Toots and June Return to Honor Their Co-Workers

On Friday, September 2, in Surviving workers Toots Miller and June Menne preside over the unveiling of the Radium Girls statue in Ottawa, Illinois.Ottawa, Illinois, on the site of the old Radium Dial plant a life-sized bronze statue of a young woman holding a flower in one hand and a paint brush in the other was unveiled. She is the symbol of the Radium Girls, the women workers in the watch and clock factories that dotted this area in the 1920s through 1940s. Their job was to paint those glow-in-the dark dials so popular in the day. To do this, management told them to shape a sharp point by licking the brushes soaked with deadly radium. Ottawa was a big center for this industry. Surviving employees Toots Fuller and June Menne presided over the unveiling.

By 1925, manufacturers were aware of the toxic effects of radium, but said nothing to their employees and took no precautions. Many of these workers died agonizing deaths from the effects of radium poisoning. They say that if you pass a Geiger counter over their graves in the Catholic cemetery outside Ottawa it will still tick a warning.

Seven of the dying Ottawa women initiated a lawsuit against the company in 1934. They were dubbed the “society of the living dead,” racing the clock against a slow and cumbersome legal system for their justice. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in the women’s favor. More importantly, their struggle was critical in helping to change workers’ compensation laws and workplace safety standards.

For a long time, the city of Ottawa buried the story of these women, worried that being dubbed “radium city” would harm development. The women were shunned. Then five years ago, Madeline Piller, a local junior high student, did her labor history project on the Radium Girls. She never forgot them. Madeline’s father is a sculptor, and together they designed this statue. Over the past five years, the local community and every single labor union from the surrounding area embraced this project, raising over $40,000 through bake sales, rummage sales, barbeques and bingo nights to bring this story back into the heart of the history of their community. It was a very proud day in Ottawa on September 2nd. (In honor of her work, Madeline Piller was crowned Sweet Corn Queen of Mendota County.)

In 1980, Ottawa became an EPA superfund site. Of a dozen radioactive sites, two remain to be cleaned up for “lack of funds,” according to the EPA. It is estimated that one site on the outskirts of town will take five years and $80 million to clean – no word from the federal government on when or if this will happen. But the pressure is on from a united community.

“The Rich Have Their Own Photographers”

That’s how Milton Rogovin explained why the subjects of his acclaimed photographs were the working people in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, in West Virginia, Kentucky and all over the world. He died last week at his home in Buffalo at 101 years of age. Up until the last weeks of his life, he never missed the Women in Black vigils against the war every Saturday.

A member of the Communist Party who was witch-hunted out of his optometry business (he refused to testify to HUAC), Rogovin took up photography “because he couldn’t find a job.” The result: over 11,000 images of working men and women over a 30 year period.

Two days after his death, his son Mark Rogovin shared insights about his father’s passion at the opening of “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin in Chicago’s Gage Gallery. Rogovin never titled any of his pieces. It was up to the viewer to think about them on their own. He tried to make sure that every subject in Buffalo received a copy of their photo, going back to their homes to deliver them personally. Decades later, he would return to re-shoot his subjects surrounded by generations of their families. Lasting relationships developed. When they memorialize him in Buffalo, many will bring their photos with them.

Rogovin was fond of displaying workers in their shop floor clothes, and then side by side in their Sunday best. There were no shots of picket lines or rallies; Rogovin portrayed working people a different way. He sought to show the other side of what workers are toiling for – their lives, families, homes and churches. Rogovin also completed a pioneering photographic study of African-American storefront churches.

Just before his death, Milton’s door bell rang. It was his hospice care worker. Mark Rogovin answered the door and heard. “Hello, I’m Joe McCarthy.” No matter – Rogovin had already beaten his namesake.

The Chicago Rogovin exhibit at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery runs through June 30th. It’s worth a long look. Many of his works can also be viewed on his website, www.miltonrogovin.com

Enough Is Enough... We’re Human Beings

Hundreds of hotel workers, members of UNITE-HERE Local 1, and their supporters confronted the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago today, July 22. In front of this glitzy hotel, some dimwit in management had placed a sign thanking the Hyatt employees for helping them win the Chicago Workplace Excellence Award. Just a few weeks ago, these very same employees walked off the job to protest horrendous working conditions.

Outside in the streets, workers and their supporters were laying their bodies on the line for justice and getting arrested for blocking a major artery. The action was one of 15 across the country today coordinated by Hotel Workers Rising to demand a decent contract with this hotel chain. Today’s demonstrations follow on the heels of coordinated protests in June, when union members and their supporters from other unions, the religious and LGBT communities showed up to shame and denounce the Hyatt chain while its first-ever shareholders meeting was taking place. (Hyatt big-wig Doug Manchester is throwing around big bucks in California to stop gay marriage.)

The Hyatt chain is owned by the Pritzker family, a species native to Chicago and one of the wealthiest in the nation. This city is their favorite charity, except when it comes to the people who make that money for them with their labor. Since they rolled over $900 million by taking the Hyatt chain public last year, stock value has nearly doubled. The fight for a decent contract is and will continue to be a fierce national battle against corporate greed.

Chicago is home to the longest ever hotel strike in history – seven years at the Congress Hotel. UNITE HERE Local 1 represents over 15,000 hotel and food service workers in this city. It’s on! To find out what’s next on the calendar for supporters across the country, visit www.hotelworkersrising.org to join in solidarity.