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Laborfest Celebrates Oklahoma’s Working Class Culture and History

By Darla Shelden
Contributing Writer

The sweltering heat of August ushered in the Oklahoma City Central Labor Council’s second annual ‘Oklahoma Laborfest.’ The Central Oklahoma Labor Federation (COLF) is Oklahoma’s largest coalition of labor unions and labor activists.

COLF President Tim O’Connor said, “The purpose of this festival was to create greater awareness of Oklahoma’s working class culture and to build pride in the state’s rich Labor and Civil Rights history through music, art, and camaraderie.”

Oklahoma Laborfest, a 3-day festival, began with a labor poetry reading at the OKC Downtown Library with the Plaza District hosting all other activities.
This year’s event’s included music, readings, poetry, workshops, cultural booths, history lessons and films such as Matewan and Salt of the Earth. The 2011 Oklahoma Laborfest poster art was contributed by acclaimed Oklahoma Capital muralist Carlos Tello. Musical entertainment included performances by J.D. Thompson, Moonsue, Vagrant, Dead Man’s Bluff and Maw.

Many union members and supporters participated in the March for Workers’ Rights and Social Justice which began at Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, 15th and N. Classen, culminating at the Plaza District Solidarity Tent. Speakers following the march included Tim O’Connor, Bob Beardon, National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), Local 458; Roger Bledsoe National Business Agent for the Denver Region, NALC; and Alan Lee National Field Director American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The Lawton Improv Group, under the direction of Daren Two Hatchett, led a reading of Nor Iron Bars, written by 1930’s labor and civil rights organizer Eli Jaffe. Exclusive rights to produce the play were given by Jaffe’s widow, Oklahoma native Wilma Lewis Jaffe, to Laborfest Planning Committee member Rachel Jackson.

“We should appreciate Oklahoma’s history of fighting for workers’ rights. Also, with the vote to repeal affirmative action, State Question 759, from our state constitution, we should remind ourselves and our legislators of our civil rights history in Oklahoma,” stated O’Connor. “Unfortunately, this history is not being taught to our children today and we run the risk of it being forgotten. With this festival we continue to promote labor literacy and our fight to defeat State Question 759 in order to preserve this history and strengthen labor solidarity with all communities in the state of Oklahoma.”

Two Live Paint events were held during Laborfest, one sponsored by Oklahoma Capital muralist Carlos Tello and the second by Standing Buffalo Gallery of Norman, which featured artists Cole Cathey, Micah Wesley, and Dylan Cavin.

Cavin produced the winning art from the Live Paint that will be used for the 2012 Laborfest poster.

Participants had an opportunity to attend the Workers Writing Workshop. Other workshops discussed using social media to organize and creating online activity for labor issues during the Social Media Workshop and LaborFest Online Brainstorming Workshop.

“You can’t have a democracy without a strong middle class, so we must show our strength with our numbers and VOTE! They may have the money, but we have the numbers and can change anything if we fight together. Labor unions are the only voice for working people,” stated Judy Calhoun, UAW Local 1999.

After the success of last year’s performance, Laborfest again presented ‘Oklahoma Speaks 2011’ at the Plaza District’s Lyric Theatre. The event included readings of selected historical texts and musical performances from Oklahoma’s labor and civil rights movement. Marilyn Luper-Hildreth, daughter of late civil-rights icon Clara Luper, performed a reading of her mother’s words.

The ‘Oklahoma Speaks’ performance was under the direction of Rachel Jackson, from the University of Oklahoma. Musical selections were directed by Mary Catherine Reynolds and Louise Goldberg and featured musical performances from Peggy Johnson and Beatrice Cole.

“I am very pleased with our Oklahoma Laborfest 2011. All the Laborfest events were meant to educate our members and the community of Oklahoma’s labor and civil rights history. I think our committee did an excellent job this year with that goal in mind,” said O’Connor.

For more information about Oklahoma Laborfest visit

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