ITHACA, NY – On Monday, the Tompkins County Workers’ Center continued a 33-year tradition, celebrating Labor Day with a community picnic that drew well over 100 people.

This year’s picnic had a theme of “Labor Rights are Civil Rights” and explored the links the fights for economic and racial justice. The event highlighted Black Lives Matter, inviting two key organizers for the local BLM chapter — Cornell Professor Russell Rickford and producer/rapper Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, also known by her stage name Sammus.

A number of local organizations and groups also had information booths at the event, providing literature and answering questions about topics ranging from the the Trans-Pacific Partnership to single-payer healthcare, to a boycott on Wendy’s.

Many local politicians also attended including, among others, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Alderperson Ducson Nguyen, Tompkins Legislators Mike Lane, Peter Stein and Carol Chock, and Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. Along with a booth promoting her campaign, State Senate challenger Leslie Danks Burke was also in attendance.

That’s not to say it was all just soapbox preaching and politics– of course the event was on sharing a meal with community members.

Celebrating victories in labor rights

As people lined up to pick at the smorgasbord of food on offer, folk singer Colleen Kattau set the mood with songs in both English and Spanish.

Rickford then took the mic to speak on the day’s theme. Rickford drew an explicit connection between Black Lives Matter and labor movements like the Fight for $15 (minimum wage). Both movements he said, are led by rank-and-file, working class people as opposed to national leadership figures.

“Most importantly, both arise from the systemic violence of a society that considers certain people disposable,” Rickford said.

Rickford closed his statements by reciting from the poem, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” which immortalizes the spirit of labor activist Joe Hill, who was executed in Utah in 1915.

Then came the awards ceremony, which honored several local organizations and individuals for their work in labor activism, and also calls out a few businesses who were behind particularly egregious labor disputes.

Two “Mother Jones Awards” — named for famed labor activist Mary Harris Jones — were given. The first went to the Cornell Graduate Student Union who have been fighting for years to allow grad students unionize, and recently saw a big victory in that fight. The second went to the full-time contingent faculty at Ithaca College, who also recently won the right to unionize.

Next, two “Joe Hill Awards” were given out. The first went to a group of farm workers organized by the Workers Center of Central New York. Two of the men gave statements in Spanish, translated through an interpreter, detailing the conditions they worked under at some New York Dairy Farms — 12 hour days, 90 hour weeks with no overtime, poor health and safety regulations, being denied worker’s compensation, and being being fired for trying organize.

The other Joe Hill award went to the Verizon workers who recently held strikes across the county, including here in Ithaca, eventually winning concessions from the communications giant.

Lastly, two “awards” were given for “Goat of the Year” — given to companies that worked reportedly against fair labor practices. The first went to Cayuga Medical Center, who clashed with nurses earlier this year over the nurses’ right to form a union amid claims that under-staffing was leading to safety issues.

The second “Goat” award went to Syracuse based Hayner-Hoyt construction, who reportedly engaged in conduct designed to exploit contracting opportunities reserved for service-disabled veterans.

After the awards, Sammus kept the remaining attendees rapt as she performed several of her songs, touching on issues of identity, mental health, dedication and determination, among other things.

(Photos below by Sam Scott)

(Photos below by Michael Smith / The Ithaca Voice)

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.