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Laborfest looks at Oklahoma’s forgotten history

Submitted by on September 27, 2010 – 8:28 am3 Comments

by Casey Holcomb

Oklahoma artist Carlos Tello paints a canvas at Laborfest. Photo by Stuart Elliott.

At Oklahoma’s first Laborfest, held August 26 through 28 in the Oklahoma City Plaza District, visitors learned about aspects of the state’s history that are often forgotten.

Artists, poets, and musicians gave performances reflecting on Oklahoma’s working-class history and culture. Scholars and authors, along with labor historians and veteran organizers, presented talks and readings examining the importance of organized labor to the state’s founding. The event was attended by national and local union leaders as well as local rank and file members.

Panel discussions were held on labor’s formative role in the state’s social and political history. Speakers discussed contemporary problems within the labor movement and the often cited problem of Oklahoma’s transition from a radically progressive, labor-friendly state to a radically conservative state often regarded as hostile to unions and with a poor record on workers’ rights.

From its founding, the State of Oklahoma had an industrial and agricultural workforce that was organized, highly educated, and politically influential. Before the First World War, the labor movement in Oklahoma helped to shape the state’s constitution and bring it into the union. With the help of local farmer’s cooperatives, labor unions, and Progressive Era populists like William Jennings Bryan, Oklahoma’s Constitutional Convention founded one of the most progressive and labor-friendly state governments in the nation’s history.

Labor activists, progressive politicians, and union interest groups attending the convention sought to shepherd in policies that would set a precedent nationwide. Politicians like Bryan and William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, viewed the new state as a testing ground for drastic, progressive, pro-labor reforms. Long before any similar policies went into effect at the federal level, Oklahoma’s constitution included provisions restricting employers’ use of child labor and giving women the right to vote and hold certain public offices.

The unions, workers’ cooperatives, and other institutions of labor that had helped to sketch out the constitution flourished in the new labor-friendly state. Prior to statehood, and up until the beginning of the First World War, unionization and union membership grew steadily.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz speaking at Laborfest. Photo by Stuart Elliott.

During one panel discussion, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, an author, activist, and Professor Emerita of Ethnic Studies at California State University, Hayward, talked about the history of socialism and the Socialist Party in Oklahoma. She noted that tent revivals evangelizing the “Gospel of Socialism” were not uncommon in the early days of statehood. The Christian doctrines of equality, charity, and aid to the poor were seen as complementary to the Socialist ideals of cooperative ownership and mutual aid. The sharing of cooperatively-owned farm equipment, wheat threshers, and the oftentimes cooperative work of the harvest was a natural fit with both Protestant doctrine and Socialist ideals.

For a time, Oklahoma’s Socialist Party gained membership, momentum, and significant political capital. Dunbar-Ortiz said Oklahoma City was home to its own edition of the nation’s largest Socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason, which had a high circulation within the state and over 500,000 subscribers nationally. She said that Socialist Presidential Candidate, Eugene V. Debs, won roughly 20 percent of the popular vote in Oklahoma, even as he campaigned while imprisoned under the Sedition Act for his resistance to World War I.

According to historian Howard Zinn, by 1914, Oklahoma’s Socialist Party had about 12,000 members and successfully elected as many as 100 of its members to offices within the state. With many agrarian workers’ cooperatives and socialistic modes of production already in operation prior to statehood, the preachers of the “Gospel of Socialism” were not hard-pressed for converts.

Oklahoma’s status as a labor-friendly bastion of Progressivism is no longer prominent in the state’s popular historical narrative. For many, Oklahoma’s alternate history as a politically progressive state, with significant Populist and Socialist voting blocs as well as a culture of agrarian socialism, is difficult to reconcile with the state’s present, highly conservative, political landscape.

After multiple “Red Scares” and waves of repression leading up to the First World War, union leadership across the country felt pressured to purge the radicals from their organizations and adopt more moderate, reformist policies. Under such conditions, the labor movement was compelled to distance itself from the U.S. Communist and Socialist Parties. Dunbar-Ortiz said that although the Communist and Socialist parties were never officially banned in the U.S., the pressure on unions to become more moderate or disband altogether was immense, resulting in a far more conservative, less radical, and ultimately less effective labor movement and union cuture.

Dunbar-Ortiz said that the state’s labor unions, IWW affiliates, and socialist organizations were subjected to various terror campaigns of the Ku Klux Klan. Socialists, noted for their outspoken opposition to World War I, their militant opposition to Jim Crow, and their support of Women’s suffrage and the rights of migrant workers, were often targeted for repression using tactics that Dunbar-Ortiz said amounted to “domestic terrorism.” Dunbar-Ortiz drew comparisons between the KKK’s campaigns of terror and union-busting against rural Oklahoma’s organized agricultural workers and the more recent “death squads” deployed in countries like Colombia, Guatemala, and Nicaragua to terrorize agricultural workers and derail Left-populist and progressive leaders.

For Dunbar-Ortiz, such violent opposition combined with later Cold War posturing and McCarthy-Era politics sheds some light on Oklahoma’s drastic and swift political turnaround from left-progressive to radical right.

Dunbar-Ortiz spoke of her own work experiences and difficulties facing anti-union sentiment while growing up in post WWII Oklahoma. Facing pressure from an employer to work longer and later hours at an Oklahoma bank, Dunbar-Ortiz recalled her astonishment when an off-the-cuff remark made to her co-workers, “we ought to have a union,” resulted in her immediate termination

During the panel discussion, Stewart Acuff, a long-time labor advocate, community organizer, and Director of Organizing for the AFL-CIO, talked about the role of unions in building up and empowering the country’s once thriving middle class. Acuff said that union jobs allowed his parents to pull “a dirt poor family up from poverty and into the middle class.”

“Today, if you’re born into poverty, you live in poverty, and you die in poverty,” he said.

Acuff also spoke of his organizing experiences around the country, facing hostile opposition from union-busters and receiving what proved to be empty threats against his life. Acuff indicated that, in the throes of one of the worst global recessions in history, the country is at a critical moment where it is necessary to reinvigorate the labor movement, organize more effectively to rebuild and re-empower the middle class, and ensure a greater push for economic justice for present and future generations.

The Laborfest events closed with the main event, “Oklahoma Speaks.” It featured performances of labor songs along with readings from Acuff, Dunbar-Ortiz, and Oklahoma’s own “people’s historian,” Davis Joyce.