Labor activists invoke early leader’s legacy

Solidarity Day planned Sunday at Tacoma zoo



TACOMA — Organized labor had its day Monday, but Pierce County unions will wait until Sunday for their big celebration.

That’s when the Pierce County Central Labor Council hosts its annual Solidarity Day at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, where visitors can check out union exhibits and see the animals — free of charge, if they live in the county.

But the most die-hard of local union supporters didn’t let Labor Day pass without marking the occasion. While other workers grilled in their backyards or relaxed on their day off, about 40 people gathered in Tacoma’s Calvary Cemetery.

There, at a grave that doesn’t look much different from hundreds of others around it, labor activist Ralph Chaplin was buried more than 50 years ago.

Chaplin wrote a poem that became a union anthem, “Solidarity Forever.” Labor leaders sang it with gusto Monday, joined by an election-year crush of politicians.

Among the Democrats joining their voices in the song, to the same tune as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” were a candidate for Congress, Denny Heck, and for secretary of state, Kathleen Drew.

Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson also joined in, after telling the crowd: “Labor’s been under ferocious attack. We have for many, many decades, but over the last 18 months even more so. And we haven’t taken it lying down. We’re fighting back.”

As an example, he noted that unions are putting their money into preserving documents and photographs that tell the history of organized labor, and making sure young people learn about them. The unions have funded a special collection of archives at the University of Washington.

The labor movement’s history was on the minds of participants Monday who recounted how Chaplin was convicted and jailed in 1917 along with other members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or the “Wobblies.”

The group’s members were known for their anti-war views during World War I, and organizers said Chaplin served four years in an Illinois prison for conspiring to hinder the military draft and encourage desertion.

Central Labor Council leaders say they have been rebuffed in their efforts to put up a more visible marker to Chaplin in the cemetery, but they still gather every year at his grave for prayers, speeches and union songs.

Union leaders encouraged attendees to go door-to-door for labor-backed candidates as campaign season heats up this month.