Activists pay tribute to noted labor leader

  • Voices of solidarity. From left to right, Vance Lelli, Kimberly Lelli and Tony Saleton perform during the event while Anders Ibsen sings along. (Photo by John Larson)

Union members and other supporters of organized labor gathered at Calvary Cemetery in Tacoma on Sept. 5 to pay tribute to a man who dedicated his life to helping workers.

This is the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Chaplin. A noted labor activist, poet, songwriter and author, Chaplin is noted for writing the words of “Solidarity Forever,” an international anthem for the labor movement.

He became interested in organized labor at age 7, when he saw a worker fatally shot during a strike in Chicago.

He became active in the Industrial Workers of the World, known by the nickname “Wobblies.” He was editor of one of the union’s publications. In 1917 he and about 100 other Wobblies were arrested and convicted under the federal Espionage Act. He served four years of a 20-year prison sentence.

After his release, Chaplin became disillusioned by the revolution in Russia that brought Communists to power. He opposed Communist infiltration of American unions.

Chaplin settled in Tacoma, where he edited Labor Advocate, a publication of Pierce County Central Labor Council. From 1949 until his death in 1961 he was curator of manuscripts for Washington State Historical Society.

He is credited with designing the black cat symbol associated with anarcho-syndicalists.

Chaplin’s admirers gather at Calvary Cemetery every year on Labor Day to pay tribute to the noted labor leader. Pierce County Central Labor Council organizes the event.

Vance Lelli, a member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union, began the ceremony by reading a poem Chaplin wrote in 1933. Lelli said Chaplin’s message of the need for workers to organize still ring true in what he described as “bleak” times for unions.

“It used to be a more pleasant time for labor,” he said. “This is the worst I have ever seen. It is a crazy, crazy world I am living in.”

State Senator Steve Conway (D-Tacoma) said the event offered an opportunity for union activists to re-commit to the ideals of men like Chaplin. “This is a time of challenge.” Conway said there were several anti-union pieces of legislation introduced in the 2011 session of the Legislature.

Conway noted the ongoing dispute involving Tacoma Education Association and Tacoma Public Schools and another involving workers in Community Health Care clinics.

“We have got to stop these attacks on collective bargaining,” he declared.

Conway said now is the time for unions to organize those suffering in the recession, particularly the unemployed. He said such people are angry “and have a heart for a fight.”

Father Bill “Bix” Bichsel, a Catholic priest noted for his political activism, described Chaplin as a champion of human rights.

Tacoma resident Anita Latch said Labor Day should not be viewed just as a day for drinking beer and having barbecues. “This is a day to celebrate what unites us,” she remarked.

Patty Rose, secretary-treasurer of Pierce County Central Labor Council, passed around a metal cup that Chaplin used while in jail in Chicago.

Lelli said Tacoma Public Schools attempted to cut 30 minutes a day from para-educators, a move he said was done to drop their hours enough to reduce their benefits. The district backed away from this. “We are being attacked around the nation but there are still victories,” he remarked.

Bichsel and Dr. Eugene Wiegman, a Lutheran minister, both said prayers. The ceremony ended with those in attendance singing “Solidarity Forever.”


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