Timing was key Monday, April 4 as students and workers gathered nationwide to commemorate the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The date coincided with the sudden passing away of 18-year UCSB service worker Tony Ortiz last week, deepening the meaning of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) event at UCSB.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 43 years ago, he was on a visit to Memphis to support AFSCME sanitation workers who struggled to defend their right to a union. In the words of AFSCME’s Web site: “From Memphis to Madison, the struggle continues.” According to Rodney Orr, who works with Santa Barbara’s University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE), the Storke Plaza event aimed both to demonstrate support for Wisconsin on the fitting date and to advocate stronger unification among Santa Barbara unions.
As for the national scope, a page on the AFSCME Web site (www.afscme.org/april4) outlines the aims of the day of action. It features a moving short video that, to the tune of an “America the Beautiful” rendition recorded specifically for the commemoration by legendary soul singer Aaron Neville, displays poignant photographs of mobilized unions across the United States.
Forty-three years after King’s assassination, AFSCME’s video states, “Public service workers [are] under attack in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, and across the country.” Local representatives stress that the University of California is no exception. The video continues, “Let us move on these powerful days — these days of challenge — to make America what it ought to be.” The video ends with a quotation by Martin Luther King: “We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
While Storke Plaza probably wasn’t quite as chilly and crowded as Wisconsin’s campus yesterday, it saw a notably larger turnout than recent AFSCME Local 3299 events at UCSB. Mari Saade, a student intern, estimates that the crowd held a fluctuating 200 people. Between a fourth and a third were workers, and the rest were community members and students.
Julian Posadas, vice president of AFSCME Local 3299 and lead organizer for UCSB, provided the recordings, which reinforce messages of the rally. Among the messages are that students and workers must fight in solidarity, and that neither students nor workers should accept that the current financial situation in the UC is a stagnant best option.
Contrary to recent events, however, student-worker solidarity was not AFSCME Local 3299’s main focus on Monday. Speakers emphasized instead a need for solidarity among unions — but not just the kind of solidarity that happens on unique days like April 4 when the AFSCME organizes nationwide events. Their message spoke to the unrealized potential of unions throughout Santa Barbara, up and down California, and across the country when they are not unified among themselves.
According to Saade, Ed Woolfolk (organizer and service worker) and Posadas had invited the family of the recently deceased Ortiz. Ortiz’s wife and kids were among the people who gathered around a wreath, and his oldest son spoke. One speech, delivered by Ozzy, friend and coworker of Ortiz in facilities management, was dedicated to recognizing the work that Ortiz did in his 18 years at UCSB. He said that Ortiz, who maintained the soccer field, started his job as a boy (when he was only 20), and left a man. (Ortiz was interviewed at AFSCME’s February 24 event earlier this year. The story is “Students and Workers Show Solidarity at UCSB.”)
Before Ortiz passed away last Thursday, his family worried about the lack of a promised pension plan and UC service work wages so low that they could not along support a moderately sized family. If the feeling of nationwide solidarity as thousands of local unions across the U.S. congregated to honor Martin Luther King’s death in Memphis 43 years ago wasn’t enough, the Ortiz family’s presence brought to the Storke Plaza crowd the sense of serious, desperate need for change.