/progressive candidates  running under other banners—usually as Democrats but sometimes as Greens or as independent socialists in local or non-partisan races. Curiously he did not mention the coming election or any of the candidates who shared the Labor Day platform.  While it is true the DSA has been bitterly critical of the Democratic National Committee and entrenched Congressional leadership, locally most DSA members I know are not only support but actively working for Democratic candidates, especially in McHenry County where most of the grass roots activists who are running for office are solid progressives.


Carlos Acosta.   Photo by Susan Silber.
That would include the next speaker, long-time local Latino community leader Carlos Acosta, a social worker and shop steward in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) who is running for County Board from District 5.  Carlos announced that he was speaking not a candidate, but as a union member this Labor Day.  He recounted the momentous events for organized labor over the last year including those five Red State teachers strikes, the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that attacked the ability of public worker unions to collect fees for services to non-members protected by union contracts, and the stunning victory at the polls when Red State Missouri voters overwhelmingly rejected a so-called right to work law.  Labor unions and working people are under attack but are rebounding with new found energy and determination.  Noting that the right wing Koch Brothers funded Illinois Policy Institute had sent state workers flyers urging them to “save money” by quitting the union and refusing to pay agency fees, Carlos declared that he was “Sticking to the union!”  and channeling Norma Rae held up a hand lettered cardboard sign reading “Union.”
Congressional Candidate Lauren Underwood was impressive.  Photo by Knobloch.
Carlos introduced the most anticipated speaker of the afternoon, Lauren Underwood, candidate of Congress for the 14th Congressional District against Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren. Underwood, a Registered Nurse and former Obama administration public health official explained how she was drawn to the race.  After leaving Washington she returned to Illinois and attended Hultgren’s only town hall meeting last year.  He heard him promise that although he was in favor of rescinding so-called Obama care that he would vote to preserve protections for Americans that guarantee insurance coverage for those with pre-existing conditions.  Instead Hultgren blindly followed Party orders and voted for the American Health Care Act that included erasing the pre-existing coverage.  That made her mad and she decided to run.  Underwood is a confident and comfortable speaker with a good command of her issues. 
It is easy to see how she connected to voters and came out on top of a crowed Democratic field in the Primary election.  Now she is actively threatening Hultgren despite running in an oddly shaped district drawn to pretty much guarantee and unshakable Republican majorities.  Hultgren is now listed as the most threatened incumbent Republican Congressman in Illinois and she is within spitting distance of unsetting him.  Her Democratic and progressive supporters are more energized and involved than the somewhat demoralized Republicans.  The opposition is particularly troubled this year by an open revolt of suburban women disgusted by Trump and Trumpsim who will find an articulate female candidate like Underwood very attractive.  Underwood also emphasized the importance to a full out press by everyone before the election and the importance of supporting candidates up and down the ticket.

Andrew “Drew” Georgi, a former Marine and an outspoken reform Trustee in Hebron, is in perhaps the most significant McHenry County race.  He faces incumbent Republican Joe Tirio, a Tea Party zealot and the poster boy of the most extreme faction of the local GOP.  The hyper-partisan Tirio, a fan of every Republican voter suppression proposal ever trotted out, simply cannot be trusted to manage elections and report outcomes honestly and reliably.  Georgi is both detail oriented and versed in technology to reliably handle complex computer systems and make sure there are plenty of easily available polling places.


The movers and shakers of the Labor Day Celebration--co-host Kathryn Potter of the Democratic Party of McHenry County, event coordinator Steve Stuckengerg, co-host Robert Rosenberg of McHenry County Progressives, and Missy Funk.  Good job all!
Last up was County Board District 6 candidate Larry Spaeth, a former Letter Carrier union official who spoke of hard fought and won union gains like end child labor and affordable health care.
Despite the challenges of the weather, it was a great Labor Day.  Let’s do it again next year when we can celebrate major victories—if we work hard enough and live up the examples of selflessness and sacrifice of those who came before.  As always—Solidarity Forever!


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