Ten years ago immigrant freedom riders planted the seeds of reform

Minnesotans who participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides for civil rights were on hand to kick off the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in St. Paul. Pictured from L to R are Marv Davidov, Zev Aelony, Claire O’Connor and Bob Baum.

Minnesotans who participated in the 1961 Freedom Rides for civil rights were on hand to kick off the 2003 Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in St. Paul. Pictured from L to R are Marv Davidov, Zev Aelony, Claire O’Connor and Bob Baum.

Immigration reform is on the front burner in Congress this summer, but 10 years ago immigrant “freedom riders,” including some from Minnesota, traveled to Washington to raise awareness of the need for reform, including a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.

The Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride kicked off its Minnesota leg with an event at the Neighborhood House in St. Paul on July 15, 2003.

Among the activists in attendance were four Minnesotans who took part in the historic 1961 Freedom Rides for civil rights.

[The Union Advocate’s “This Month in the Archives” feature offers a look back at what the newspaper was reporting from 5 to 100 years ago. Our digital archives are online, searchable and free to anyone. Click here for access.]

Standing in front of a yellow school bus decorated with signs and slogans, union officers, lawmakers and other coalition leaders spoke of the difficulties new immigrants face, according to a Workday Minnesota report in The Union Advocate.

That group included Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. Chavez-Thompson was the first woman – and the first Hispanic American – elected to serve as an officer of the national labor federation.

“If the labor movement, if the AFL-CIO, doesn’t stand up … for immigrant workers, what can other workers expect of us?” Chavez-Thompson asked.

“The biggest shame of our country is that many folks have forgotten who they are,” said state Rep. Carlos Mariani of St. Paul. “They have forgotten they were, in fact, immigrants. They have forgotten the struggle of their ancestors. In doing so, they dishonor their ancestors.”

The Freedom Ride would leave the Twin Cities Sept. 28, reaching Washington later that fall before concluding in New York.

100 Years Ago: Paper strike in Little Falls

Violence shook the town of Little Falls in July 1913, when striking paper-mill workers scuffled with strike-breakers on the picket line.

A “special correspondent” from Little Falls provided Union Advocate readers with an account of the brawl. As strikers were on the picket line, a scab struck a picketer – “a little old man,” according to the account – on the head “with a piece of round iron 18 inches long, which he had concealed in his clothes.” The blow left a gash two inches long in the man’s scalp – and sparked violent retaliation from the victim’s union brothers.

By Aug. 1, however, many of the strike-breakers had grown disillusioned with the company and walked off the job, according to The Advocate’s correspondent. “This action has greatly demoralized the force yet at the mill, and the conditions in it are worse than when the strike began,” The Advocate reported.

“The managers of the mill are manifestly disturbed by the turn affairs have taken, as they have reason to fear the dissatisfaction which culminated in the walkout will spread and deprive them of the services of numbers of their other ‘scabs.’”

Striking workers, meanwhile, benefitted from the “liberal financial assistance” of unions across the state – as well as the moral support of their Little Falls neighbors.

“The power of local public opinion is beginning to show itself,” The Advocate reported. “The disinterested people of this community are with the strikers in sympathy and encouragement and insist that they shall be justly dealt with.”

75 Years Ago: St. Paul unions oppose voting machines

The St. Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, which was at the time the East Metro’s central labor federation, took a stand in July 1938 against the City of St. Paul purchasing voting machines for use in public elections.

Delegates from two unions led the charge. Printing Pressmen’s and Assistants’ Local 29 feared installation of voting machines would deprive its members of work printing ballots for elections. Machinists Local 459 argued against the voting machines because none available on the market was union made.

“Other delegates argued in favor of the motion on the grounds that it would deprive a large number of people, who usually act as judges and clerks of election, of a certain amount of employment,” The Advocate reported. “The Assembly voted its opposition to the plan to purchase any of the machines and instructed the secretary to so notify the members of the city council.”

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