In early September the AFL-CIO held a dramatic convention in Los Angeles. With the labor movement’s segment of the U.S. workforce down to a meager 11 percent, leaders urged the pursuit of new paths, what they called “a historic opening in the labor movement.” President Richard Trumka called on the more than one hundred year old federation to open its arms to embrace new kind of organizations – worker centers, worker associations, and associate member organizations. It’s time, he said, that the labor movement become a movement of “the 99 percent.” He and other leaders called particular attention to the International Domestic Workers’ Network, the National Taxi Workers’ Alliance, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Working America, as they encouraged unions to develop strategies which used links with such organizations to build community support for workers and to fight against racism and on behalf of immigrants’ rights.
As Minnesota labor organizations explore how they might place themselves and their members on this course, they can find a valuable blueprint in their own history.
Controversy and protest are dogging the Washington “R*” (I will not write or say that name) football team as they prepare to play the Minnesota Vikings this Thursday evening, November 7, at the Metrodome. Native Americans, journalists, civil rights activists, and politicians are raising quite a hue and cry for the team to drop its patently racist, offensive nickname. A “Change the Mascot” protest which greeted the Washington team’s buses in Denver last Sunday got national media coverage. Twin Cities branches of the American Indian Movement (AIM) have called for a march from the American Indian Center on Franklin Avenue to the dome on Thursday, asking protestors to gather at 5PM.
Twenty years ago, on January 26, 1992, local AIM activists led some 2,000 protestors to the same Metrodome, where the Washington “R*’s” were playing the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl. Among them were members of the Chippewa, Sioux, Winnebago, and Choctaw communities, as well as representatives of the National Congress of American Indians. Only months earlier, they had had to withstand the insult of the Atlanta “B*’s” playing the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. Atlanta fans, led by owner Ted Turner, disrespected native peoples by intoning and performing the “tomahawk chop” for all to see. Native activists were determined to draw a line in the sand – or the snow – and challenge these racist nicknames and behaviors once and for all. Don Messec, anti-defamation coordinator for the National Congress of American Indians, said “I’m sure future generations will look back on a name like the Washington ‘R*’s’ and wonder “How could that have been used in 1992? How did society allow it?’”
Among the protestors that day were several hundred activists from the local labor movement, led by Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 17. This union had been involved in a protracted battle with the management of the Normandy Inn. In July 1991, the Normandy had reopened after a substantial facelift, partially funded with taxpayer dollars. Although the union had helped the owners get public funding and the veteran workers had waited to reclaim their jobs and return to work, the owners shocked everyone by refusing to rehire their workers and refusing to renew the union contract. About 140 workers, many with thirty or more years’ seniority, found themselves unemployed. They and their union responded with boisterous picket lines, as the Normandy became a poster child for the anti-union demeanor of employers in the Reagan-Bush era. While the picket lines were lively and enjoyed considerable support from other union members, the Normandy’s management held firm.
As the Super Bowl approached, union activists realized that it could provide them with some leverage. Surely, every hotel in Minneapolis would be full for that huge week-end, and many were raising their prices to make the most of the opportunity. Local 17’s leadership held a series of meetings to develop a strategy, which led them to seek out some unusual allies.
They invited peace activist Marv Davidov to conduct civil disobedience trainings for union members. A veteran of the civil rights Freedom Rides of 1961 and the architect of the Honeywell Project, in which hundreds of local activists had committed civil disobedience at Honeywell’s plant gates to protest the company’s production of anti-personnel “cluster bombs,” he was a well-known fixture of the local progressive community. While the Honeywell demonstrations had received mixed greetings from the Teamsters’ Union which represented its workers (the union officers were openly hostile, but many members were sympathetic), Marv was a visible supporter of union struggles, including the Hormel strike in Austin in 1985-1986, and widely respected by labor activists who also identified with movements against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Iraq. Local 17 members, Normandy Inn workers, and other local trade unionists trusted him.
Union leaders also reached out to AIM activists, particularly Clyde and Vernon Bellecourt, who had announced their intentions to protest the Washington team’s nickname. The Bellecourts and AIM activists were as much a part of the local progressive community as was Marv Davidov and some of the local labor movement. Their support for the Wounded Knee struggle of the mid-1970s, their opposition to U.S. foreign policy, and their anger at the corporate attack on workers had brought these specific groups together in protests, rallies, and picket lines for years. Together, they hatched a plan to link the Normandy struggle with the Washington racist mascot struggle.
On the morning of the day before the Super Bowl, Saturday, January 25, several dozen activists crowded into the lobby of the Normandy Inn and sat down. Several hundred supporters marched around the building, carrying signs and chanting. The hotel’s ability to conduct business was utterly disrupted, and their guests were inconvenienced in a big way. Management called the police, who, after several hours of negotiation, arrested seventeen activists who refused to get up on their own and leave. Union participants in the action discussed the history of the labor movement’s use of sitdown strikes, particularly in the 1930s, and the civil rights movement’s use of sit-ins in the 1960s. They felt a strong connection to this history, and they were inspired by their own activism.
The following day, Super Bowl Sunday, hundreds of labor activists, led by a large contingent from the Normandy group, joined forces with AIM and other protestors outside the Metrodome. Despite the bitter cold – and an almost equally chilling response from the football fans – they carried their signs, chanted their slogans, distributed their leaflets, and built community among themselves. They lamented that neither the ownership of the Normandy Inn nor the owners of the Washington football team had been willing to listen to the protestors. They discussed the ways that the expropriation of Native peoples was linked to an economy and a power structure that would toss aside workers with thirty years of loyal service to a corporation, and to a government which would wage war on people thousands and thousands of miles away. The demonstration was quite a school for the protestors, and they emerged with new knowledge and new allies.
To be sure, the owners of the Washington football team did not change its nickname. Various strategies were tried in the ensuing years. The Morning Star Institute and the Dorsey & Whitney law firm petitioned the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that, under law, they should prohibit “disparaging, scandalous, contemptuous, or disreputable” trademarks. After seven years of motions, depositions, hearings, and presentations, they won, only to see the decision overturned in short order by the Washington, D.C. District Court. When the D.C. city council threatened to ban the nickname in 1997, owner Dan Snyder moved the team to Landover, Maryland. In March 2013, nineteen congressmen and women, led by Eni Faleomavaega of American Samoa (without voting rights, of course) and Eleanor Holmes Norton of D.C. (who also lacks voting rights), introduced a resolution that would void any trademark that disparages Native Americans. That bill has languished amidst the many shenanigans in the House of Representatives this year. Just last week, local AIM organizations asked the newly created Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority to ban the Washington team’s logo and mascot as racist. Their petition was turned down. And so the protest that will take place this Thursday evening.
While the struggle against the racist nickname has failed so far, the Normandy labor dispute had a very different ending. Two weeks after the 1992 Super Bowl, the owners of the Normandy Inn did relent. They returned to the bargaining table and struck a deal with Local 17. One hundred and twenty-one workers were offered their jobs back, and the union contract was renewed. All agreed that their actions in the Normandy lobby on January 25 and outside the Metrodome on the 26 had turned the tide. This was an unusual victory in an era full, too full, of labor defeats.
Although HERE Local 17 and the Normandy Inn workers won their struggle in 1992, the labor movement’s overall record has continued to be dismal. The unionized segment of the workforce has declined steadily, and workers of all sorts have experienced diminishing wages and benefits, diminishing job security, and fading hope for the future. The 2013 AFL-CIO convention urged labor organizations to step outside the box of conventional collective bargaining and reach out to potential allies of all sorts. We’re all part of the “99 percent.” Minnesota unions don’t have to look very far for ideas. They can take a cue from the struggle against racist sports nicknames in their own past. Let’s hope we see lots of union jackets marching outside the Metrodome this Thursday night.
At top: H.E.R.E. Local 17 sit-in at Normandy Hotel on January 25, 1992 (Courtesy of Minneapolis Labor Review)