Andy Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, has the rugged good looks of a guy who’s been in his fair share of scraps. With his bawdy East Coast accent and bulging nose, he’s definitely not a man to mess with. When he got up on stage at the press conference for the Take Back Labor Day rally, a festival of music and activism, you could tell he was ready for a fight. "This is a time when our government awards wealth but not workers," the labor leader told the crowd of journalists, politicians, and union folks. "We want the kids of working parents to be taken care of. We want workers to be able to retire with dignity."
The Take Back Labor Day rally was taking place on Harriet Island, directly across the river from the Xcel Energy Center which is hosting the Republican Convention. The SEIU had deliberately hung a massive thirty foot long banner promoting "Health Care for All" that was in full view from all points of the convention. The festival was a pro worker rally that promoted universal health care, higher wages that could support families, and the creation of an America that worked for everyone. But with the money grubbin’ conservatives right across the river, Take Back Labor Day was basically a giant stick in the Republican eye.
A collection of rock n’ roll hell-raisers flanked Stern on all sides. Framed by a beautiful stone arch and high vaulted ceilings, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, alt country pioneer Steve Earle, Imani from rap group the Pharcyde, and world renown protest singer Billy Bragg sat on the stage like a guitar smashing Justice League. While the temperature outside was pushing 90, the tempers inside the Harriet Island pavilion were even hotter.
"I’m here to physically take back Labor Day," Morello said. No one in the room doubted him for a minute. With his riot inducing rock group Rage Against the Machine, Morello pounds out legendary guitar riffs filled with a sound so angry Molotov cocktails seemingly explode out of his amps. "I find it insulting that the Republicans would choose to start their convention on Labor Day. They support companies that have sweat shops all over the world. And I heard Bush and Cheney aren’t here (in the Twin Cities) because they are heading to the Gulf Coast. I think it’s because they heard Rage was playing on Wednesday."
The musicians and union leaders discussed how wages for working men and women were steadily going down, all the while CEO and executive salaries have been skyrocketing. Almost everyone in the room – Liberals and Conservatives and tattooed punkers – agreed that the voice of the worker has never been quieter. "In today’s world, standing alone is not an option," Mr. Stern said, his face bristling with emotion. "We are stronger together."
After a round of rather serious questions, I capped off the press conference with an important one of my own. Since I’m a full blooded blue collar worker and have the scars and early stage arthritis to prove it, I asked a question that the common people of this country would want to know.
"My name is Todd Smith," I said nervously. "And in honor of Labor Day, I would like to know what the worst job you have had was?"
The Labor Day Revolutionaries let out an exaggerated groan. "Oh, man," the panel collectively sighed.
"I worked a horrible shift at a petrol station in England," Billy Bragg said, as he spoke directly to me as I nearly pissed myself in shock. "I was literally living to work. Besides working my shift, the managers would call me at all hours to work for someone that didn’t show. And mind you, I drove a tank in the military once. The petrol station was worse."
Steve Earle grabbed the microphone and didn’t know where to start. Earle is a former heroin addict and has done serious jail time for drug offenses. Now clean, he just wrapped up his remarkable roll as Walon, a Narcotics Anonymous sponsor on the hit HBO show "The Wire." Earle has lived through a pile of shit and my question was basically for him. "Um, that’s a good one," he grumbled, stroking a hand through his giant woolly beard. "I got to say… the time that I worked at a place where I was both a dishwasher and the ring announcer for the boxing matches that went on in the back."
Morello went next and everyone in the room buckled their seat belts. He spoke of numerous soul crushing jobs that he has worked over time. Two in particular were awful: a professional alphabetizer and a painter in rooms with no ventilation. "But I think the worst job was when I was working for a Senator in Washington," Morello said. Besides being one the greatest guitar players of all time, Morello is also a Harvard honors graduate. "One time, I answered the phone and a woman was bitching to me about all these immigrants that were moving in to her neighborhood. I told the woman to ‘Go to hell.’ Later, I was yelled at, up and down by everyone in the chain of command. I decided that I didn’t want to work a job that I’d get in trouble for yelling at a racist."
Stern, the President of the fastest growing union in North America, looked me straight in the eye and simply said, "Digging ditches for the Sussex county mosquito control."
"You win!" Earle exclaimed. The room erupted with laughter and then emptied. Everyone moved outside to hear some music.
Backstage, I spotted a man in a pea green Army T-shirt that had the words "Support G.I. Resistance" on the front. The man was extremely muscular, but with his shaggy hair and smooth draw,l he had the demeanor of a surfer/ grad student. He was surrounded by a group of burly men and they all were in various forms of camouflage.
"Are you an Iraqi war vet?" I asked him. "Yeah," he said. We shook hands. "Names Hart Viges. Served in the 82nd Airborne in Iraq."
"If you don’t mind, can I ask you why you are here?" I asked nervously. It’s not a regular occurrence that a dumbass like me gets to talk to his musical heroes and his real life heroes in the same day.
"Not at all," Viges responded kindly. "I’m here because I support unions. I see a direct link between war and poverty. When you provide good wages, health care, and the ability to get an education, why on earth would a city kid join the military? You stop the raft of poverty, you stop the war. These poor kids feel like they have no options and are taken straight out of poverty and put directly into a war." The whole time Viges talked he was measured but passionate. "I talk to kids all over Austin, Texas, where I am from. They always ask me, ‘Are you the guy who is going to tell me not to join the military?’ I tell them that I am the guy that will tell you the whole picture and then let them decide for themselves. They need to know that when they join the military, they are legally the property of the United States Government. Then they have no rights."
He explained to me that when he got back from proudly serving in Iraq, he immediately filed to be a conscientious objector. "It was the finest moment in my entire Army career," Viges told me. He talked at length about his belief in his country and the words of Jesus. As we chatted, I noticed a large black phone number scribbled across the inside of his forearm. I had also noticed the same phone number written on several of the Vets that were standing around me. He chuckled when I asked him what the number was for. "There is a good chance that I will get arrested this week," he said. "And this is the phone number of our legal team."
For the rest of the afternoon, Viges stood there soaking in the afternoon sun and enjoying the great music. He was the true American Dream. Hell, he was America. He was a soldier and a pacifist. He loved Jesus but planned for anarchy. He wa
s a personal guest of Tom Morello and loved every minute of it. There are no parades for our vets when they come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. There are no marching bands meeting them in our airports. Why is that? It was nice to see at least a handful of our vets getting their fair share in the sun. The music rolled on, beach balls bounced all over the crowd, and the cool kids swilled beer under the glorious summer sky. Tom Morello finished his set by ripping into a song titled "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which is cover of a Bruce Springsteen song that has lyrics lifted straight from John Steinback’s classic Dustbowl novel The Grapes of Wrath. As Morello pounded down on a guitar that had the words "Whatever It Takes" scribbled on the face, a small group of B-Boys break danced on a sidewalk and a man on giant stilts bounded across the grass.
It was freedom at its finest.