Trade unionists up front in fighting hate groups

By Kelly Ferguson, in People's Weekly World,
3 November, 1995, p. 18.

Excerpted from Union Plus, AFL-CIO

Hate and racism can grow roots in any community. If left unchecked, hate can take over and destroy communities, and as history proves, entire countries. The town of Billings, Montana knows about this kind of hate first-hand. When white supremacists tried to gain a foothoId in the town, they got this message from the townspeople - including its union members - instead: "Not in our town."

White supremacists were directing their scare tactics at a number of minority groups in the Billings area, including African Americans, Jews, American Indians and gays and lesbians. Following are capsule descriptions of just a few of the incidents:

The people of Billings were alarmed, and they responded courageously. Local government, labor and religious leaders jumped in and helped organize efforts to take action against these hate groups.

Randy Siemers, organizer for the Laborers International Union of North America (HUNA) Local 98, mobilized the Blllin;gs Labor Council, and the local labor leaders passed a strongly-worded resolution against hate crimes. When the community held rallies and meetings denouncing hate crimes, LIUNA Local 98 worked with the Billings Police Department to help provide extra security.

Bob Maxwell, a member of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades of the U.S. and Canada (Painters) Local 1922, got together with 30 fellow painters and took care of the graffiti covering the Native American family's house. The local newspaper printed a full-page picture of a Menorah and more than 10,000 people all over town pasted their copies in their windows in a show of solidarity for the Jewish community and against any racism, period. Businesses put this message on their marquees: "Not In Our Town, No Hate, No Violence, Peace On Earth." The skin-heads left town shortly thereafter.

Many lent their support to the work of the Montana Family Union (an AFL-CIO community-based associate member program), including U.S. Marshall Bill Strizich, former board member and member of the Family Union, who says honest, hard working people don't have to pander to hate and intolerance.

U.S. Senator and Montana Family Union member, Max Baucus, reflecting on the tragedy of trhe Oklahoma City bombing and outlining recent hate activity. in Montana, wrote in a New York Times editorial, "Hate groups, threats of violence and racism must be met in the open. They grow and spread in darkness and silence . . . the entire American family must show them they are not welcome. Let us rededicate ourselves to ending hate here at home in America."

Siemers believes "there is a bigger feeling of neighborliness here because Montana is a rural state. The whole state is like a family. It's hard to be invisible here. Our success in getting rid of the hate groups has come from identifying them, examining their activities and forcing them to debate in public, because it is the public who ultimately decides whether people are good or bad. There's a lot of work to do against these hate groups and so few of us to do it. But we don't know any other way."

Siemers, who has worked as an organizer for LIUNA, also came to the Montana Family Union as an organizer. The members of the Family Union are from all walks of life and they support the community of Billings in many ways.

When the Montana Family Union was contacted by church groups saying that white supremacists had been distributing hate propaganda around town, the Family Union helped bring together community leaders to talk to the townspeople about what was happening.

Siemers, however, is reluctant to receive special praise for his efforts. "Organized Iabor across the country just does these types of things every day. They come out early; they come out strong. And they come out right. This was just the right thing to do."

Maxwell of the Painters union, who got his fellow painters together and covered over the hate graffiti spray painted on Dawn Fast Horse's house, says "There were 30 guys; most of whom had just come from working regular eight-hour shifts, and they really went to work." What bothered him most about this incident, he says, "was the little children in the family who were old enough to read the grafiti, but not old enough to understand."

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