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Illinois Historical Society & 'Rage' guitarist honor fallen workers

There was music, but it wasn’t a celebration. It was a commemoration of those lost in the fight for fair pay and safe conditions.

That fight turned bloody 90 years ago in Marseilles. During the throes of the Depression, local laborers protested a company bringing in out-of-state, underpaid workers to build a dam.

During the peaceful protest, company personnel open fired and killed local worker “Big Steve” Sutton and wounded 21 more. Just as the gunfire cleared, news of a local labor agreement reached Marseilles. Laborers Local 393 was born on that tragic day and still stands on Main Street just a block from where the dam was built on the Illinois River.

“We're here today to make sure that story, that bravery, that courage to build a movement and demand decent conditions is not forgotten,” said Mike Matejka, a member of the Laborers Local 362 and a community activist. “That's what brings us together and that's the foundation of good jobs in this community, are people standing up for their rights.”

Workers’ Memorial Day is observed across the country every April 28. The Illinois State Historical Society unveiled a plaque to honor “Big Steve” and make sure the history of labor in Illinois is cast in bronze.

Chuck Stanley is a board member of the state historical society.

“There's an old labor song called ‘Joe Hill,’" he said. "It's about a labor activist unjustly executed by a Utah firing squad in 1915. In the song, there is a line ‘it takes more than guns to kill a man.’ And I think that's the notion that has echoed in this marker.”

The peaceful night on the Illinois River was also full of music and union songs. The performer to bring them to life was a former Marseilles resident, Rage Against The Machine guitarist and worker’s rights activist.

“My name is Tom Morello. And I'm a union man!” he belted out to start the show. “This first song I'm going to play is a fighting song, brothers and sisters.”

The crowd of Marseilles residents and Local 393 members rushed on stage with Morello as he ran through old and original labor anthems.

“For Joe Hill and Cesar Chavez who fought in their own time/ for our brothers, my sisters up and down that picket line/ for the unnamed and unnumbered who struggled brave and long/ for the union men and women standing up and standing strong,” sang Morello in his aptly titled Union Song.

The “Rage” guitarist -- and union member himself -- also took the time to talk about the renewed push for organized labor. Unions have seen a wave of wins over the past year with workers from Starbucks and Amazon successfully organizing.

Morello and other labor activists hope it’s momentum for a movement in America. In Illinois, labor is also on the ballot this November. Voters will decide whether a “Workers’ Rights Amendment” should be enshrined in the Illinois state constitution.

The amendment says it would guarantee the right to a safe workplace and make it illegal to pass laws interfering or diminishing workers’ rights to organize.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker also spoke at the event. He talked about the importance of memorializing what happened in Marseilles almost a century ago and about the proposed amendment.

“On day one, I got to work putting a stop to the previous administration's union-busting and anti-worker agenda,” said the governor. “We banished from the dictionaries of this state three words, 'right to work.'”

So-called “right-to-work” laws give workers the option to join a union or not. Labor activists say federal law already gives those protections and that the “right-to-work” measures weaken union bargaining strength.

On Workers’ Memorial Day -- Morello closed out the night with a rendition of one of America’s most famous songs “This Land Is Your Land.” But he highlighted the original final verses of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl protest song that describe workers waiting hungry at the relief office.

The state historical society’s plaque in memory of “Big Steve” Sutton can be found in downtown Marseilles right along the Illinois River.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.