Memorial represents, honors all workers

(By Lynette Kalsness, AFSCME Council 5)  Workers from across Minnesota and across the generations gathered near our state Capitol on Memorial Day to dedicate the new Workers Memorial Mural. They came early and stayed late to stand next to the mosaic mural by artist Craig David. They took pictures and touched the figures that resembled them, a parent or a grandparent. Over and over again, people pointed to colorful figures depicted in stone, tile and glass and said, "There I am."

The mural sits in a garden on Cedar Street just north of I-94, with the Capitol building rising behind it. It depicts workers all the way from Minnesota's early pioneer days to an imagined futuristic city. Workers build cabins, lath and plaster walls, type on computers, go on strike and lift bridges to build Minnesota.

"The memorial will stand for future generations as a reminder that safe working conditions should never be taken for granted, as a reminder the labor movement fought for dignity and safety at work and as a reminder to honor the Minnesotans who left for work and never came home," says Minnesota AFL-CIO president Bill McCarthy.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale says the memorial – which he has called both sacred and precious ̶ wouldn't have happened without David Roe, the former head of the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

"David is a tough old buzzard and a great labor leader," Mondale says. "It was my privilege over many, many years of public life to work hand in hand with David to try to develop laws here in Minnesota and across the nation that made jobs safe, that made them pay a decent wage and that put the broader interests of working Americans before the interests of public policy makers here and in Washington D.C. ... It's the spirit of David and the people who've worked with him who've made this tremendous difference."

It was back in 1985 when Roe first began fighting to ensure workers' contributions were honored and remembered in Minnesota. Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed him to develop a Labor Interpretive Center; Roe retired to commit himself to the effort.

The old Science Museum site was donated to house the center, and Roe won funding from the Legislature. But former Gov. Jesse Ventura vetoed it.

"He mentioned one of the best things he had done as governor was to veto a labor history building because who wanted to go and look at labor history," Roe said. "That son of a bitch."

Roe didn't give up. He started planning and raising funds with Morgan Fleming for a memorial garden and mural.

"We just regrouped," Roe said. "What we said we'd do was build a monument for workers who had given their life building this country," a vision broadened to include all workers.

For years, the mural was a blank concrete wall waiting for funding to turn it into art. Roe and his wife Audrey were frequent visitors.

"Over the years, the two of us and our daughters would come down here and look at the mural and say, 'This is going to be a reality someday,'" he said. The Legislature appropriated funds and more than 100 unions and numerous individuals donated money to make his dream come true.

Roe himself is one of the luminaries of labor.

"David is the founder of the modern Minnesota labor movement. He put the 'L' in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party," says AFSCME Council 5 executive director Eliot Seide. "He's a historical figure: Without David Roe, we wouldn't have the Public Employee Labor Relations Act. As president of the state AFL-CIO, he led the fight for public workers to collectively bargain and win their right to strike. Without his leadership and example, we never would have made the gains we have for workers."

After serving in the Navy in the Pacific during World War II, Roe worked as a lather, and soon was tapped to become the business agent for his local union. It was a quick climb from there to heading the state Building Trades Council and then the state AFL-CIO.

When air traffic controllers went on strike, Roe petitioned the national AFL-CIO to call a national strike in support. When the DFL was in disarray over the Vietnam War, he helped organize the state and mobilize people, electing a Minnesota DFL House and Senate.

Roe was instrumental in passage of the 1972 Public Employee Labor Relations Act (PELRA), which gave public employees the right to form a union.

"They went from collective begging to collective bargaining," Roe says. Minimum wage and gender equality laws soon followed.

Along with people like Hubert Humphrey and Mondale, Roe counts the great labor leader Nellie Stone Johnson among his friends, and he made sure her likeness was highlighted on the mural. He likes to point out it's already up, while we're still waiting for her statue to grace the Capitol building itself.

Roe says his lifelong career in labor has meant everything to him.

"The greatest thing that's happened to me outside of my marriage is the labor movement," he says. "I want to make sure my family is well protected by the system, and I want to make sure all workers are represented properly by the union movement.

"The labor movement is respected but needs to be respected more," he says. "The labor movement has given us the 40-hour work week. It's given us Social Security. It has so many progressive programs. The labor movement does nothing but good, not just for the workers, but for all of our folks in general."

His daughter, Susie Olson, who retired from AFSCME Council 5, says her father's passion for working people holds true today, second only to his love for his family.

"What he will leave is this wonderful workers' memorial wall that he never gave up on. Even when they tried to close the door, he kept his foot in the door," Olson says. "Minnesota was pretty lucky to have a David Roe in its history. I would say that even if I wasn't his daughter."

Looking at the mural he was instrumental in creating, Roe is proud of how representative it is of all trades and all people.

"It should impress young folks who go there and look at it," Roe says. "There's a story there. If they look at it long enough, they can read the story of their folks, of their grandparents, the trades, everything that's important to working people.

"If you look at it long enough, you can find yourself on that wall."

Article by Lynette Kalsness, Communications Coordinator, AFSCME Council 5